Winona Area Public Schools is introducing a new core resource for its English Language Arts curriculum at the elementary level this year, one that is influenced by science, research and artificial intelligence.
Goodview principal Emily Cassellius and Director of Learning and Teaching Kristie O’Brien on Thursday night presented to the school board information about the new resource from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH).
There are two components — Intro Reading and Amira. Intro Reading has a Spanish language counterpart (Arriba La Lectura) for the students in the Ríos Spanish Immersion program, while Amira includes Spanish instruction.
The change in resource had to do with strengthening what is known as Tier 1 instruction — the core instruction that all students receive — in the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum. Tier 2 and Tier 3 are interventions that teachers and support staff use to offer students additional strategies that target their specific skill development needs. This aligns with the Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework that is part of the district’s new strategic plan and puts the emphasis and focus on guaranteeing quality core instruction for all students in the hope that it reduces the need for interventions later on.
“HMH is the adoption of the scientific approach to reading,” O’Brien said. “When we know better, we do better in the science of reading.”
Last year, Cassellius — who also serves as the district’s MTSS coordinator — met with many elementary teachers who were concerned about the previous ELA resource (called Ready Gen), which was missing several components necessary in a comprehensive curriculum, especially in terms of Tier 1 instruction.
“We knew we didn’t have a K-4 ELA system,” Cassellius said. “We were starting to supplement in bits and pieces, and it was not a comprehensive system any more. It became a priority of ours, hearing that need from our teachers.”
Cassellius said that the five core components of an ELA program — phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, phonics and word study, and fluency — should all be working together, and that had not been the case across the district.
“Teachers knew that, we knew that, and we were trying to fill those gaps,” Cassellius said. “We surveyed teachers, and it was astounding the number who said we need to get rid of our current resource.”
Cassellius led a group that included administrators and instructional coaches and presented to teachers four options for a new ELA curriculum. Eighty-seven percent of the teaching staff said that HMH was the resource they wanted to implement.
The new resource comes with many hours of professional development and teacher support from HMH, both before and during the school year. The agreement is for eight years, O’Brien said.
Into Rearing/Arriba la Lectura includes a variety of instruction techniques, including whole-group instruction, small-group instruction, literacy centers, whole-group skills reinforcement or individual digital instruction.
Amira, the second component, is a 1:1 reading tutor powered by artificial intelligence who delivers timely reading interventions with students. Amira helps students develop reading fluency.
“Amira is essentially a robot,” O’Brien said. “If the student pronounces a wrong word, she will provide a timely intervention and show the student how to read the word, have the student repeat it.
“It’s very fascinating to watch Amira in action.”
Research showed that students who work with Amira on a regular basis showed more reading growth than those who worked with a human tutor.
O’Brien said that elementary students will work with Amira three to five times a week for about 10 minutes a session.
Board members seemed just as excited about the new resource as the administrators.
“It does sound like this will be something for individualized learning,” board member Stephanie Smith said. “It’s something that I think is fantastic. Meeting the student where they are at and progressing from there. It sounds great.”