Innovative teachers in Belize help new readers gain confidence and skills

By Allison Knutson
March 23, 2021

On a hot September day, I was visiting one of my assigned classrooms in town. I began in the back of the room, pacing back and forth as I watched the teacher masterfully lead her students through the literacy screener that all Standard One teachers were required to carry out.

One teacher watching three students write
A local Belizean teacher implements targeted literacy intervention strategies with her students.

One student in her class was drawing attention to himself, commenting about knowing all of the questions, having been in Standard One last year – except the screening was not held the previous school year. Having taught elementary for 10 years prior to my service in Belize, I sensed that closer proximity to the student might quiet him a bit. As I stood next to him, it quickly became evident he did not know the answers and, in fact, could not read at all. He was exactly the student who would benefit from the work this project was set up to do: provide targeted intervention to struggling readers.

Over the next few months, I visited each of my schools every two weeks. This project asked teachers to carry out daily, small-group interventions with readers who were struggling. For most of the teachers, this was a daunting task. Many had no experience with literacy interventions or small-group instruction. Resources were slim, and the number of students needing intervention was high. Each school I visited seemed to present its own unique challenges, and there were certainly days I felt I was not living up to my “literacy specialist” title. I wondered if we were making much progress at all.

One person sitting down writing and looking at paper
Allison Knutson's host sister, who was also a teacher, would give Allison Spanish lessons after school.

For the next seven months, I continued my routine, walking to my schools that were in town and catching the bus to the villages outside of town. In my backpack, I would bring my notebooks, little letter cards, and anything else I thought might be helpful for a teacher. On many visits, I was blown away by all of the resources the teachers were creating on their own. For example, they saved old soda caps and wrote individual letters on them like mini flashcards. For some teachers, I think my visits were truly helpful in giving new ideas and discussing how to track student progress. However, for others, I think it was just nice to have someone who regularly checked in and provided positive feedback.

One day in April, I went back to the same town school I’d visited in September. I visited the classroom with the boy who, seven months ago, claimed to know all the answers, even though I’d discovered he couldn’t read. This time, instead of observing from within the classroom, I sat at a table in the shade outside. I wanted to individually assess all the students who had received literacy intervention from their teacher that year.

Students would run out to me one at a time from their classroom to do their reading test. Over and over, a new smiling face would come sit down with me. At this point, they knew me a bit, so they were happy to sit with me, but their smiles were because of something else. I could see they were proud. They knew they had done extra work this year to build their reading skills. When others were doing independent work, they met with the teacher who led literacy intervention. Some even stayed for an extra small-group tutorial after school. They began reading more as their confidence grew, and parents noted that their children enjoyed going to class.

One teacher and four students in a circle looking at cards with words on them
Allison Knutson visited her local teacher every two weeks to observe and assist her with intervention planning and implementation.

When the very same student I remembered from the beginning of the year came to read with me, he seemed confident and ready. I had observed his reading progress throughout the year and noted how his class participation increased as his reading level improved. That day, in less than a minute, he read the same passage of words that had taken him over five minutes to stumble through in September. He could read.

One person sitting down writing and looking at paper