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Teachers Matter!

Curriculum Director, Weston County School District #1, Newcastle, WY
Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023
  • Reading Instruction

LETRS Helps Wyoming Educators Make Student Learning a Success


When teachers are grounded in the WHY behind the day-to-day intentional instructional decisions that are made, student learning blossoms.

Student learning is at the center of everything we do. High-quality professional development impacts teacher knowledge and student learning opportunities. I serve as the curriculum director for Weston County School District #1, and I’d like to share the story of how we have provided sustained and ongoing professional learning to bolster reading comprehension throughout our district.

In 2012, as we went through the curriculum resource adoption cycle for English Language Arts, we discussed the district’s low reading proficiency scores and how students were not progressing—a fact supported by both standardized and benchmark assessments. Students were not achieving to levels we knew they were capable.

"I think my first and biggest challenge with literacy is that I wasn’t taught the skills in LETRS myself. I read well but when it came to teaching students, I wasn’t sure how to explain why it worked that way. I just knew that it worked. The students I work with need that WHY, because it acts as a rock to tie the skills onto that way they retain it and can recall it later when reading. My deeper understanding of how the brain works and what processes need to happen in order to read successfully give me a big arsenal to use when diagnosing and intervening with students. I have a lot of resources and tools to use to reach the many different learners I work with because of LETRS. Overall, it’s been very helpful to come to these sessions to learn and collaborate.”
Elyse Dickey, M.S., special education teacher

Our staff members were all working very hard but not seeing academic improvement. We realized something needed to change. So, we purchased a new core reading program (to include phonics instruction) at the elementary level. At the time, we had just hired a district literacy coach and decided to commit to an ongoing professional development program through LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling). This was also my first year as the full-time curriculum director. 


With so many initiatives and changes in the works, I knew I must collaborate closely with the literacy instructional coach to map out a long-term plan. The linchpin for our growth has been the ongoing commitment for professional learning in the science of reading. I vividly remember the initial district workshop where Dr. Carol Tolman, co-author of LETRS, presented an overview to a packed room of our educators (approximately half of our K–12 certified teachers)—all of whom voluntarily spent six hours on a Saturday to learn what LETRS was about and if they thought it would be worth pursuing. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive as the majority of staff conveyed that the opportunity to learn more about the science of reading was worth the commitment of time and money. With that, we began our journey in LETRS professional development. 

The past 10 years have been eye opening for us. Here are some of our observations:

  1. There is no greater investment than committing to building staff collective knowledge and expertise.  Embedded, ongoing professional development that is grounded in evidence-based reading research has allowed us to deepen and broaden our instructional decisions. The professional learning has also made strategies accessible to use immediately within the classroom. We are growing our own body of resident experts throughout the district.
  2. Using a few visual models to help ground us in the evidence-based reading research prior to professional learning and data planning is essential. We start with the WHY each time we meet to center ourselves on the target. The models we use most often are The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), The Reading Brain (Dehaene, 2013), The Four-Part Processing Model for Word Recognition (based on Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989) The Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001), and The Hourglass Figure (Tolman, 2019).   
  3. Phonological and phonemic awareness are essential skills to have for reading, spelling, and comprehension at high levels. Without this foundational understanding, students are not able to free up space in the brain to grapple with more complex skills.
  4. District and building systems must be intentionally structured and clearly articulated for data-driven instruction, intervention, and enrichment. This includes clear communication from all adults a student(s) interacts with throughout the day.
  5. It is essential to know when and how to plan for targeted instruction (homogeneous) and rigorous language comprehension (heterogeneous). It is essential to know when and how to plan for targeted instruction (homogeneous) and rigorous language comprehension (heterogeneous). Knowledge that helps educators be smarter than our programs enhance student learning opportunities.  
  6. For a system to work cohesively K–12, it is imperative to have structures in place to coordinate instruction, intervention, professional development, and a myriad of other variables for high-quality reading instruction. For our district, our literacy instructional coach is the person who is at the center of our system. This position works closely with teachers, administrators, and the curriculum director to sustain and enhance our system.


"As a first-grade teacher, I find myself struggling to personalize instruction to match each child’s pace…From beginning decodable text to chapter books, we have such a range in the classroom! I like LETRS professional development because I know it is grounded in solid research. These are best practices in action, and they are good reminders for any classroom teacher…Even those of us who have been at it for a while! I appreciate that it is written in a format that is easy to implement. It is focused and it helps refocus me each time I read or reread a section.”
Jade McConkey, first grade teacher



As a result of 10 years of ongoing collaborative professional development, we have been able to learn/validate best practices, implement strategies in the classroom, monitor results, and reflect on how we can best implement the science of reading. We have seen substantial improvement with retention of knowledge and skills, which is evident with how students are performing on benchmark assessments throughout the district. For example, 10 years ago on our end-of-year benchmark data, we struggled to be above 70 percent on target with most grade levels K–6. Now, we consistently score close to 85 percent on target. 

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” comes to mind with how we have embedded professional development throughout our district. All K–5 classroom teachers, Title 1 teachers, special education teachers, secondary teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, speech pathologists, and teacher leaders have been in some form of LETRS training. We have differentiated support to ensure everyone goes through the initial training applicable to their area as well as offer routine refreshers tailored to participant grade level/content area. Our next step is to incorporate early childhood opportunities throughout the community. 

As Drs. Moats and Tolman say repeatedly, Teachers matter!      

About the Author
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Sonya Tysdal
Curriculum Director, Weston County School District #1, Newcastle, WY