Advancing foundational literacy skills

A kindergarten teacher works one-on-one with a student.

By: Anne Bannister & Christine Lowak

Photography by: Taylor Harrison

Our collection of Blended Learning Stories shines a light on the work of the second cohort of Raising Blended Learners® districts. Each district receives professional development, financial support, and tailored coaching. From there, district journeys diverge based on their determination of their unique needs, opportunities, and goals. Just as a blended learning classroom is personalized, so too is a district’s vision and plan.

In this story, we examine how blended learning strategies have advanced foundational literacy skills in early childhood education classrooms in Tomball ISD.

Setting the stage

During reading stations in Michelle Nelson’s kindergarten classroom, the energetic room comes to a state of quiet focus. Nelson calls individual students to her teacher’s table to set goals and check progress on targeted skills. Meanwhile, their classmates work independently on activity packets or with an adaptive learning program according to their individual needs, interests, and mastery of content. Students may also engage in partner learning, where teacher-generated materials guide their comprehension of the text. The students use a laminated paper “playlist” directing them to the proper activity bin and lesson for the day. 

A blended learning classroom, like Nelson’s, is different from a traditional station rotation model where there is movement but no individualization. In the blended model, students have more control over the path, place, and time of their learning. Whole group instruction still occurs but represents a smaller component of the work. Teachers spend more of their time facilitating small groups so learning is tailored to the unique needs of each child. 

Student decisions are guided by goal-setting and progress-tracking conversations between students and their teachers. While interactions described here are typical of the station rotation model — the most frequently used but by no means the only model — the focus on student ownership of their own learning remains consistent regardless of the model. Students help set their goals, assess their progress toward those goals, and determine some of their learning pathways. 

In order to reach their literacy goals and implement blended learning with fidelity, district leadership built a pilot that fostered shared adult learning across campuses, refined how they use data to inform instruction, and created greater alignment in their district-wide literacy framework. 

“What blended learning has brought is the goal setting.” Nelson says. “Getting to see the excitement on their face when they meet their goal or go beyond their goal for a five-year-old, is just the best feeling in the whole entire world.”

Nelson is part of a cohort of teachers piloting blended learning strategies in reading and language arts throughout Tomball ISD. District leaders hope the targeted personalization achieved through blended will help students develop stronger foundational literacy skills, and in turn, comprehend text at a higher level throughout their entire educational career.

Produced & edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Lauren Knori; assisted by Taylor Harrison & Christine Lowak

We’ve been doing station rotation. What we haven’t done is really enhance that to include that personalization, to ensure that we’re using our data … I think that’s what this grant has enabled us to do.”

Dianne tidwell, Director of Digital Learning, TOMBALL ISD

Meet Tomball ISD

Tomball ISD is a large, A-rated district in the greater Houston area. The district comprises 11 elementary, three intermediate, and eight secondary schools, and boasts a population of approximately 22,000 students (24% economically disadvantaged, 11% bilingual, 50% white, 32% Hispanic, 5% African American, 8% Asian American or Pacific Islander). Due to the rapid growth in this area, Tomball is designated as one of the 81 fast-growth districts in the state. 

The district embarked as a Raising Blended Learners® grantee with a focus on tier 1 foundational reading skills instruction for kindergarten through second grade. 

Tomball brought the same intentionality to the Raising Blended Learners work that they bring to all their endeavors. The district leadership team conducted a root cause analysis to discern where to focus their efforts. The data indicated work was needed to ensure all students were reading on grade level. The team also identified the following problems of practice:

  1.  inconsistency in teacher understanding of the scientific processes of reading
  2. fragmented data analysis 
  3. lack of alignment in phonics instruction 
  4. variance in the implementation of an effective literacy framework.

In order to reach their literacy goals and implement blended learning with fidelity, district leadership built a pilot that fostered shared adult learning across campuses, refined how they use data to inform instruction, and created greater alignment in their district-wide literacy framework.

Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora, Superintendent of Tomball ISD, explains some of the blended learning principles the team implemented as part of the grant.  “We do things such as flipped classrooms, differentiated instruction, and other opportunities to raise the rigor in our classrooms.”

Dianne Tidwell, Director of Digital Learning adds that the blended model builds on past best practices while bringing a concerted focus to the instructional practices that the district knew were needed, “We’ve been doing station rotation. What we haven’t done is really enhance that to include that personalization, to ensure that we’re using our data … to have the students setting their goals. We’ve done bits and pieces, but we haven’t really, prior to this grant, really incorporated all of that into that real high-quality instruction. I think that’s what this grant has enabled us to do.”

Two second grade students work on their laptops.
An example of a playlist.
Three students select their independent activity with guidance from their playlist.
A first-grade student reads independently during stations.
Two kindergarten students work at a station where they can listen to recording of the teacher read a book aloud to them.
A second grade teacher works with two students at her teacher table during stations.


In the Spring of 2020, the district began to pilot blended learning targeting K-2nd grade classrooms on 5 of their 11 elementary campuses. This made it one of the largest pilots within the second Raising Blended Learners cohort. 

The Raising Blended Learners district support team focused on district goals that aligned with their self-identified problems of practice and the Raising Blended Learners Implementation Continuum (RBL-IC). This continuum incorporates the research-based best practices that enhance student experience in the classroom into pillars (data-driven instruction, personalized instruction, student agency, relationships, and rigor) and shows how implementation should progress over time. 

