You are here

Promising Practices - Strong Foundations - ELG - Full Story

Colorado's stories of promising practices
Colorado's stories of promising practices

Strong foundations


Read the Full Story

Strong Foundations

Englewood School District and Fountain-Fort Carson School District 


The word Miss Katie Hoiland was teaching to about a dozen kindergartners was “meadow.”

“I’m going to draw a picture,” Hoiland told the class. “What color do I use?”

The class shouted, “Green!” Hoiland drew a field of green.

“Everyone say, ‘Meadow,’” Hoiland asked the group. They repeated the word as she pointed to it on a white board along with a list of other words.

“Oh, my gosh! Kiss your brains," she said. "You are so smart!”

The next word is “flower.”

 “Whisper the word into your hand and throw it at Miss Hoiland,” she instructed.

For the word, “stump,” children stood up and pretended to be a tree being chopped down.  For “hive,” the class sounded it out in a squeaky bee-like voice and then turned to their neighbor and to explain that a hive is a home or a shelter for a bee. These are all words found in a story she was reading to the class.

To ensure they understood the story, Hoiland used a variety of action steps within her lesson to build familiarity with the words, including acting out the words, sketching visual representations, whispering words and meanings to their friends. The next day they will use the words to help Miss Hoiland write a movie script.

Map Fountain-Fort Carson and Englewood school districts

Light green down arrow

This is one example of a many layered approach to teaching children literacy in Aragon Elementary School, a Title 1 school in Fountain-Fort Carson School District No. 8, south of Colorado Springs. More than half of the students at Aragon are minorities and 75.5 percent are eligible for federal meal benefits, a measure of poverty. The school had struggled with reading achievement until 2016-17, when it received an Early Literacy Grant from the Colorado Department of Education to help embed essential components of reading instruction into all elements of teaching structures.

The grants have been a bright spot in the state’s efforts to improve reading at the earliest grades. A total of 62 schools around the state have received nearly $9 million in ELG grants since 2013, which pay for literacy curriculum, training and literacy coaches, among other things. The funding comes from revenue from retail marijuana tax.

Graphic about the reduction of students with Significant Reading Deficiencies in schools that have Early Literacy Grants as compared to the state average.

Compared to the state, schools that received the Early Literacy Grant have reduced the percentage of students with Significant Reading Disorders by 2 percentage points – 15.6 percent statewide compared to 13.6 percent for ELG schools.

Graphic shows the percentage of students in schools with the Early Literacy Grant who were reading at benchmark from the beginning of the year to the end of the year in the 2017-18 school year.
On average, schools that received the grant improved benchmark reading scores from the start of the school year for K-3 students by 17 percentage points.
Aragon Elementary was among the second cohort of 21 schools in 14 districts to receive the grant, getting nearly $170,000 to implement the new instructional system. The program has been an outright success at the school, where 23 percent of kindergartners started the 2017-18 school year with a Significant Reading Deficiency but only 4 percent ended the year still in that category.
“It has been a long, hard road, but it has been very successful,” said Annie Fiore, the literacy coach at Aragon who was hired with the grant money. “For a school that may be looking at their data, the growth doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But dig in and look at that data. Figure out what you need. Any student can learn.”
The Early Literacy Grant provides a school with much more focus on the science of teaching reading, emphasizing phonemic awareness and phonics.
Phonemic awareness is being able to hear, identify and modify individual sounds, also known as phonemes, in spoken words. This is a crucial step in learning to read, teaching kids to be aware of the different sounds in words.
Phonics instruction teaches about the relationships between letters in written language and the sounds in spoken language.
“A house has to have a strong foundation,” Fiore said. “If it doesn’t have a strong foundation, it’s going to crumble. Likewise, if students don’t have strong phonemic awareness, they can’t read. If you can read, you can go to college, fill out a job application. It’s that important.”
Aragon Elementary won the grant, allowing it to hire a literacy coach, purchase intervention materials and train the entire staff. The school, which has been using the Reading Street approved reading curriculum, also works regularly with an early literacy expert from CDE.
Every day each student receives at least 90 minutes of literacy instruction. The teachers look at reading data every day, finding areas that each kid is struggling in for extra support. Four times a year the school offers “parent universities,” where teachers talk to parents about how to read to their students and how to pick out books.
“We had to teach teachers why it’s important to teach phonemic awareness and phonics and why you can’t skip steps,” said Principal Tracey Landrum. “We started at the earliest grades and built up. The first year was hard. You need teacher buy in for it to work. I had to listen carefully to what teachers said was working.”
Aragon is into its third year of the three-year grant. Landrum believes the system the school has in place, thanks to the grant, will be able to be sustained. She is going to find a way to keep the literacy coach on the staff.
“We have truly changed our instructional practices,” she said. “I am here to tell you that change can happen. For us, it has gone way above and beyond.”


Eighty miles north in the Englewood School District, a similar success story is playing out in Clayton Elementary School – also a recipient of the Early Literacy Grant. In 2016-17 Clayton received about $247,000 from the grant.

The school where 76.6 percent of students are eligible for federal meal benefits and 57.7 percent are minorities also struggled with high numbers of students with Significant Reading Deficiencies. In the 2017-18 school year, only 45 percent of Clayton’s kindergartners through third-graders started the year reading at or above benchmark reading levels. But 71 percent finished the year reading at or above benchmark.

“Early literacy is incredibly important for life outcomes for kids,” said Jenny Buster, principal. “Making sure kids have a well-balanced diet of literacy practices is so very important. We know that kids who have strong literacy skills, have access to many more opportunities in life.”

The Early Literacy Grant allowed the school to purchase a core resource for K-3 reading – McGraw-Hill Education’s Wonders, and hire a literacy coach. The school has been able to get regular training for teachers. It has focused on learning how to interpret the data, how to provide interventions and building the knowledge for teachers.

Kindergarten teacher Jamie Rodriguez explained the process in her class. Typically, by December, her students should know their letters and their sounds. They then use this knowledge to begin segmenting and blending words. These steps are critical to developing the skills to read words automatically. She meets weekly with the school’s literacy coach to dive in on the data for each kid and what he or she needs to get up to speed.

“At this point I have two students who are in the red” – meaning who are below benchmark for reading,” Rodriguez said. “We had about nine or 10 at the beginning of the year. That is huge growth. We tell them about their growth. Even if they don’t quite understand, they know the number zero to 13 is huge growth. And they love seeing that.”

A big part of the work is tracking the data, said Becky Jones, the school’s instructional coach.

“We have made it a well-oiled machine so all of our kids can get the intervention they need at the level they need,” she said. “One of the things we do is teach teachers about the brain research and how the brain acquires new language. We also do a lot of learning around strategies ... lots of repetitions, so they’re not sitting there passively. We focus on multiple, multiple repetitions.”

The school uses Acadience Reading, formerly known as DIBELS Next, as their READ Act interim assessment, as well as other diagnostic tools as needed to determine the student’s skill competency. 

“If you don’t know what your kids need, you can’t plow forward,” Jones said. “It’s about what do they know, where are the holes and how can we fill those holes.”

The work is gratifying, Jones said.

“When there is a kid who is so far in the red, and you see that growth, it is the most exciting thing to watch them come alive,” she said. “Sometimes kids will come up and say, ‘I can read now!’ Watching their faces light up, that is awesome. Knowing that we have made that happen is really exciting.”





<<< Return to the Strong Foundations video

<<< Return to the Colorado Promising Practices webpage