State education department launches free decodable books program to strengthen K-2 reading skills

·3 min read

May 21—The Tennessee Department of Education has a new tool in its effort to make students proficient readers by the time they enter third grade.

Called "decodables," the free, at-home reading supplement for students in kindergarten through second grade helps parents work with their youngsters to build reading skills and practice phonics.

Decodables include specific letter and sound arrangements for students to practice certain sounds and words. For students who are not proficient in reading by third grade, gaps can form and widen over time, said state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

"The idea is, we're spending a lot of time investing in those early grades so that when they hit third grade, if they're a proficient reader, it's amazing what happens in child development in their brains, but once they hit proficiency, they actually maintain that same level of proficiency over time so they can read independently," Schwinn told the Times Free Press on Thursday. "They don't lose those skills, they actually accelerate because they're able to read all sorts of books without guidance, without help, and then they can use that curiosity and explore through their independent reading time."

Part of the department's Reading 360 program, the decodables were developed with Tennessee teachers according to state Board of Education standards and then produced by the state Department of Education, Schwinn said.

"We took instructional materials that were approved by the textbook commission on the state board, and then we took those actual stories and had Tennessee teachers come in and say, 'Within those stories, what sounds should we highlight, what strategies, what are the different questions we might want to have parents ask students while they read?'" Schwinn said. "So they did all of that review and annotation and addition so that teachers actually are the ones who said 'Parents, this is what we really want you to do with your students at home.'"

The state has received about $4.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief money. Of that, $120.7 million goes to the Tennessee Literacy Success Act and Reading 360 program.

"This historic amount of federal funding provides an opportunity to innovate and transform the trajectory of Tennessee schools and students," Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement. "It's imperative that we keep student achievement at the center of all decision-making to put them on a path for success in our classrooms, post-secondary and workforce."

While the federal money will eventually run out, Schwinn said, the state is accelerating a program it otherwise would not be able to.

"I think what was important for us is that developing this in-house with Tennessee teachers, all of these decodables are also online, so any family would be able to go online in perpetuity and get access to these early readers," Schwinn said. "We're working on ways to help districts get connected so they can print those locally. You could go home and print them on your computer. They're not going to be as nice and glossy as these, but we really want to make sure that this is something that has staying power, and that's why it was so important to develop them in-house."

As of Thursday morning, the Tennessee Department of Education had received 32,264 household orders of 41,290 sets of decodables. Several hundred orders come from households in Chattanooga and several neighboring towns, according to TDOE data organized by city and ZIP code.

Families can order one pack of booklets per student in grades K-2 online at the state department of education's website. Each decodables set includes seven booklets with more than 20 stories, and it takes one to two weeks for an order to be fulfilled, according to the department.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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