Memphis Org Steps Up Literacy Efforts as Latest COVID-Year School Scores Fall

Before COVID, literacy levels among Memphis children were dangerously low. Mastery rates in English/Language Arts for 3rd-8th graders consistently fell between 17-24%. Now new data from last year is in, and the numbers have fallen lower, with 3rd-5th graders dropping to 14% mastery and 6th-8th graders dropping to just under 12%. And a reminder about how important this is: data shows that students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers.

Numbers this low were predicted by national research groups and are being seen in cities across the country. Locally, our city’s educators—from teachers to administrators to after school mentoring organizations, also saw the writing on the wall for the students who were isolated for over a year. 

At the Memphis Literacy Conference hosted by the Memphis Literacy Institute, Kelly Butler of the Barksdale Institute in Mississippi described the methods that have helped Mississippi leapfrog forward in literacy rates. Almost 200 educators attended the Conference, which provided 15 training sessions for teachers, administrators, and other literacy leaders. (photo: Gretchen Shaw)

One local organization, Memphis Teacher Residency, spent 2020 planning the launch of a resource to support literacy educators and systems throughout Memphis: the Memphis Literacy Institute. Officially launched just two weeks ago, the Institute had already jump-started their work at the beginning of the summer with a Reading Specialist Certification program—they then wrapped up the summer with the new Memphis Literacy Conference, focused on the Science of Reading.

Great conference! I will be back—and hopefully with even more of my teachers!!


MTR is not new to this. Over the last twelve years, they’ve developed and refined the art and science of teacher training. In that time they’ve consistently ranked among the best in teacher training—spending the last three years in the top 2 of 39 teacher training programs in the state. And now, through the Memphis Literacy Institute, they’re making huge new investments in teacher training and support, all focused on ensuring that educators have the best resources and skills to help Memphis children learn to read, and read well. 

An MTR resident works with a student at Cornerstone Prep Lester (2019, photo: Gretchen Shaw)

Megan Salemi, Director of Education at MTR, sees this work—in one sense—as a narrowing of their focus: the Literacy Institute will focus MTR’s research and evidence-based practices on the Science of Reading and all of their literacy programming will support this. In short, they’re going all in on the proven track record of the Science of Reading (learn more about the research).

“I will ensure that teachers in my building are equipped with the knowledge they need in order to provide students with strong foundational skills instruction that is grounded in the Science of Reading, ensuring that every day students are taught how to read in an explicit and systematic way. Additionally, I intend to ensure that teachers have the tools and training that they need to respond to students’ data in order to help students become proficient readers, writers, and communicators.”


But Salemi also describes a broadening of MTR’s work through the Institute, in the sense that it will allow any interested educator to get involved by attending the conference, applying to be a Reading Specialist, or taking part in other training and school-based opportunities that are being developed. 

As Memphis navigates the aftermath of a pandemic that isn’t over, the Institute is a bright spot and may prove to be an anchor as educators work together to address unprecedented learning loss. 

You can support MTR and the newly launched Memphis Literacy Council. Visit them to learn more.

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