Strengthening student literacy with LETRS

Bonnie Cobler instructs her second-grade students at Seton Catholic School in Ottumwa.

By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

Following the release of the spring 2023 Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress results, the Iowa Department of Education launched a professional development opportunity for educators to help improve students’ achievement scores.

The Iowa DOE offered “LETRS,” a program for kindergarten through fifth-grade educators and administrators in all accredited schools. LETRS, which stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, has been available to educators for a number of years. It was created in the 1990s and is administered by the company Lexia. Lynne Devaney, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Davenport, said every Catholic elementary school is participating. The program’s focus is on reading literacy.

Julie Delaney, principal of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Davenport, said the knowledge that the teachers are gaining “helps them to understand how children learn to read, based on scientific research. It is excellent training that, without state funding, we would not be able to provide for our teachers.” Administrators from the elementary Catholic schools formed a cohort, she said.


Teachers have participated in two, all-day online sessions. Prior to each session, the teachers put in 12-16 hours of outside reading, videos and more. The program provides eight units and online sessions for teachers.

“Our teachers are putting in a lot of extra time and work to learn this important information to improve their understanding of how the brain works when a child learns to read and then using this information to inform their teaching,” Delaney said. “This will help all of our students to become better readers.”

The same schedule format applies for administrators, including outside reading and videos. “Our learning is not only about the science of how we learn to read, but also how to coach and supervise teachers in the implementation of the knowledge they are gaining.” The training for teachers and administrators takes place over two years.

Teachers and administrators are still early into the learning stage. “Teachers will implement what they learn as they go,” Delaney said. James Wessling, principal of Seton Catholic School in Ottumwa, said COVID-19 affected reading for some students early on. To address concerns, he said the school dedicates time after school to close the gap with an after-school tutoring program. The tutoring program will continue and will incorporate the LETRS training in the classroom setting.

Celeste Vincent, principal of Regina Elementary in Iowa City, said several teachers in the past were trained in LETRS. “They applied what they learned to their ‘tool box’ at that time. Our current assistant principal, Hope Garbutt, comes with a wealth of information as she is LETRS-trained as a teacher and a district facilitator.”  Currently two administrators and one teacher are receiving LETRS training.

Since COVID, Vincent said the school had some catching up to do. “We are getting strong growth in our reading across all grade levels.” She added, “We look forward to continuing to learn about systematic implementation.”

“LETRS teaches the skills needed to master the foundational and fundamentals of reading and writing instruction  — phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and written language,” Vincent said.

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