Lauren Thompson, Director of Elementary Reading, explains a key piece of the district’s transformation. “We’ve developed a systematic process for utilizing the data, developing those goals for students, and then following through with the instruction and following up on whether or not they’re making progress. Progress monitoring is an important cycle that we have to make sure is embedded in all of our classrooms.” 

The district also incorporated reading academies into the rollout. “Teacher literacy achievement academies” are state-required training for teachers K-3rd grade (established by HB3 in 2019). These reading academies were developed from research into how children learn to read. At its core, the Science of Teaching Reading (STR) work focuses on the five essential components of reading: 

  1. Mastering phonemic awareness (hearing the sounds in words and manipulating those sound patterns)
  2. Phonics (applying what they know about letters and sounds to “decode” words”)
  3. Fluency (reading words and texts accurately at the appropriate pace)
  4. Vocabulary acquisition
  5. Comprehension (making meaning of what they have read)

By thoughtfully integrating the pedagogy of STR into the structures and support of the RBL-IC, the district strengthened its alignment of literacy strategies through a focus on phonics and phonemic awareness in blended stations. 

At the same time the district team began scaffolding STR and blended learning training for their early elementary teachers, they also built a cross-campus learning community to support the campus leaders and teachers in the pilot.

Because Tomball ISD selects, supports and empowers strong instructional leaders to make decisions for their community, those tapped for this opportunity were up for the challenge. However, the significant size of the pilot also revealed challenges to scaling the work. The district had to balance consistency in instructional practices across the district with flexibility on a pilot campus. Therefore, structures were created to provide for leader and teacher collaboration, insight, and feedback. 

“We meet once a month and we would walk campuses, visit classrooms, provide feedback, and then debrief. It helped build that collaborative work across those campuses,” says Tidwell. “Then we also created what we call an advisory council. It is made up of teachers. We have one teacher from each grade level from those five campuses as well as the reading specialists. Their role is to provide feedback in a safe environment where they can tell us, here’s what’s going on, here’s the support we need, here’s the professional learning we need, here’s what’s happening on our campuses.” 

The insights gathered from campus walks, ongoing professional development, and the advisory council have helped campus leaders navigate change management on their campuses. These pilot leaders rely on each other, their teacher leaders, and district support to ensure they are honoring their commitment to district initiatives while also adapting to meet the needs of both teachers and students.

A first-grade student focuses intently on her phonics lesson on the computer.
A first-grade student smiles at the camera from her laptop during sations.
A second grade teacher guides her students in a full group lesson on phonemic awareness. In blended learning stations following the full group lesson, the students will practice these skills independently or in small groups.

They now have this intrinsic motivation. They had an opportunity to feel a sense of pride in a job well done, in searching or chasing after something and then accomplishing that goal. That’s been beautiful.

Letty Roman, PriNcipal at Wildwood elementary

Early signs of success

Tomball ISD has seen a 57% growth in reading comprehension experienced by the K-2 cohort of 1,724 students in the pilot classrooms, a clear indication that district transformations and blended strategies are working.

For Tomball ISD, these blended models have enabled greater personalization of learning and increased student agency. Jennifer Gonter, the reading specialist at Wildwood Elementary says the technology piece allows her and the teachers she supports to examine student data over time and adjust instruction to meet the needs of individual students.

“In first grade alone, we have seven different flex groups on seven different skills…” Gonter explains. “We’ve really been able to dig into that data, and make sure that our flex groups and our intervention are personalized, and they’re filling in the gaps that you need, as opposed to what a grade level needs.”

Pilot teachers have noticed an increase in student ownership of their learning and in peer-to-peer collaboration. “They want to try to reach their goal.” First-grade teacher, Jennifer Guillory, says. “They’re even helping their friends reach their goals and potentials.” 

“This has been a reassurance that no matter what their background is, what their academic level is, every kid can set goals and every kid can meet those goals and put the effort into it. It just reassured our philosophy that every kid can learn,” Second-grade teacher Candice Bailey adds. 

“It’s something we’ve chased after for years in education and through the different technologies that we were afforded through the grant, the focus on personalized learning has really helped us accomplish that goal for the first time. They now have this intrinsic motivation. They had an opportunity to feel a sense of pride in a job well done, in searching or chasing after something and then accomplishing that goal. That’s been beautiful,” says Letty Roman, the principal of Wildwood Elementary.

 “That ripple effect that we were able to create here has just been wonderful, to see the growth and the learning,” Roman adds. “Our third and fourth grades have set goals with their students. They’re looking at data like they never have before.”

All involved in this work are rightfully proud of their journey, but they will also tell you the pursuit is not over. The work will be scaled to include the remaining elementary schools with plans to scale up to the upper elementary grades. Blended learning already is integrated into the district’s literacy framework as part of the teaching and learning expectations for all. At its heart, this is not innovation or a nice supplement — it is the way educators aspire to engage with all students through personalized learning, supported by rigorous instruction that provides both the support and the enrichment each student needs to thrive in that zone of proximal development. 

“We’ve seen the change, we’ve seen the impact, we’ve seen the growth in our students,” says Tidwell. “But also the instruction has changed and the learning has changed for the better. That’s where we want to be. We want to grow our students. We want them all to be doing the best that they can.”