Reading Academies begin as Austin ISD focuses on improving reading

By Cristina Nguyen

Storytime isn’t a relaxing event in Priscilla Ayala-O’Neal’s bilingual kindergarten class at Odom Elementary School. 

We caught up with Ms. Ayala-O’Neal when she was reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or in their case, Ricitos de Oro y Los Tres Osos. She read the book in Spanish and peppered students with questions throughout. 

“Why did the bears go on a walk? What does sleepy look like? Who can tell me what just happened?” are just some of the questions she asked.

These questions are all strategies she learned while going through the House Bill 3 Reading Academies. Ayala-O’Neal became a teacher through alternative certification, so this opportunity to learn the science behind her teaching methods is fascinating to her. 

“The Reading Academics are digging deeper into the practices that I have in the classroom and how they affect the brain,” Ayala-O’Neal said. “There’s one module that literally broke down the parts of the brain and the science behind learning how to read. It just clicks and it was incredible to learn so much.” 

These Reading Academies are a new requirement from the Texas Legislature, which now mandates all Kindergarten through third grade teachers and principals complete the training by fall 2023. And when we say teachers, it also includes special education teachers, literacy specialists who serve K-3 students in small groups and teachers who only teach specific subjects to K-3 students, like math or science. 

In other words, all teachers who work with kindergarten through third grade students will need this training or they won’t be able to teach these grades in fall 2023. 

“Early childhood literacy is incredibly important to the success of our students,” Executive Director of Academics Suzanne Newell said. “These K-3 teachers are the heroes of our district because the foundation they’re laying right now will make every other grade and subject that much easier to grasp.” 

Kindergarten through third grade lessons focus on learning how to read. Then students can use reading to learn new concepts in future grades. 

According to state data, only 37% of third grade students in Texas were proficient in reading in 2021. In Austin ISD, we’re aiming for 57% of our third grade students to reach proficiency in this spring’s STAAR tests. 

“These academics are so valuable and I’m learning so much,” Ayala-O’Neal said. “I’ve known the importance of reading and talking to students, but the Reading Academy reinforced my belief in how important it is.”