By Megan Tagami at Honolulu Civil Beat

At Makakilo Elementary, Christine Carder posed a question to her first graders. “What letters make the sound ‘ea’ as in tea?” The class eagerly scrambled to write down the correct letter combination in their notebooks.

This exercise helps to build students’ phonemic awareness, instructional coach Karen Yogi explained to the group of parents invited to observe Makakilo’s reading lessons for the morning. Older students will later advance to activities such as reading in pairs and assessing each other’s fluency and vocabulary skills, Yogi added.

“This is why my son says he’s famished at dinner, instead of hungry,” said parent Donna Sinclair, noting the improvement she’s seen in her fifth grader’s vocabulary this year.

Makakilo Elementary is one of about 80 schools in the state to receive funding from a roughly $50 million federal grant awarded in 2019 to improve literacy among the country’s youngest readers.

Principal Raechelle Fabrao said her school used some grant money to purchase a new reading curriculum, adding that teachers have embraced the program’s emphasis on phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension – all strategies aligned with evidence-based teaching practices called the science of reading.

The methods aren’t new. But in recent years, Hawaii has strengthened its commitment to implementing the science of reading in elementary schools, especially as reading scores declined following the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers and administrators believe these initiatives are producing positive results, but many programs have yet to be scaled up at the state level.

At the same time, the literacy gains in other states raise questions about whether Hawaii could be doing more to help struggling readers.

Building The Basics

Prior to the pandemic, Hawaii’s third grade reading scores were slowly improving, with just over half of the state’s third grade students scoring at or above proficiency on the state’s annual assessment. The proficiency scores dipped to 43% of third graders in the 2020-21 academic year but began to rise again, with just under half of students achieving proficient scores in spring 2022.

Still, the academic struggles students experienced while learning at home during the pandemic may have alerted more parents to the challenges their children faced with basic reading skills, said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN.

“You have schools doing incredible work and kids are reading at a really impressive and staggering rate, and then others where the students may appear to be doing OK, but then under the surface, they don’t actually have the foundational skills they need to be successful readers,” Sun-Miyashiro said.


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