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Lehighton board says new literacy program helping students

A new University of Florida Literacy Institute reading program is already paying dividends in Lehighton Area School District, elementary teachers and administrators said in a recent report to the school board.

The systematic phonics instruction program follows a carefully designed scope and sequence, progressively building upon each other as students advance through the grades, according to Ashley Lichtenwalner, elementary reading specialist.

“Starting with basic phonemic awareness in kindergarten, students eventually work on more advanced skills such as prefixes, suffixes, and multisyllabic words by the end of third grade,” she said.

One of the program’s unique features, Lichtenwalner added, is its evidence-based approach. It was thoroughly tested in pilot schools before being implemented more widely.

“One of the good things is it’s not a money making venture like a lot of the curricula you can get,” Lichtenwalner said. “It costs $70 and you get everything you need plus an online component. So it’s cost effective, but also research based.”

Lichtenwalner delved into the structure of UFLI’s daily lessons over a 30-minute instructional period. Each lesson includes a series of activities such as phonemic awareness, visual and auditory drills, blending drills, and the introduction of new concepts. The second day of the lesson includes review of the new concept, word work, irregular words, and reading and writing sentences with the new concept.

A significant aspect of the program is its emphasis on interleaved practice, Lichtenwalner added, ensuring that skills are continually reviewed and reinforced over a more extended period for lasting mastery.

“In the past we would teach a phonics skill for seven days and take a spelling test on day eight,” she said. “Then it would be forgotten and we would not go back and revisit it. We’d thought they had mastered it, but then when we would move on to write it, they were not maintaining that skill.”

The UFLI program, Lichtenwalner said, focuses on long-term mastery, with tests administered two to three weeks after the material is introduced. Additional resources, such as a home practice guide, are provided to parents to support their children’s learning outside the classroom.

Mary Figura, Lehighton’s assistant to the superintendent, emphasized the positive impact of the UFLI program on student growth, especially in the younger grades. She said that while the program might not be used through third grade in the long term, its current implementation addresses critical deficits in early reading skills. “We’re aiming to have students reading on grade level by third grade and looking at our data, we’re not there as much as we should be right now,” Figura said. “I think as we do this for another year through third grade we will be able to make strides in that direction.”

Board President Jeremy Glaush lauded the progress reported by the educators, noting that any initial concerns or challenges seemed to have been addressed effectively.

“I know I’ve seen the UFLI practice that my daughter brings home and she’s very excited to do it,” Glaush said.

He encouraged ongoing communication with parents to ensure a shared understanding of the program and its objectives.