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Episode 5 – Learning to Read; Reading to Learn

May 23, 2023 | Season: 1 | Episode: 5 | 29 minutes

Today’s episode is about our elementary reading program. The program provides multi-faceted reading instruction and supports with the primary goal of preparing our young students to be strong, capable readers throughout their educational journey.

Joining Dr. Martirano today will be two guests: Stephanie Milligan, Curriculum Coordinator for Elementary Language Arts, and Shannon Fuller, Coordinator of K-12 Reading Intervention.

We hope you enjoy this conversation about our elementary reading program.

← Additional episodes of Inside HCPSS


  • Stephanie Milligan
    Coordinator, Elementary Language Arts Curriculum
  • Shannon Fuller
    Coordinator, K-12 Reading Intervention



Narrator: Welcome to the Inside HCPSS podcast, a podcast produced by the Howard County Public School System centered around conversations with HCPSS Superintendent, Dr. Michael J. Martirano.

Today’s episode is about our elementary reading program. The program provides multi-faceted reading instruction and supports with the primary goal of preparing our young students to be strong, capable readers throughout their educational journey.

Joining Dr. Martirano today will be two guests: Stephanie Milligan, Curriculum Coordinator for Elementary Language Arts, and Shannon Fuller, Coordinator of K–12 Reading Intervention.

We hope you enjoy this conversation about our elementary reading program.

Dr. Martirano: Greetings. And I’m Dr. Michael Martirano, superintendent of schools for the Howard County Public School System. Today I am joined with Shannon Fuller, our coordinator of K–12 reading intervention, and Stephanie Milligan, our curriculum coordinator for elementary language arts. Today, we are gonna spend detailed time discussing our philosophy of reading, the focus on my tenets as a philosophy of reading, which is, learning to read, having all of our young people with the ability to learn to read, so that they can read to learn. And the essential philosophy of our reading program, which is contained in our Strategic Call to Action around our milestones, which are significantly important to our young people for academic achievement around the use of our universal screener in kindergarten, and really focusing our efforts on making certain that every child within our school system is reading by third grade. It is a complete focus, where we implement the science of reading, by looking at our data in our planning meetings, progress monitoring, and supporting the instruction for all of our students in all-hands-on effort, to ensure that each and every one of our young people are provided with the tools so that they can read, and continue to prosper within our school system, and ultimately be able to graduate being college and career-ready.

So, this extremely important topic to our school system contains many different components. It is just not one-size-fits-all. It has various levels of facets in terms of layers to advance, to ensure that our students are high-quality readers. And then the seminal question, how do we respond when our students aren’t achieving the milestone? So, today I’m really looking forward to an engaging conversation around the science of reading, the topic of reading as it pertains to the Howard County Public School System. And as I’ve stated, I have two wonderful experts who are joining me today to really amplify and identify and define the focus of which we have, and in recognizing also the need for our parents who are listening as a true partner in the learning process in Howard County.

So, again, good day to both of you, Shannon and to Stephanie. And Stephanie, I’m gonna throw it to you, to really build on my introductory comments around the reading philosophy in Howard County. Good to see you. Stephanie?

Stephanie: It’s good to see you, too, Dr. Martirano, and thank you for having us here. One of the things that I’m excited about sharing is that we have a very dynamic language arts program in Howard County schools, and it starts in kindergarten. Actually, it starts in pre-K, for some of our students, and goes all the way through 12th grade. So, my department, I’m the coordinator of elementary language arts, so we focus on the kindergarten through fifth-grade curriculum. And then, in secondary, through middle school and high school, it continues. So, we follow the state standards, which also, again, follow the pre-K through a 12th-grade model for instruction. And in our classrooms, what I love about our program is that we have a two-hour block of time within our language arts classrooms. And during that time, teachers not only are able to model for students how proficient readers read and comprehend, as well as write proficiently, but we also have time to differentiate. So, all of our students, during an instructional day, get an opportunity to have the language arts standards taught to them as a whole group.

So, teachers spend time reading text to them, they look at close reading procedures. They think about how letters are put together to make words, and how to figure out unknown words. All of that’s demonstrated for them in that whole group setting. But then, we know that all of our children learn differently. We know that they all are making progress in reading at their own rate. So, we also have time for teachers to work with small groups of students, and provide that differentiated instruction, provide the time to have students read at their instructional level, as well as learn those specific skills that they may be lacking or needing some additional support on in order to become a proficient reader. So, our language arts block really provides time for students to understand what is expected at their grade level, as a reader, and then also have their individual needs met during that time. And then, of course, we can’t forget writing.

