Ask an Expert: The Magic of Mississippi's Literacy Change

Ask an Expert: The Magic of Mississippi's Literacy Change
Danielle Scorrano

Q&A with Kristen Wynn, Mississippi State Literacy Director

Across the nation, there has been a heightened focus on literacy and equity as the research, policy, and media communities emphasize the critical importance of high-quality, scientifically-based reading education. In recent years, Emily Hanford, an investigative journalist and senior producer and correspondent for APM Reports, exposed the fractures in reading education across the United States. Hanford (2018) contended, “The resistance [to research-based reading instruction in elementary schools] is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again.” 

In the midst of the national discourse about the detrimental status quo in the country’s reading education, Mississippi emerged with a spark of optimism toward continued growth. In fact, the Mississippi Department of Education launched a new conversation when the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results highlighted an increase in literacy outcomes for their fourth and eighth grade students. The growth in the NAEP scores – which only provides a snapshot of the data – was attributed to an intense focus on literacy, spanning changes across policy, professional development, infrastructural support, and school implementation. 

Meet Kristen Wynn, Mississippi’s State Literacy Director and Windward’s 2021 Fall Community Lecturer. Ms. Wynn spoke with Danielle Scorrano for the September 2021 episode of the Research Education ADvocacy (READ) Podcast. 

Highlighted below are selected excerpts from the full interview, which explore how Kristen learned about the Science of Reading and showcases how her team led the adoption of professional development systems toward implementing research-based practices in every classroom across the state. The entire conversation is available on or on your favorite podcast platform. 

How did you become invested in applying the Science of Reading in classrooms across Mississippi? 
My initial encounter with the Science of Reading happened in my role as an intervention specialist. At that time, we didn't really refer to it as the Science of Reading. To us, it was best practices, and we knew that our students needed to be skilled readers, so they needed to be able to crack the code. I remember in 2010, Deb Glaser, who worked with Louisa Moats to create the first LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), came to our district and trained all our reading interventionists. We thought this is something that we did not learn in our teacher prep program. 

What did you do with this new knowledge about the Science of Reading? 
I believe past experiences prepare us for future purposes. Later, in 2013, when I was hired as a state literacy coach, the department procured LETRS as our statewide literacy professional development system. That is when we were able to take a deep dive into the Science of Reading. We were learning about the reading rope, the simple view of reading, and other conceptual models aligned to the science around it. We knew that every teacher needed this information in Mississippi because in our state, a lot of teachers were trained in whole language concepts and practices.  

What are the major literacy and dyslexia policies in Mississippi? 
We have four key policies or key pieces of legislation that help to build our focus on literacy across our state: (1) The Early Learning Collaborative Act, (2) The Literacy-Based Promotion Act, (3) a kindergarten readiness assessment, and (4) dyslexia scholarships. The first is our Early Learning Collaborative Act, and that came around the same time as our Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. This act established Pre-K programs in underserved areas across our state. We also had the Literacy-Based Promotion Act and our kindergarten readiness assessment. Our public Pre-K and kindergarten students take the kindergarten readiness assessment at the beginning and end of year to assess readiness and growth. And then we have legislation which includes our dyslexia scholarships. They provide school choice for students with dyslexia in grades K-12 and requires local districts and policies to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten. We recently added dyslexia awareness training to the legislation. 

The literacy coaching program, in addition to the job-embedded, sustained training teachers receive, is a hallmark of Mississippi’s state-facilitated professional development. What is unique about Mississippi's coaching model? 
Our coaching model is grounded in relationships. We understand the importance of building trust and rapport with teachers. Our coaching model is focused on six key components. We first look at comprehensive coach training because as a coach, I need knowledge building myself. I need to know how to facilitate adult learning opportunities, how to coach, and how to understand personalities. We take time to comprehensively train coaches. Our model is also centered around goal setting and effective communication. We talk about that early on with our coaches on their reporting and accountability. Then we look at educator development, collaboration, and effective partnerships. 

How did Mississippi sustain high-quality professional development and literacy instruction for all teachers and students during the pandemic? 
Like many other states, we had to be innovative. We shifted everything and adapted to providing professional development and instruction virtually. We still provided coaching support, but we built a virtual coaching model menu for administrators in districts. We asked, what are your needs? We also worked with the Barksdale Reading Institute, which helps us with the work we do with literacy in Mississippi. We worked with them to create a virtual literacy block and what that would look like. We again were innovative, but we didn't take our foot off the gas because we knew that our students in Mississippi needed it. We knew we just could not go back to where we started. One innovative program that we did to try to ensure instructional equity during the pandemic was we partnered with our Mississippi public broadcasting, and they created Mississippi classroom TV for us. Mississippi public broadcasting reaches about 2.2 million households in Mississippi. We were able to record over 200 lessons. We implemented 108 explicit phonics lessons that were filmed by our literacy coaches that students could access when they were at home. We started with phonological awareness and phonics lessons that could be accessed through Mississippi public broadcasting. 

How did Mississippi support parents and families to deliver instruction at home during the pandemic? 
We took the time to host 45 statewide family nights. We knew parents had taken on the roles of teachers at home for a short period and in some districts, it was longer than others. We took the time to train [parents] virtually. We hosted meetings at the state level virtually for parents, and we trained them on activities. We have this big campaign in Mississippi called Strong Readers, Strong Leaders. We created a website for parents where they can do activities with their kids at home, as simple as using a sweet potato to do synonym vocabulary. We talk about a focus on literacy, but you can't have a focus on literacy or create this vision for literacy for your state if you don't involve your community, your families and your other stakeholders in your efforts. 

“We talk about a focus on literacy, but you can't have a focus on literacy or create this vision for literacy for your state if you don't involve your community, your families and your other stakeholders in your efforts.” 

What gives you hope about the future of reading education and just education at large? 
The phone calls where districts say, “We're going to make the change.” Watching my son as he is in school in Mississippi—I'm seeing the quality of education that he's getting. Teachers calling when we're asking for help, even with our high-quality instruction materials review process. To see the efforts of teachers, to see the efforts of districts—and it's all hands-on deck - that keeps me hopeful.  That keeps me motivated to see change of practice. We just identified a few of our schools in Mississippi that we will award as Mississippi emerging science of reading schools. With that recognition they have really changed their school culture. I know no one has really 100% mastered it, but when you start seeing the small changes that impact student achievement, then you want to be able to recognize folks for that. All of that gives me hope and keeps us going and wanting to do more for the betterment of our state. 

Note: All information and insights shared in the Q&A demonstrate the expertise and views of our interviewees.    

About the Author 
Kristen Wynn’s service in the field of education spans more than 15 years, during which she has been committed to ensuring equitable access for all students to effective literacy instruction, highly qualified teachers, and high-quality instructional materials. Her experience in the classroom includes teaching first and second grade, as well as serving as a kindergarten through fifth grade intervention specialist and new mentor teacher. In her current role as State Literacy Director, Ms. Wynn has worked diligently to improve literacy outcomes of schools and districts across the state of Mississippi. She is the co-creator of several literacy professional development trainings (for educators) aligned to the science of reading. Currently, Ms. Wynn serves as a member of the Mississippi Reading Licensure Task Force, the Mississippi Reading Panel, the Higher Ed Literacy Council (HELC) and the Governor’s Task Force for Teacher Preparation in Early Literacy Instruction.