Science of Reading Policy Panel Highlights NC Journey and Progress for Literacy Programs

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Pictured Left to Right: Kelley Bendheim, Dr. Laura Bilbro-Berry, Kymyona Burk, and EdNC’s Rupen Fofaria.
Pictured Left to Right: Kelley Bendheim, Dr. Laura Bilbro-Berry, Kymyona Burk, and EdNC’s Rupen Fofaria. Photo: Lindsay K. Saunders

On Thursday, June 9, EducationNC hosted almost three dozen stakeholders to attend a panel, “Reporting Live: Talking Science of Reading Implementation,” featuring three education policy leaders:

  • Kymyona Burk, a Senior Policy Fellow at ExcelinEd. She most recently served in Mississippi as the Executive Director for the Jackson Public School District’s Office of Teaching and Learning and led all aspects of the district’s instructional programming.
  • Kelley Bendheim is the Read to Achieve Implementation Coordinator at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI). She has been in NC for 24 of her 26 years as an educator. 
  • Dr. Laura Bilbro-Berry leads and supports the UNC System’s Educator Preparation Programs and network of Laboratory Schools. 
  • Moderator: Rupen Fofaria, the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC.

Literacy Policy Strategies in Context 

Burk, a literacy expert focused on K-3 policy, has advised North Carolina, whether the General Assembly or DPI, so she’s been made available to the small circles shaping our literacy programs, but at this event, her expertise was shared with a wider circle of community members passionate about literacy and education in North Carolina. 

The audience was pleased to hear that North Carolina is one of 13 states that has passed a Comprehensive K-3 Reading Policy, with Alaska just joining the collection of states that have a fully developed policy. Seven states have a majority of fundamental principles with intervention and/or promotion policy. Twelve states have some fundamental principles. See the map illustrating the five categories of nationwide literacy programs below. 

Map of the US shows states shaded in different colors to illustrate their level of literacy programs.
Slide from Kymyona Burk presentation

Literacy-Based Promotion Act Strategies

Burk noted that North Carolina has taken the initiative to make bold investments in teacher prep programs in order to improve reading instruction. In Mississippi, they adopted LETRS using only LETRS trainers. It’s important to have enough literacy coaches in schools and prioritize the schools, not the districts, with the greatest need. Early identification and ensuring parents know how and what their children are doing is an important priority, especially with learning disabilities like dyslexia. Prevention must be considered over retention. 

Literacy-Based Promotion Act Strategies
Literacy-Based Promotion Act Strategies, Slide from Kymyona Burk presentation

Burk pointed out that after the first 30 days of school, we already know the risk of failure and how students may struggle with their reading. Districts must be identifying students and schools that need extra support based upon third grade English Language Arts data. 

Passing laws is just the beginning of the process, she emphasized. We must have alignment with the Department of Education, State Legislature, District Superintendents and Leaders, and Principals all supporting teachers, students, and their families. 

“Invest in people,” was a point that Burk hit home repeatedly both in terms of talking about those in the classrooms and the students. 

  • Budget for professional development. 
  • Give teachers a runway for implementation. 
  • The agenda reflects the priorities. 

During panelist discussion, starting local was explored as a key opportunity to educate and cultivate the support of school leaders. For example, if school boards are trained on the Science of Reading, then they’ll have more of an understanding to support the framework of literacy in their districts. 

But, also, it’s not just about zip codes. If our policy makers are investing in our children and teachers, with strong support systems and more effective practices, then we will see progress, regardless of where they come from. 

How has Literacy Instruction been Introduced in NC?

Bendheim gave an overview of the historical background of literacy policy in NC before delving further into how DPI has trained and supported educators in the Science of Reading. 

Part of the Excellent Public Schools Act became law in July 2012 and was implemented in 2013-2014, with a goal to ensure that every student reads at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continues to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success. The purpose of this is to:

  • Ensure that difficulty with reading development is identified as early as possible
  • Ensure students receive appropriate instructional and support services to address difficulty with reading development and to remediate reading deficiencies
  • Each student and his or her parents or guardians are continuously informed of the student’s academic needs and progress

As part of the DPI team, Bendheim has been part of shaping the mission and vision for literacy. State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, who took office in 2021, immediately made literacy a priority since taking office. Her strategic vision, called Operation Polaris, introduced in fall 2021, is aimed at achieving gains for public education in the state – now and in the future. 