Dr. Martirano: Correct.

Stephanie: So, there’s some time for writing, and that’s usually during a whole group instruction also, where teachers will model for students. Students will generate ideas together. They’ll share about their thinking with each other as they’re getting ready to write. And then they have some specific time to write and go through the writing process. And all of that occurs during that two-hour block of time every day.

Dr. Martirano: But a concentrated period of time.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Dr. Martirano: Not just doing this in small blocks and small chunks, but two hours of time dedicated to that, across our entire school system…

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Dr. Martirano: …in all of our elementary schools. You said a very significant word that I oftentimes find myself explaining to our parents. When you talked about the word “standard,” that we’re following state standards, tell me what that exactly is in an explicit way, so our parents understand that.

Stephanie: Those are the goals for the students as a reader, and as a writer, and for our teachers to help those students meet those goals. So, they’re truly their goals. So, if you think about reading, the standards allow us to think about the child at that grade level, and what that child needs to master in reading, whether it is foundational skills and phonics instruction, phonemic awareness instruction, whether it’s hearing sounds and producing sounds, reading different types of text. And we make sure that the students are exposed to text that is above their grade level, because we need to foster their thinking, but also reading at their own individual level. So, when you look at those state standards, there’s specific expectations for every single grade level. And our goal, for an academic period, an academic year, is for students to be taught those standards throughout that whole year, with the goal of mastery by the end.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. So, the operative word, mastery, and when I think about it, I always explain it from the vantage point, by the end of the school year, this is what a child is expected to know and master at that level. So, there is truly a method to the process of learning, that is not left to chance, but really clearly defined by the standards, and the markers and the milestones along the way.

Stephanie: Right. And that helps with the differentiation of instruction. Because some of our students, by the end of the year, unfortunately, haven’t exactly met those expectations.

Dr. Martirano: So, I wanna stay in that space a little longer because that was the next thing I wanted you to define a little further. What does that word actually mean, differentiated instruction?

Stephanie: It means knowing where the students are, and providing instruction to meet their needs where they are, and move them to the expected place that they need to be by the end of the school year.

Dr. Martirano: So, the true acknowledgment that if we have 20 students in a classroom, that each learner presents themselves differently to us, and through differentiated instruction, we are meeting the individual needs of the students based upon their individual learning plan, correct?

Stephanie: Absolutely. And that’s why we also value, when teachers are assessing students, some of those assessments aren’t just handing out an assessment and having the students do that assessment on a piece of paper. It’s really sitting down with each individual child, and maybe going over a list of words that they should know, and actually watching the child interact with those words and try to figure out what those words are, and noticing what the students are doing well when they’re reading or when they’re decoding individual words, and what the student needs some additional practice on. So, teachers take notes while they’re reading, or they’re working with a small group of students, on specific things that they’re noticing, or specific skills that they’re noticing that the student is doing well, as well as things that they need to enhance in their instruction. And some of it’s individualized for the students. They might pull a student over and work with an individual skill with that student if they know that that student needs that additional support. Or they’ll have one of the instructional assistants provide some additional support, or, and I know that Shannon’s gonna talk about this very soon, they work with the interventionist, to say, “This is what I’m seeing in the classroom, and this is what you’re seeing in the intervention,” if a child is receiving an intervention, “and how can we ensure that the student is making progress?”

Dr. Martirano: Well, let’s keep building. We’re gonna come to you real quickly, Shannon. As all of this builds, in terms of the overall approach, I oftentimes hear our reading coaches, and our reading teachers, and our teachers in the classroom, particularly at the elementary, talking about first instruction. And it’s commonly known within the school system. But again, for those who don’t understand what that means, what is first instruction?

Stephanie: First instruction is the instruction to help our students meet the grade level standard. First instruction develops over the school year. So, we’re thinking about what our students are expected to learn, we’re gonna give them instruction on those skills, just like we just talked about, in whole group and in sometimes small group. But then when we talk about differentiating that instruction, that differentiation means that the teacher knows, has data to show that students need specific additional reinforcement of those skills, and they will work on that either independently or in small group.

