The University of Iowa

Waterloo CSD’s Hanna highlights universal screening as crucial to reading instruction

Girl and boy writing in class

Educators cannot make assumptions about students’ reading abilities, says Waterloo Community School District’s Darren Hanna, and with universal screening, they don’t have to. Teachers can use diagnostic assessment results to develop a plan involving explicit and focused instruction.

Posted on: September 20, 2016

The Iowa Reading Research Center takes great pride in its partnerships with Iowa school districts. We are constantly working with administrators, teachers and other educators through our literacy studies, training and professional development, and other efforts. We value the insight these educators contribute to our collective goal of improving literacy proficiency for Iowa students who struggle with reading.

This week we spoke with one such educator, Darren Hanna, director of elementary education for the Waterloo Community School District. In this Q&A, Hanna discusses a personal experience that motivated him to help kids improve their reading ability, his belief in the importance of universal literacy screening, and ways to make sure his staff become highly skilled teachers.

Q: Would you please describe your current position in the Waterloo Community School District?

Darren Hanna (DH): I am currently the director of elementary education for the Waterloo Community School District. I am responsible for supporting 11 elementary schools and our pre-kindergarten program. Previously, I spent a year as the director of instruction and technology for the Mount Pleasant Community School District. I also served as principal of Mount Pleasant Middle School for 14 years.  

Q: Having been a physical education teacher in the past, what inspired you to focus on reading?

DH: My passion for this started as a middle school principal. Listening to a struggling sixth grader trying to read was an emotional experience. It was painful for me and even more painful for the student. When universal screening began a renewed emphasis on foundational reading skills, it lit a passion for me to make sure all kids could read at or above grade level.  

Q: In your experience, what have been the critical considerations when planning reading instruction for students who come to school with limited language and literacy skills?

DH: Universal screening is crucial. We cannot make assumptions about what a student can or cannot do. If screening gives us cause for concern, we must provide diagnostic assessments to help identify the underlying issues. Explicit and focused instruction must be tightly aligned to the diagnostic results. Finally, we need to monitor for progress. Explicit and focused instruction will accelerate learning. In most cases, if we do not see accelerated learning, we need to adjust instruction.  

Q: How have you helped teachers deliver appropriate reading instruction and intervention?

DH: The key to delivering appropriate reading instruction is a highly skilled teacher. Providing highly effective professional development followed by practical application and professional collaboration helps to keep teachers well prepared to meet the needs of their diverse students. We have found that video recording lessons and/or techniques have allowed us to improve professional practice both individually and collaboratively. Finally, providing feedback to teachers is crucial. Feedback that is timely and specific improves performance.  

Q: What would you list as three things you think have worked, and three things that have not worked, in providing reading instruction to elementary students?


Waterloo Community School District logo
What has worked:

  • Universal screening
  • Providing small group or individual differentiation that is data driven
  • Highly effective core instruction that ensures all students have developed foundational skills, combined with early intervention (referred to as Core + More)

What has not worked:

  • One-size-fits-all, large group instruction
  • Exclusively focusing on moving from letters to sounds. Rather, in a balanced approach, we teach both letter-to-sound and sound-to-letter.
  • A scope and sequence that does not contain all of the following critical components of a quality reading program: ○ Fluency ○ Phonological awareness ○ Comprehension ○ Vocabulary ○ Phonics

Thank you, Darren, for sharing your thoughts and ideas with other Iowa educators!