First graders Zoey Schaller, left, and Daniella Madrid read together in Katlyn Smith's first grade classroom on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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A roomful of second graders spent a recent fall morning learning about a bossy mother named “Mama E” who follows her kids around reminding them to say their names. 

The whimsical story was part of a phonics lesson at Denver’s Bradley International School. The point was that adding an “e” at the end of a word changes the first vowel from short to long — for example, pin becomes pine because the “i” says its name.

Teacher Megan Bobroske challenged the children sitting elbow to elbow on a rainbow striped rug in front of her — could Mama E live at the front of the word instead of the back? A little boy named Peter piped up: “She has to be at the end of the word.” he said. “Imagine if she’s on the front of the line, she’s going to be too busy saying her name.” 

Peter and his classmates were learning a rule about the English language that they applied over and over that day — when reading and writing “hope,” “cute,” “tape,” and “slide.” Such lessons reflect both a districtwide and statewide shift in how children are taught to read in Colorado. 

Gone by the wayside are reading programs that encourage children to figure out what a jumble of letters says by looking at the picture or using other clues to guess the word — a debunked strategy still used in some popular reading curriculums. Now, there’s a greater emphasis on teaching the relationships between sounds and letters in a direct and carefully sequenced way. It’s part of the science of reading, a large body of knowledge about how children learn to read. 

Some teachers are pleased with the new reading curriculums rolling out at their schools, but there are bumps, too — confusing technology, new ways of grouping students, or an overwhelming amount of material, to name a few.

The hope is that better curriculum materials combined with a recent statewide teacher training effort will transform reading instruction — and boost reading achievement — across Colorado. 

“Those are definitely the biggies,” said Floyd Cobb, associate commissioner for student learning at the Colorado Department of Education.

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Ann Schimke

Senior reporter — Chalkbeat Colorado. Email: aschimke@chalkbeat.org Twitter: @annschimke