top of page

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Approach to Reading Instruction

There is a national conversation underway related to literacy instruction. This conversation has prompted discussion locally about the District’s reading curricula. Throughout my tenure, I have encouraged the community to partner with us to ensure we are developing successful educational interventions that will yield great results. I welcome community energy around the need to improve reading outcomes for students. Unfortunately, there is some misrepresentation in the community that our new curricula lack phonics instruction or that our approach is somehow anti-phonics. This is not the case at all. To ensure a productive conversation, I want to take time to address any misconceptions about the District’s current approach to reading instruction.

In my first 90 days as Superintendent, and as we embarked on the development of our five-year strategic plan, I too sounded the alarm to prioritize the swift and effective replacement of the District’s outdated English Language Arts (ELA) PreK-5 curriculum. In addition to being at least a decade old, the District’s previous curriculum was not aligned to the PA Core Standards. There was an urgent need to provide teachers the tools, professional development, and support necessary to cultivate innovative approaches to instruction. Our adoption of Big Day for PreK and Pearson’s ReadyGen (K-5) were among the first steps to get us there.

While there has been a longtime debate regarding the best way to teach students to read, the foundations of early reading success - oral language vocabulary, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension - are undebatable. Professor Alfred Tatum emphasizes the need “to implement a comprehensive framework for literacy which includes vocabulary instruction, fluency instruction, comprehension instruction, and writing instruction which extends beyond the mere sharing of skill and strategy instruction,” (2005).

We know our students enter Kindergarten at various levels. Beginning of the year assessment data shows, 93.2 percent of this year’s Kindergarten class arrived performing below the foundational benchmarks for reading, and of our 554 African-American kindergarten students, 87.9 percent performed below the standards. On the DIBELS, which measures benchmarks skills such as letter naming and first sound fluency, only 43 percent of incoming Kindergarten students met the benchmarks.

A one-size-fits-all approach to instruction will only exacerbate the achievement gap. Our ELA Instructional Framework includes a balance of reading, writing, speaking and listening activities with a variety of instructional strategies to meet the needs of all learners.

We take a sequential approach to phonics instruction to address the process of reading, as well as provide scaffolding for struggling students as they continue to build their foundational skills. In other words, we teach the foundational skills while also providing opportunities for review and remediation at all grade levels. Students in need of additional decoding and text reading efficiency receive small group, teacher-led instruction during the Reading Workshop using the core resources. Students also receive remediation of foundational skills directly through the instructional reading programs iRead (Prek-2), iLit (3-8), and Edmentum (9-12). These new interventions are also used to diagnose and progress monitor areas of student growth.

The graphic below demonstrates the literacy block schedules found within our schools.

Phonics/Word Analysis: 20-30 min, Reading Workshop: 45-60 min, Writing Workshop: 30-40 min

Our philosophy to reading instruction aligns to recommendations of the 2000 National Reading Panel report that address not just the teaching of reading but adolescent literacy, which continues to broaden to date.

  • Explicit vocabulary instruction

  • Direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction

  • Intensive and specialized interventions for struggling readers

  • Sustained discussion of reading content and extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation

  • Increase students’ motivation and engagement

Our first year (2017-2018) of implementation of ReadyGen yielded promising results. Overall student proficiency on the 2018 ELA Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) increased to 46.2 percent from 42.4 percent in 2016. African-American student performance also grew from 30.9 percent in 2016 to 33.5 percent in 2018.

We are not satisfied with the overall current performance levels, but we are encouraged by the growth we have seen in third-grade reading. In 2018, 56.1 percent of the District’s 3rd graders tested proficient or advanced, up from 47.9 percent in 2016. We also saw decreases in the percentage of students reading at the lowest level, Below Basic, dropping from 19.2 percent in 2016 to 11.7 percent in 2018. Proficiency among the District’s African-American 3rd graders also grew to 45.5 percent. While reading instruction does not stop in the 3rd grade, more of the District’s 3rd graders are arriving in 4th grade prepared to read to learn.

Now that we have the tools in place to support literacy instruction our work has shifted to the pedagogical practices - the how. We are leveraging the expertise of Literacy Academic Coaches who are in place at every school. These proven, skilled teachers have come out of the classroom to work side-by-side with their teacher colleagues to provide active coaching support that includes planning, modeling, collaborative teaching, and debriefing around sound instruction. Additional resources provided through our reading specialists, program officers, paraprofessionals, ESL teachers, and curriculum specialists allow for increased support directly with students in reading.

Even with all of these supports, it will take everyone – educators, students, families, and community – if we are indeed going to dramatically improve student outcomes. We know that everything we do will not always work, but we must have the opportunity to pilot and try new and innovative ways to prepare our students. We often hear the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” well, neither were many of the problems we face in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. It took many years to get where we are now, and we’re not going to fix all of the problems overnight, but I am committed to fixing them. Our students deserve it.

Our five-year Expect Great Things strategic plan, coupled with the 137 recommendations from the third-party analysis of the Council of the Great City Schools, provides the roadmap we need. Just like the building blocks in our logo, our phased initiatives build off of one another to reach our desired goals for students. Again, I welcome a discussion on the role each of us can play to increase the reading proficiency of students.

To begin this discussion and provide families and community an opportunity to learn more about the District’s English Language Arts curriculum, I invite all stakeholders to attend this month’s Board Agenda Review Meeting on Wednesday, March 20th where we will provide a detailed presentation to the Board around the District’s philosophy to reading instruction. The meeting will begin at 6:30 PM and can be watched live on the District's website at

bottom of page