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More money sought to expand professional development program for language teachers

Experts say students who do not achieve reading proficiency in elementary school find it hard to catch up later, and that negatively impacts their chances of professional and personal growth.

Teaching reading skills to students, particularly to non-native speakers of English and people with dyslexia or other similar impediments, can be challenging for teachers without the professional training needed to fill the gaps in language structure and language development that were not taught in teacher preparation courses.

Minnesota uses the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program to help teachers understand how the brain learns to read, and how to support struggling readers in classrooms, said Amy Schulting, state dyslexia specialist for the Department of Education. The Legislature appropriated $3 million for this in fiscal year 2022.

Improving classroom instruction is crucial for reducing gaps in literacy outcomes in the state, she said testifying before the House Education Finance Committee meeting Wednesday in support of HF3300.

Sponsored by Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina), it would appropriate $33 million for kindergarten through fifth grade teachers to complete the language program that teaches skills needed to master the fundamentals of reading instruction — phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and language.

The bill was laid over for further consideration. Its companion, SF2872, is sponsored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) and awaits action by the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee.

“LETRS training would be helpful for all teachers, but it’s vital for those who work with English learners (ELs),” wrote Danielle “Dae” Selcer, an English language development teacher. “Many ELs have home languages whose sound systems (phonology) differ greatly from English phonology. For example, Spanish has only five vowel sounds, and it has a “shallow” orthography (writing system). This means that the “a” sound in Spanish (like in the word “gato”) is usually spelled only one way. In English, however, we have between 16-20 vowel phonemes (sounds), depending on who is counting.”

The program puts the “why” behind the phonics system, said Debra Day, teaching and learning specialist for elementary education at Anoka-Hennepin School District. The professional development training helps teachers to try different things and learn from one another, she said.

In a letter, Melissa Long – a parent and former teacher – cited “a literacy needs assessment administered to 17 schools in 2021 in the Twin Cities revealed that while teachers receive professional development on literacy curricula, they are not receiving training on effective literacy practices and research.”

Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) wondered why teachers being insufficiently prepared to teach reading in school, but added, “I’m grateful we are making this effort.”

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