Early Literacy Implementation Progression
Early Literacy Implementation Progression, Slide from Kelley Bendheim presentation

In April 2021, the legislature passed and Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill mandating that literacy instruction be based on a body of research called the science of reading. LETRS is a program used for the training of teachers and administrators on what the research says and classroom practices.

Training cohorts include one administrator per school and preschool through grade 5 teachers. Additionally, they may also include one Instructional Coach per school, Elementary Exceptional Children Resource Teachers, and/or Elementary English Language Learner Teachers. 

Since being introduced in North Carolina, 25,770 educators have been trained in LETRS, including 1,629 early childhood educators, 23,078 K-5 educators, and 1,063 administrators. The 2022-2023 NC Coaching Support Model (K-5) at the State Level is composed of the Office of Early Learning Early Education Consultants, at the Regional Level it is led by a NC Literary Facilitator, at the District Level support is provided by Early Literacy Specialists and at the School Level School Literacy Leads help guide the process. DPI recently unveiled a statewide literacy coaching model that would include hiring 115 new district literacy specialists and two new regional literacy support coaches. The plan would bolster state regional literacy supports and put literacy specialists in each district. 

Additional Legislative Pieces Include:

  • Literacy Instruction Standards
  • Literacy Intervention Plans/Individual Reading Plans
  • Education Prep Programs

The Excellent Public Schools Act – Read to Achieve looks at three main areas: Educator and Leader Knowledge, focused on professional learning and Educator Preparation Programs (EPPS); Support Processes, focused on instructional impact, communication, and sustainability; Impact on Learning, focused on educators and students. In addition, they prioritize both quantitative and qualitative data analysis. 

Preparing NC Literacy Teachers

Closing out the panel, Bilbro-Berry, who has spent 30 years as an educator, discussed how her work supports programs that prepare teachers for the classroom and literacy. She emphasized a Resolution on Teacher Preparation, as detailed in the table below: 

Resolution on Teacher Preparation


Develop a common framework for literacy instruction in teacher preparation grounded in science of reading research, to be adopted by all educator preparation programs.


Identify or create a professional development model for in-service teachers that is aligned with the literacy framework, with the intention of piloting that model by summer 2021. 


Adopt system-wide teacher preparation goals and associated metrics. 


Progress in Educator Preparation in Literacy

The UNC System Literacy Framework was created by eight Literacy Fellows focused on language, fluency, concepts of print, vocabulary, phonemic awareness, comprehension, phonics/decoding, and writing. Each component includes competencies and sub-competencies of what teacher candidates need to know and be able to do as teachers of reading. 

Progress in Educator Preparation in Literacy
Progress in Educator Preparation in Literacy, slide from Laura Bilbro-Berry presentation

The Approach has Two Recommendations:

  1. Benchmarks should be set at the system level using three literacy-focused metrics.
  1. Benchmarks should be set for:
  • Improving overall performance
  • Reducing the gap between White and African American teacher education graduates

What’s Next for Literacy Progress in NC?

  • Science of Reading Review, completed by Dec. 31st
  • Continued Integration of Framework
  • Tracking Progress Toward Goals

A number of points were posited during the Q&A after panelists concluded their presentations, including early screening programs for dyslexia, how the state differentiates support for districts that have different capacities, making parental engagement a priority and how to integrate that into support for students, ongoing funding needs, and how important it is for North Carolina to codify their approach. 

At this point, the NC General Assembly has convened for a Short Session. Educators in North Carolina have asked for ground-level support to implement the science of reading law. We’re watching for school-based coaching, intervention support, teacher assistants, and instructional material during this short session. Many experts — including N.C. State University Associate Professor and UNC System Literacy Fellow Dennis Davis — agree that the intention of these laws won’t be achieved unless implementation efforts focus on translating teacher knowledge into effective classroom practices. 

When it comes to implementing the new reading law, “we have to listen to teachers. …We are the boots on the ground. We are the ones out there in the field, and those teachers are in the classrooms. They know,” Lisa Brown, literacy/multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS)/professional development coordinator for Columbus County Schools, told Fofaria in a recent interview on what to watch for on literacy during the legislative short session

We’re waiting and watching to see if legislators are listening and we’ll see more literacy progress.