Literacy coach Crystal Lenhart in her office at Big Horn Elementary, May 2023. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

SHERIDAN—Learning to read well should be a reliable outcome of K-12 public education, but when Crystal Lenhart started as a reading specialist at Big Horn Elementary she confronted the heartbreaking reality that’s not guaranteed in American schools.   

After a decade of teaching — from fourth grade to art to kindergarten — Lenhart shifted her focus to literacy.

The change coincided with the publication of Emily Hanford’s reporting on how the American education system fails to teach kids to read.  

“Research shows that children who don’t learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they’re likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too,” Hanford reported. “People who struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system, and to live in poverty.”

Low academic performance due to a reading disability can lead to depression and anxiety — exacerbating barriers to learning and feeding the negative feedback loop. Teenagers who struggle to read are at a higher risk for suicide, according to research by the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. 

The stakes are high and yet for decades, the percentage of American fourth-graders who are proficient readers or better has hovered around 30%, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Hanford found that kids struggle to read in such large numbers because the methods used to teach them are flawed. 

When Lenhart started as a reading specialist in 2019 she reviewed Big Horn’s scores to find that closer to 65% of students were proficient readers — significantly better than the national average — but the school struggled to bump that number up. It didn’t sit right with her that close to a third of Big Horn students were falling behind. 

“It’s a social justice issue,” Lenhart said. “We have to give kids the opportunity to become skilled readers.”

Inspired by the evidence presented by Hanford, and her own in-depth research, Lenhart transitioned Big Horn away from its old method of teaching reading, known as balanced literacy, to an approach known as structured literacy during her first year on the job. 

“It was hard at the beginning,” Katie Stewart, a first-grade teacher, said. “It’s hard to look in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh, everything I was doing was wrong.’ But the reward has been so worth it.” 

Big Horn Elementary takes a structured literacy approach which has boosted the school’s reading proficiency scores, teachers and parents say. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Shortly after Big Horn shifted to structured literacy the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and yet reading proficiency numbers have seen the improvement that Lenhart was hoping for. In 2022, 86% of the school’s 5th graders performed proficient or better on the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress. 

Starting as a reading specialist, who worked directly with students, Lenhart was promoted to be Big Horn’s literacy coach in 2022, and she’s made a name for herself as a passionate advocate for all young readers and especially those who struggle.   

Reading is fundamental

“Our ultimate goal is always that kids understand what they read so they can get into deep, complex text and understand the nuts and bolts of it,” Lenhart said. “But we have to give them a really strong on-ramp to that comprehension, which is getting words off the page accurately.” 

Struggling readers, who spend more energy getting the words off the page, are left with little bandwidth to learn from the material, Lenhart said. The good news is there are methods that help all readers, not just students who struggle. 

“The science is very clear; good readers are good decoders,” she said. “You don’t have a good solid reader who’s not a strong decoder.”

Understanding phonics, letter-sound relationships, letter patterns and pronunciation, helps kids quickly recognize familiar words, as well as decode words they haven’t seen before. 

Another reason Lenhart pushed Big Horn to follow a scientific approach is that, unlike learning to walk or talk, reading doesn’t happen organically. “You basically have to build neural pathways because they’re not naturally there for reading,” Lenhart said. 

“What the human brain needs to accomplish to become a skilled reader is to develop these neural pathways between the part of your brain that deals with individual sounds that are in our speech, the part of your brain that deals with orthography — the symbols, the letters — and then the part of your brain that deals with meaning.” 

Before switching to structured literacy, Big Horn used a balanced literacy approach, which places less emphasis on phonics and decoding, and relies instead on the three-cueing system. Students are encouraged to draw on context clues and even pictures to identify words, which reinforces guessing, making it challenging for struggling readers to navigate new texts and subjects, as reported by Hanford.  

Some students only need a little bit of phonics and decoding instruction to easily pick up reading, but that doesn’t work for all kids, hence Big Horn being stuck at 65% proficiency, Lenhart said. 

Stewart, the first-grade teacher, saw the world open up for her students with the shift to structured literacy. Before her students were limited to books for specific reading levels, “because that’s what I was teaching them to read, and because they had pictures and they had patterns,” she said. “But when we’d go outside of those and read real-world texts, they would really struggle. Now my kids can read anything.” 

A “vowel valley” on display at Big Horn Elementary shows how sounds come together into words. (Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Everybody reads

Rather than pulling struggling readers out of the classroom for interventions, small group literacy instruction for all students is integrated into Big Horn’s daily schedule. During “walk to reading,” students break away from their usual classroom to circle up with a teacher who’s focused on their specific needs — whether they’re more advanced readers or still needing to practice decoding and phonics. 

