Year Two of Statewide Reading Initiative Shows Progress and Identifies Key Work to Mitigate Challenges

New Findings Highlight Importance of Education Department’s Focus on Reading
Thursday, January 25, 2018 | 12:08pm

NASHVILLE—Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen today released the executive summary of First Steps: A Report on Elementary Grades Reading in Tennessee, which shares the progress and challenges as Tennessee continues to move toward achieving its Read to be Ready goal for 75 percent of third graders to be reading on grade level by 2025.

This executive summary highlights progress the state has made in year two of Read to be Ready, a unified campaign with a multi-strategy approach that launched in February 2016. This campaign was designed for implementation over multiple years with a continuous focus on helping our youngest learners build a strong foundation in reading in the early grades.

“Every child deserves to have an effective teacher every year that ensures they learn to read,” Commissioner McQueen said. “We have made initial progress in setting new expectations and supporting this goal by providing training, resources, and supports while also identifying areas of challenge that we are beginning to address. The hard work needed to make these changes in practice will take time, but we are committed to doing all we can to promote strong literacy practices across Tennessee.”

While improving statewide reading proficiency is a multi-phase process, the executive summary notes a variety of areas where Tennessee has already made progress. Through TNReady results, classroom observations, educator survey data, and progress monitoring of the Read to be Ready coaching network, researchers were able to determine the successes and challenges facing literacy instruction across the state. Among the highlights in the executive summary:

  • From the first year of feedback from our new assessments, we see that students perform relatively well in the areas of listening comprehension, vocabulary, and language, but struggle with reading comprehension, foundational skills, fluency, and writing.
  • The state’s Read to be Ready summer camps for thousands of at-risk students continue to show success. On average, students saw improvements in their grade level reading accuracy and comprehension, as well as on a measure of their motivation to read. Qualitative data also points to increased engagement from teachers and students and their families.
  • We see that teachers are implementing the new standards and incorporating crucial strategies such as interactive read aloud and shared reading. However, while students are successfully completing classroom tasks, the tasks rarely reflect the demands of the standards. Findings point to three key areas for instructional improvement in the coming year: 1) higher-quality and appropriately complex texts selected to build conceptual knowledge, 2) question sequences and tasks that build critical thinking skills and meet the demands of the standards, and 3) systematic and explicit foundational skills instruction with opportunities to practice through reading and writing.
  • Teachers are enthusiastic about the focus we have on reading, but some are uneasy about the time it can take to do it well.

One of the most common challenges noted by educators was the time and ability to find high-quality instructional materials. In response to these findings, the department has already taken steps to support educators in this work and model quality materials. For example, last fall the department released new early grades unit starters that provide content goals for a unit, a sample list of texts to be used for various purposes, a standards-aligned end-of-unit task, question sequences, and additional tasks to support approximately three weeks of literacy instruction. These materials provide challenging and engaging opportunities for students and support teachers with access to quality materials. This spring, the department will provide a second set of unit starters for the early grades to further support educators’ instruction while also beginning the process of ensuring aligned materials for the upcoming English and reading textbook adoption.

Additionally, the department is providing training and networking throughout 2018 to support elementary school principals and educator preparation providers in understanding the need for quality materials to support different instructional practices, so educators are better able to effectively teach reading on day 1. Also, today Commissioner McQueen posted a new blog post with her reflections on what we are learning about reading improvement across the state, particularly looking at the important intersection of what we teach and how we teach in the early grades.

In March, the department will host an event in Nashville that will bring together state leaders, educators, and community members as the department releases the full First Steps: A Report on Elementary Grades Reading in Tennessee report, which will provide a more detailed analysis of our progress and will include findings from both the 2016–17 state assessment and from classroom observations. The department is continuing to collect data on some of the new tools the department has developed, such as the unit starters, and will include that in the final report.

For media inquiries, contact Sara Gast, director of communications, at (615) 532-6260 or