But first instruction is the first time. It’s the first time that students are exposed to those skills. And even though we know that it’s not always the very first time when we talk about first instruction, but it is a time for all of our students to learn the grade level standards, because those are our expectations. If students get to the end of the school year, and teachers, they may be a child that is struggling with reading, if a child is struggling in reading and they are not taught the grade level standards in conjunction to the instruction that needs to happen for them as an independent reader, and growing those skills, they’re never gonna close that gap. So, they have to have both. They have to have their needs met where they are as a reader, but they also need instruction on that grade level expectation, so we can close that gap faster.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. And this interaction is feeling very much like a classroom instructional lesson , quite frankly, as we’re providing the foundational knowledge for students to be successful. And just one more foundational piece, and we’re gonna move to the next level as well. Talking about the research-based instruction, the science of reading, I want our parents to understand that evidence-based research that we are using to advance the science of reading for the betterment of our students. Go ahead and talk about that.

Stephanie: Yeah, you’re right. And that is a national movement that’s happening right now.

Dr. Martirano: Correct.

Stephanie: And I’m sure the parents have heard, you know, the science of reading, or they’ve heard LETRS professional learning. And LETRS is a professional learning for teachers on the science of reading. And what the science of reading is, is all the brain research that researchers have done over time, and talked…and learning about how the brain interacts when a child is learning how to read. And that brain research is now presented to our teachers informing them of what are the research-based approaches that we need to use in order to teach children. And it all starts with those foundational skills.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly.

Stephanie: And it starts with the students to be able to hear sounds, and manipulate sounds orally, before they can actually write or read. They need to be able to do that oral manipulation of sounds.

Dr. Martirano: Very good. So, now we’ve got this wonderful foundational knowledge. And so I wanna continue on the journey with our students within the classroom. And we recognize when we say if we have 20 young people in our classroom, that each one of them presents themselves at a different level, and may achieve different levels of proficiency along the way. They emerge at different times. And so, when we see that young people aren’t achieving the levels of proficiencies, how do we intervene, with a level of urgency, to respond to those needs presented, where there may need to be additional support? Shannon, why don’t you tell us a little more about the interventions?

Shannon: One thing I wanna add, build off of what Stephanie said about first instruction, is using that data. So, we’re gonna start with the data. The data is what’s gonna help the interventionists determine what are the gaps? What do we have to fill in? So, we’re gonna use multiple data points, the universal screener, classroom observations. And the reading specialists are gonna work with the classroom teachers and determine what specific skills do we need to build to close that gap? So, we’re gonna come in, we’re gonna intervene. We’re gonna work on this skill set, and then prepare the students so they’re successful in that first instruction. We never wanna replace first instruction. It’s always gonna be in addition to first instruction.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. But that could be a whole series of things that we’re using as interventions, again, meeting the needs of the individual student. Could you give me some examples of some interventions that we use, where we’re getting some really good results with our students? And I really wanna lift up the fact of our universal screener and how we are using that as a way to ensure that all young people are identified, as far as their reading levels, and then how we are using that data to make better instructional decisions. So, build upon that.

Shannon: Absolutely. So, the universal screener identifies different measures. There’s different measures within the screener. And it’s providing information for the classroom teachers and the interventionists of specific skill sets that the students might need more instruction on. So, for instance, one would be phonemic awareness. So, phonemic awareness is what Stephanie had mentioned. It’s the sound. It’s understanding the sound. It’s oral. It’s auditory. So, one thing that we’ve done is built on the professional development for the reading specialists and the classroom teachers, to better understand how to teach phonemic awareness. So, one intervention that we’ve added is Heggerty. Heggerty is added in first instruction for kindergarten and first grade, but it’s also available as an intervention for all grades, K-five.

Dr. Martirano: Now, is that a program or…

Shannon: It is a program.

Dr. Martirano: …that’s an additional, that our teachers are trained in, and it has specific strategies to assist in readers’ development.

Shannon: Correct. And more importantly, it also is aligned with the science of reading. It is explicit, systematic instruction. And that’s one thing that we’ve learned about all of this research on the science of reading, is really understanding the scope and sequence, where they’re going, the direction of how we need to teach things, and making sure that we are being systematic and routine with everything, because they need repetition, they need practice, they need routine. And that’s one piece that Heggerty provides, with intervention and first instruction, but also for that classroom experience, being a reader, which is the curriculum that we’re using for first instruction, also has that very explicit, direct instruction that needs to happen.