“I feel very fortunate and blessed that my child attends a school where he gets a little bit more direct individualized instruction,” Autumn Barrett said. She has two sons at Big Horn, one with dyslexia, and she likes that he gets extra help without being made to feel different. 

“Kids are super sensitive to that, they don’t want to be identified as the kid who is being pulled from class or the kid who always has somebody sitting at his desk,” Barrett said. “So when everybody is going to reading group he goes down for a very small group for much more individualized attention.”

Barrett is seeing the benefits. 

“His scores and his progress that he has made in the last year cannot be ignored, like huge growth,” she said. “Realistically he is always going to struggle in areas of school but if we’re putting in all this work now, his middle school and high school years are going to be so much better.”

Unfortunately not all students have that experience, Barrett said. “We have a friend in the community whose son is not in our district, and he wasn’t diagnosed [with dyslexia] until the sixth grade and his mom is doing his tutoring right now. That’s overwhelming to me as a working parent.” 

Barrett said she’s grateful her son is at a school that is supporting his needs, both academic and emotional. 

“We talk a lot about what it’s like to have that low-level stress all the time,” Lenhart said. “If you think about a kid that comes to school that has difficulty reading, and then they have to read all day, so we’re very aware of that, and try to support that emotional piece.”

Beyond Big Horn

“I am always almost shocked and amazed that there are still schools that are currently adopting some of these curriculums that don’t align with science,” but that’s starting to change, Lenhart said. 

The Wyoming Department of Education is reviewing the criteria schools use to select screening tools and interventions for struggling readers, as well as professional development focused on literacy for teachers. For the third interim session in a row the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee is studying ways to improve early childhood literacy. In 2018, the University of Wyoming revised the course requirements for a BA in Elementary Education to include more of a focus on literacy. The first students required to take those additional courses graduated in May. 

As Lenhart celebrates the progress, she laments the students “that we didn’t get,” because when schools fail to teach students to read proficiently that limits their future. 

“Even if they’re a kid that is on that dyslexia spectrum we’re going to give them what it takes to become proficient so they can have the choice to be whatever they want to be, rather than saying ‘I wish I could do that, but I don’t read well enough,’” Lenhart said.

“Giving them every opportunity to fulfill their potential, that truly is our motivation.”

Tennessee Jane Watson is WyoFile's deputy managing editor. She was a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism and Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter. She lives in Laramie. Contact...

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  1. As I am halfway through a Dyslexia endorsement program, I am finding that the science of reading is indeed an effective way to support struggling as well as early readers. I’m so excited to see this proven theory to burn through our educational programs like wildfire

  2. Give it time. Degenfelder will shut the program down if there are too many flashcards with pictures of minorities. Or, this will be labeled “indoctrination” by the hateful right wingers and will be pulled from the district.

    Can’t have kids being too educated here in wyoming. They will be harder to control and/or manipulate

    1. Agree, and it worsens with each “election” here. Glad my kids grew up somewhere else, one of the states to which your smart kids migrate after high school.

  3. Congratulations to Big Horn Elementary and Mrs. Lenhart for creating a literacy environment that delivers the best possible opportunities for student success!! Please note that the University of Wyoming might have made a few small changes in their literacy instruction but they still support and teach the 3 Cueing system, as well as other literacy practices that are no longer supported by the scientific reading community and national literacy experts nationally and internationally.

  4. As a reading specialist, I’m always so interested in schools that are seeing success. But sometimes it’s hard to find out how they became successful. Our school has been using the structured literacy approach for about 4 years but the growth hasn’t been too sufficient. Finding out the details of a successful school is what I want to know.

  5. I loved this article and am especially impressed with the structured literacy approach to reading. The “vowel valley” cards on display in Big Horn Elementary would be so helpful to me as I work with my grandsons on their reading skills. Does anyone know how I might download free printables or buy smaller version kid sets?

  6. When I was in third grade, in 1956, I noticed that only about half the class could read. I asked all my classmates I knew whether they had learned to read at home or at school. All of those who could read were taught at home. My mother used phonics to teach me. I remember the teacher writing the word “LOOK” on the board and putting eyes in the Os. We were to learn the word, not the letters. It didn’t work. It is appalling that this non-education has persisted so long. I know of several kids who learned to read totally by themselves, including my daughter. The mother would read a book to them and follow the words with her finger. The kids figured it out pretty quickly.

  7. “I am always almost shocked and amazed that there are still schools that are currently adopting some of these curriculums that don’t align with science,”. Crystal Lenhart
    Ditto. And not just for reading.