Helping Educators Improve Early Literacy in North Carolina

NC State Education’s Online Course Addresses Needs in Foundational Reading Skills

The NC State College of Education has several initiatives underway to improve early literacy education in North Carolina and beyond, including offering an online professional development course for educators called Teaching Foundational Reading Skills. Over 1,100 are currently enrolled in the course, which faculty designed to provide educators with research-informed instructional strategies that they can apply to their classrooms.

Christina Mojica decided to become a teacher while volunteering at an early literacy program in Boston through AmeriCorps*VISTA  Now, 15 years later, she is still passionate about helping young children learn to read; and as a first grade teacher at Willow Springs Elementary School in Wake County, she also wants to learn new ways to help students become better readers.

That’s what led her to enroll in Teaching Foundational Reading Skills, an online professional development course the NC State College of Education offers through its Friday Institute for Educational Innovation.

The course is free, counts toward continuing education credits, and provides the flexible schedule she needs, she said. But what makes the course the most impactful is its relevancy and applicability.

7 Principles for Cultivating Young Readers

Reading is a complex activity essential for lifelong opportunity and success. Our faculty developed seven evidence-based principles to help educators and leaders prepare K-5 learners to be passionate, critical and successful readers:

  • Teach with a comprehensive and balanced approach to reading and writing.
  • Foster opportunities for readers to learn from texts.
  • Build on children’s home, community, and cultural experiences and knowledge.
  • Use assessment judiciously and strategically to inform instruction.
  • Create opportunities for language development.
  • Design a whole-child approach to literacy across environments.
  • Develop and support excellent teachers.

Read the Full Report

“To be able to access a course like this full of all the current research, put together by experts who understand the value of time — but also the value of immediate applicability to the classroom — is amazing,” Mojica said.

Giving teachers tools, resources, and knowledge they can apply directly to their classroom to improve literacy education is why the course was started, said Dennis Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor of literacy education who co-facilitates the Teaching Foundational Reading Skills course with Assistant Professor Jill Grifenhagen.

“The course is for teachers who may already know this content dig in a little deeper and build up knowledge to inform their teaching,” Davis said, adding that the course is also both important and timely “because a lot is being said, especially in our state, about early reading and the need for teachers to have evidence-based practice in their classrooms.”

Sixty-four percent of fourth graders across the nation performed below “proficient” level on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in 2015. That was a 1 percent decrease in just two years. In North Carolina, the average grade-level reading proficiency for all students in 2016 was 58 percent according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The NC State College of Education has several initiatives underway to enhance literacy education across North Carolina and beyond, including the development of the Literacy Space and research-informed resources for professional educators. [See Other Literacy Initiatives] The Teaching for Foundational Reading Skills online course allows the college to reach teachers across North Carolina where they are and provide professional development training, Davis said.

Davis and Grifenhagen worked with Friday Institute Executive Director Glenn Kleiman and Marcia Kosanovich at Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research to organize and design the course around recommendations for K-3 readers that the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse published last year.

Topics include how to advance speaking and listening language skills, develop awareness speech sounds, increase the ability to decode and analyze word parts, and support the development of reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. The course is also built around existing educator training and allows participants to experience classroom simulations through video instruction.

Over 1,190 educators are enrolled in the Teaching Foundational Reading Skills course this spring; 44 percent are from North Carolina. Last semester, 1,839 completed the course, including over 350 from the state.

Abby Butler, a second-grade teacher at Durham Academy, is one of those educators. She is in her ninth year of teaching, and instructional strategies and ideas around literacy topics like vocabulary and background knowledge of text are not new to her, she said. But taking Teaching Foundational Reading Skills course this semester has “been really good timing for me in my career to revisit some of these practices and strategies.”

Because of the course, for example, she has changed how she begins each lesson. Now she opens each lesson by sharing a quick anecdote about where and how she learned the material she’s going to teach. This reinforces the importance of the material but also helps students see her as a learner.

Participating in [this course] gives me the freedom to work on what I need and want to work on in a way that fits where I’m at as a teacher.


“We must keep honing our own craft as teachers,” said Butler. “I looked at my transcript of professional development the past few years, and it lacked literacy-specific professional development. Participating in [this course] gives me the freedom to work on what I need and want to work on in a way that fits where I’m at as a teacher. Professional learning is a hot topic in education right now because we’re learning as an ‘industry’ that we need to do a better job of differentiating the learning for teachers, just as we do for students.”

Teaching Foundational Reading Skills is not just open to elementary grade teachers but to anyone — from college students and parents to mentors and coaches — who want to enhance the literacy education of early learners and see the state’s early literacy rates rise, Grifenhagen said.

Grant Gibson is an academically/intellectually gifted (AIG) teacher in Orange County who is taking the course because part of his job is to nurture students not currently identified as gifted or proficient.

“Often students have small gaps that are blocking them from progressing,” he said. “I hope to identify these gaps and provide skills and strategies to students that will lend them towards critical thinking.”

The Teaching Foundational Reading Skills course runs through April 5 and participants have until April 27 to complete requirements for a certificate of completion. The course will be offered again in the fall.

Other Literacy Initiatives

The Literacy Space

The recently launched Literacy Space is a literacy hub providing reading support to K-5 learners to help close achievement gaps in reading. Graduate students from the NC State College of Education serve as tutors to children enrolled in the program.


Marbles Word Week

NC State College of Education students and faculty supported Marbles Word Week, the first event of its kind at the Raleigh children's museum, by leading events and activities focused on literacy and wordplay.


Free Online Professional Development

Our Friday Institute for Educational Innovation offers nearly a dozen free 100% online courses for educators in nearly all subject areas that count toward CEUs


Written by Leah Jarvis. Edited by Cherry Crayton.