Dr. Martirano: So, thank you for that. This next comment is a reminder to our parents how we approach learning within the school system, that we are a school system, not a system of schools. And when we look at all of our elementary schools where we’re implementing the first instruction for reading, there is a whole system in place to train, to develop our teachers, to ensure that that level of consistency is happening. So, as I look across the landscape of our elementary schools, I wanna see that there is movement, from the first day of school to that last day of school and the continuation over summer, and that it builds. But to ensure that, it takes a very solid structure of organization to make that happen, with professional development, and guidance, and the latest research, all of those things. Explain to our community the work that we do with our teachers and staff to ensure that all of these wonderful interventions, and tenets of first instruction, and science of reading are occurring.

Shannon: So, I think it starts with the role of the literacy coach, and how the literacy coach is pulling all of those people together and making sure that the interventionists are on board, the classroom teachers. And it’s important to make sure the administrators are involved in this process as well.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. Thank you for bringing that up.

Shannon: So, really, just creating data meetings, or team meetings, where they’re looking at all the specific data points, and making sure that, do we have the professional development in place? Do we know what our focus is going to be with this group of students? We have data now from the screener that’s gonna let us know…

Dr. Martirano: Valuable data!

Shannon: Right. We can look at a group of students and determine what their area of weakness is, and make sure that we build that into our first instruction the following year, the next year, right? So, really looking at that data, yes, we wanna do it time-sensitive, and we’re making those decisions right away with instruction, but also making sure that we’re looking at that data across the year, and making those instructional decisions at a team level, or school level, based on what we see within the data.

Stephanie: And I was just gonna piggyback on what Shannon said. She mentioned our literacy coaches. We have a team of experts in teaching reading, that work for the language arts office, and they are assigned to each school. They support three schools each, and that’s what their job is, is to work with classroom teachers to ensure that the teachers have had just-in-time training on how to teach reading and writing, and really working on those skills. They spend time doing the data discussions that Shannon was talking about, and really thinking about the type of data that they’re seeing from the students, and guiding the teachers, and making adjustments to their instruction.

Maybe they need to reteach a skill. So, literacy coaches will have those data discussions with our classroom teachers, and the team of teachers, to really look at those students and decide what instruction needs to be shifted or how we advance instruction. They provide the professional learning also. As Shannon was sharing, we have Heggerty, we have “Being a Reader,” in our primary grades, as a reading program, but we didn’t just hand the programs to the teachers and say, “Go forth and teach.” We have had our literacy coaches as well as the language arts office work with each teacher in each school to develop the teacher’s understanding of the scope and sequence of the program, as well as the instructional practices that need to be supported as they’re teaching the students. And then we can’t forget the administrators. And I was glad that Shannon said that.

Dr. Martirano: Yeah. Bringing it up.

Stephanie: We are really fortunate in Howard County that we know our principals well.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly.

Stephanie: We’re a really big school system but our principals call us. We meet with them. We go out and talk to them. We have meetings called ACI meetings, where the principals are learning about curriculum, and what they should be noticing their teachers, how the teachers are teaching, what the teachers are teaching, and the expectations from the curriculum office of what instruction should look like. So, it’s really this collaboration of all these groups that are ensuring that students are being successful as readers. So, we have administrators that are guiding their schools. We have teachers who are so committed to making sure their students make progress. We have literacy coaches that are the coaches on the sideline, telling the teachers, you know, what plays to make with students, how to adjust their instruction, what instruction should look like. We have great reading specialists that intervene immediately when we notice that a student needs some additional support that goes beyond what the classroom teacher can give.

Dr. Martirano: My commitment to literacy and to reading is just solid and focused, with the understanding that we have all experienced the traumatic event of the pandemic, and the acknowledgment that our young people regressed academically, and acknowledging that up front, and using literacy, and focusing on literacy, our reading tenets, to guide us to the future, to bring our young people back up to the level of performance where they need to be. It is essential that we are designing our school system in a way to respond with urgency to the topics of which I’m defining, with the academic regression that has occurred. And through this individualized instruction, and the data collecting, and the training, and all of these components working together, I’m extremely optimistic for our students in Howard County as we implement this model to true fidelity.

Through the years of my career, I’ve served as a principal of a high school, assistant principal and teacher at the middle school, and a principal of two elementary schools. And having that vertically-connected level of analysis of our student body helps guide my thoughts. And what I know for certain in my number of years of serving as an administrator and teacher, that as I’ve encountered young people who are having challenges academically, 99% of the time, it tracks back to reading deficiencies.

