UVA Professor Shaped Virginia’s Literacy Act and Teacher Training

January 4, 2024 By Laura Hoxworth, lh4na@virginia.edu Laura Hoxworth, lh4na@virginia.edu

New laws and programs designed to improve the reading skills of Virginia elementary school students are deeply rooted in efforts and studies spearheaded by faculty and researchers at the University of Virginia.

Concerns about children’s literacy development are rising across the country, especially in the wake of school closures during the pandemic. Those concerns in 2022 led to the Virginia General Assembly passing the Virginia Literacy Act, the most comprehensive literacy law ever passed in the state. The act, which takes effect in the fall of 2024, is designed to ensure that all children in Virginia have access to effective literacy instruction. 

Emily Solari, Edmund H. Henderson Professor of Education in the UVA School of Education and Human Development, was particularly instrumental in shaping the legislation. 

“We are really fortunate in the commonwealth to have Emily here, because she is one of the best and brightest in the country in the area of literacy,” said state Del. Carrie Coyner of Chesterfield, who sponsored the act. “It was really great having her as a partner being so grounded in scientific research.”

The act addresses teacher training, screening for reading risk, the provision of evidence-based curricula, funding for intervention services and other aspects of effective literacy instruction.

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“If you want to see change for students, you can’t just focus on one small part of the puzzle,” Solari said. “You have to push on all of these levers simultaneously.”

Solari said the key to improving students’ reading performance is access to evidence-based literacy practices aligned with science-based reading research.

“We want to ensure that everyone in Virginia – teachers, specialists, coaches, administrators, families – are speaking the same language on literacy,” she said.

Empowering Reading Specialists

One key part of the legislation requires all reading specialists in the commonwealth to receive training in evidence-based literacy instruction aligned with science-based reading research. The training effort kicked off in the summer of 2023, when more than 1,500 educators from across the state gathered in five cities for a two-day, in-person training. 

The massive undertaking, developed and executed by Solari’s UVA-based Virginia Literacy Partnerships, or VLP, focused on reading specialists who partner with classroom teachers to develop, implement and monitor the progress of students who need extra support in reading. 

The partnership ran institutes in Roanoke, Charlottesville, Fairfax, Richmond and Newport News. Each institute addressed topics including specialized support for students with dyslexia and having critical conversations with parents. The goal is to translate the findings from reading research conducted by Solari and colleagues across the country into feasible practices for reading specialists and teachers to implement.

The institutes covered not just what is changing in the new law, but provided instructors with practical tips and examples of how to implement the new programs in classrooms. 

“Research getting applied to classroom instruction is sometimes where a breakdown happens,” said Jennifer McSweeney, an education and outreach coordinator on the partnership team who helped design the institutes. “You know what you’re supposed to do, but you don’t know how to do it.”

“As reading specialists or people who work in reading intervention, we still have a lot of questions,” said Cary Horne, a reading specialist in Botetourt County who has been helping students learn to read for 15 years. “It was very carefully planned out to try to address all of the upcoming changes and also answer questions that we had.”

She said she believes the changes are positive.

“In the past, I’ve had students in upper elementary who have struggled to decode and struggled to spell words,” she said. “I think that these changes are going to address those kids who need a more structured approach to literacy.”

According to Solari, the summer trainings were “just the tip of the iceberg.” Follow-up trainings have reached 225 additional reading specialists so far, with more planned. The partnership also offers an online course and monthly virtual sessions with regional literacy coaches.

Additional free professional learning resources are updated frequently and available online – for reading specialists as well as teachers, administrators, and parents “So that everyone is speaking the same language, learning the same content to best serve the kids,” Solari said.

Solari said that at every step, the VLP team is adamant about respecting educators’ expertise, their knowledge of classroom context and their own communities, and their dedication to their students’ success.

Lisa Tyree, an education and outreach manager with VLP, worked in schools for years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and reading coach. “I think part of what's helping people get on board with this is they are realizing that we do have resources and support for them,” she said. “This was the first step to creating a supportive ecosystem for educators.”

Stephanie Rowley, dean of UVA’s Education School, said she is grateful for Solari’s leadership. 

“We believe that the best outcomes for students happen when research, practice and policy align, which is exactly what is happening here,” she said. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the [Virginia Department of Education] to help all students in Virginia access quality reading instruction.”

Overhauling Virginia’s literacy system is no small feat. It will take time, with lots of learning and adjustments along the way.

“Learning to read and write is a human right and critical for long-term success” Solari said. “We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to make that happen for every single student in Virginia.”

Media Contact

Laura Hoxworth

School of Education and Human Development