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Introducing the Strategies to Improve Reading Partnership: Improving literacy skills for young readers

Midwest | July 12, 2022

A teacher sitting and reading with 5 students

Strong literacy skills in the early grades are an important predictor of students’ future academic success. Because of disruptions to schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic, many young readers in Michigan missed opportunities to develop foundational reading skills. What types of approaches can districts and schools take to get their youngest readers back on track?

The goal of phonological awareness instruction is to help students identify and manipulate units—such as words, syllables, onsets, and rimes—in oral language. Ultimately, strong phonological awareness skills support students in developing skills in phonics.1

The goal of phonics instruction is to help students understand the relationships between written letters and their sounds so that they can sound out words. Ultimately, phonics instruction helps students decode words accurately and read text fluently.2

One strategy is to ensure that educators and school leaders feel prepared to deliver high-quality, effective instruction to students who are learning to read. To set up young readers for success in Michigan, REL Midwest has joined with Battle Creek Public Schools, Lansing School District 158, and the Michigan Department of Education to establish the Strategies to Improve Reading (STIR) Partnership. This partnership will develop, test, and refine an approach for integrating evidence-based strategies to improve literacy outcomes for students in kindergarten and first grade. The STIR approach will focus specifically on phonological awareness and phonics, which along with fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension make up the "big five" content areas that the National Reading Panel emphasize as important for learning to read.

The STIR approach to improve outcomes for young readers

The STIR partnership aims to bridge the gap between research and practice by creating professional development opportunities, resources, and professional learning communities that teachers and school leaders find effective, useful, and accessible. Through these key components of the STIR approach, the partnership aims to do the following:

  • Support educator capacity to implement effective instructional practices for phonological awareness and phonics.
  • Use and support decision-driven data collection, analysis, and action to inform literacy instruction.
  • Adapt leadership practices, including supporting the implementation of effective practices at the school level concerning literacy data use.

The STIR approach will offer a package of learning opportunities for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers, interventionists, paraprofessionals, school administrators, and literacy coaches, including training at a summer institute, a monthly virtual professional learning community, and ongoing in-person coaching.

Supporting the integration of the four features of effective instruction

Battle Creek Public Schools and Lansing School District 158 are committed to improving literacy outcomes for their students by using evidence-based instruction and practices grounded in the science of reading. According to a review of 56 research studies by the What Works Clearinghouse, students experience more growth in their literacy skills when they receive systematic, explicit, and data-driven instruction in phonological awareness and phonics.3 In addition, research has found that teachers’ use of culturally and linguistically responsive practices in classrooms is related to improved student outcomes.4 To support student success in reading, educators should integrate these features to deliver effective instruction in phonological awareness and phonics.5

Using decision-driven data collection, analysis, and action to inform literacy instruction

As a part of the STIR approach, REL Midwest will deliver training on how to use and support decision-driven data collection and analysis to inform literacy instructional practices. To support this component, the STIR partnership will develop a decision-driven data action planning template for educators and school leaders to use when implementing the STIR approach. The data action planning exercise is designed to facilitate action that informs evidence-based literacy instruction and interventions implemented by participating teachers.

Adapting leadership practices to support literacy

Beyond providing supports to teachers for implementing evidenced-based practices and using data to inform literacy instruction, REL Midwest will provide school leaders with tools to support effective leadership practices for literacy. One tool will support school leaders in providing formative feedback to teachers on how to use effective instructional practices in phonological awareness and phonics. A second tool will support school leaders in implementing effective practices regarding literacy data use at the school level. To facilitate the use of these tools, school leaders will receive training during a summer institute on how to observe classroom instruction for effective features in phonological awareness and phonics as well as culturally responsive practices. In addition, school leaders will learn effective practices for supporting schoolwide processes for effective data use.

Looking ahead

The STIR partnership’s work will progress in phases during the next 5 years. REL Midwest will collaborate with partner districts to support refinement of the STIR components and the development of products to share research findings, key takeaways, and lessons learned from the partnership. By integrating evidence-based instruction with a focus on phonological awareness and phonics, using data to inform literacy instruction, and adapting leadership practices to support literacy, the STIR Partnership aims to strengthen educator and school leader capacity to improve young readers’ literacy skills.


1 Bryant, P., Nunes, T., & Barros, R. (2014). The connection between children’s knowledge and use of grapho-phonic and morphemic units in written text and their learning at school. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(2), 211–225.; Foorman, B., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Hayes, L., Justice, L., Lewis, W., Wagner, R., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Furgeson, J., Henke, J., Keating, B., Sattar, S., Streke, A., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

2 Foorman et al., 2016.

3 Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. The Annie E. Casey Foundation.; Pace, A., Alper, R., Burchinal, M. R., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019). Measuring success: Within and cross-domain predictors of academic and social trajectories in elementary school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 112–125.; Stanley, C. T., Petscher, Y., & Catts, H. (2018). A longitudinal investigation of direct and indirect links between reading skills in kindergarten and reading comprehension in tenth grade. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(1), 133–153.

4 Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163–206.; Byrd, C. M. (2016). Does culturally relevant teaching work? An examination from student perspectives. SAGE Open, 6(3), 1–10.; Powell, R., Cantrell, S. C., Malo-Juvera, V., & Correll, P. (2016). Operationalizing culturally responsive instruction: Preliminary findings of CRIOP research. Teachers College Record, 118(1), 1–46.

5 National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Nation’s report card: 2019 reading state snapshot report. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.


Maggi Ibis

Maggi Ibis

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