And so, I always state, let us continue the level of urgency of ensuring that every child is reading by grade three. Because if a child is not reading by grade three, when we talk about reading to learn and learning to read, the ability to learn to read, young people fall further behind if they can’t engage at that level, and we have to even respond even higher levels of urgency. So, I want our community to fully understand, and you can hear it in my voice, my solid commitment and urgency for our students, because we can’t fail our students when it comes to the recovery of learning and the acceleration of learning, so that they can, again, as I stated, be college and career-ready, as they’ve struggled with the challenges of the last several years.

So, my final comments, as I know that we’re now wrapping up, and the time flies so quickly in these interactions, and we’re just scraping the surface on it, is the role of parents. I do a lot of reading on reading. And one of the things that we were talking about earlier, I firmly believe that any gaps in the achievement levels actually start at birth, and it starts with the parent engagement. So, I encourage all of our parents to read. I encourage our dads to read. I encourage to provide opportunities for our young people, before they even come to school, to have interactions with all kinds of books and materials. There’s a lot of scientific research regarding that, where those achievement gaps actually start even before young people come into our school system.

So, my final comments to you and questions to both of you, and I’d like to hear from both of you on this, what are your recommendations to our parents as we are implementing this very robust reading program in Howard County, focused with all of our staff members? We must have our parents as partners in that. Stephanie, take the first bite of the apple, and then we’ll throw it to Shannon from there.

Stephanie: I totally agree with you. You know, learning to read begins the first day that a child comes home from the hospital. Even parents that can just model what it looks like to read, that they’re reading a magazine or they’re reading a book. Parents can be the model for students, and the way that students want to behave. So, reading as part of your life and what you do is such an important piece to it. We are so lucky in Howard County to have the incredible library system.

Dr. Martirano: Correct. Thank you for bringing that up.

Stephanie: There is no excuse not to have books in a home, because every one of our libraries, you can go and check out books, and go back often. The children’s center in our libraries are so dynamic, you just wanna go there and stay forever. So, just taking kids to the library, reading to them whenever you can, having them read with you, sit on your lap, and read with you when they’re little, but don’t forget when they’re getting a little older to read.

Dr. Martirano: Exactly. Exactly. Creating good habits of mind around the learning tenets. Go ahead.

Stephanie: And great memories. I have a vivid memory of being in seventh grade, and we were driving to the dentist, which was, my parents took us to a dentist that was, like, an hour and a half away from our house, and my mom read out of a novel to my sister and I as we rode and as we came back. That is a vivid memory in my mind, and it happened a long, long time ago. So, all of those experiences really plant the seed for students to love books and love reading. And writing letters to their relatives, writing letters to each other, keeping a to-do list, really focuses on those writing skills in a very authentic way, instead of it being an assignment that they have to do for school.

Dr. Martirano: Now, see, you’ve triggered my thoughts, and I’ve gotta share my favorite stories of reading to my children. And just absolutely loved “Goodnight Moon,” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the Eric Carle series. And so, I mean, I’m smiling ear to ear, and all of you are as well, because those are such engaging, intimate books to read to children in the early phases of the development. And there’s that connection. And they bring back those wonderful memories, and I want every child to have that experience with our parents and our families, and providing that support with our library. Shannon, go ahead and build on that.

Shannon: Sure. In addition to the library, which is a wonderful resource, we also have resources on our Howard County parent website . So, each grade has their own parent page, that has very specific activities based on the areas of reading and writing, the fun things that they could do at home, different websites, different apps that they could use if they wanted to go through technology. We also have, on the website, there is a link to MSDE. And MSDE has built a parent page that also provides additional resources outside of what Howard County has to offer.

Dr. Martirano: Yeah. And the time has flown by so quickly, and I know we didn’t cover all the topics. I wanna talk a little bit more about our summer programs, and continuing the learning process over the summer with our reading lists that we have online, the partnerships. But reading is a daily, daily event, and needs to be encouraged.

So, I am absolutely thrilled to wrap this segment up, our episode on focusing on learning to read and reading to learn, with some outstanding individuals here today. Shannon Fuller, our coordinator of K–12 reading intervention, and Stephanie Milligan, our curriculum coordinator for elementary language arts, two outstanding professionals and leaders within our school system. I thank you for joining me today as we focus on doing everything that we can to ensure that our students in our school system are reading with urgency, at the academic levels at which we expect them to be, and when they are not, how we respond.

Narrator: And thank you for joining us and listening to this podcast episode. Stay tuned to future episodes this season where we’ll continue to discuss topics related to the school system and our terrific students and staff.

To learn more about our elementary reading program and browse associated family resources by grade level, visit

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Talk to you soon.