For years, Mary Manning, principal of the Collins Middle School in Salem Massachusetts, has seen children come into her school unable to read at grade level. After three years, many failed to catch up before moving on to high school. “After a few years of saying ‘isn’t this terrible,’ and wringing our hands, we decided to get some training and see if we could tackle this problem,” says Manning.
Determined to make improved literacy skills the focus of a schoolwide improvement effort, Manning assembled a Reading Improvement Team that includes staff from every department across the school. Under her leadership, the school is collaborating with EDC’s Supported Literacy™ program leaders on a schoolwide effort to address literacy at all levels, with a special emphasis on the most challenged readers.
Mary Manning is not alone. Across the country middle school administrators and teachers have been confronting the fact that significant numbers of their students cannot read well enough to meet increasingly rigorous high school subject matter and graduation requirements. In fact, results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only about a third of adolescents across the country are reading at a proficient level.
“This is not a new problem,” says Catherine Cobb Morocco, associate director of EDC’s Center for Family, School, and Community and a leader of the Supported Literacy team. “Teachers have always known about this group of struggling adolescent readers. But with the new federal testing requirements it is plain for everyone to see exactly who is and is not reading.”
The groups most at risk for reading failure are the same groups at risk for school failure in general: students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who live in poverty. “The students who struggle with reading are struggling in their other classes as well,” says EDC’s Andrea Winokur Kotula, who works closely with the staff at Collins. “The math teachers, the science teachers, everyone knows who the poor readers are—they are their students too.”
Supported Literacy provides two levels of instructional support for literacy: classroom comprehension instruction for all students and additional, targeted reading instruction for students whose standardized reading test scores are below the 25th percentile. The schoolwide classroom level prepares teachers to improve all students’ reading, writing, and discussion skills as they work with complex texts. The program and materials emphasize integrating comprehension and writing skills into thematic curriculum units with diverse and age-appropriate themes. A major focus of the program is developing student ability to support an interpretation of text with evidence, an outcome emphasized in content area assessments.
While developing the Supported Literacy approach in partnership with diverse schools across the country, Morocco and her colleagues discovered that despite the best efforts of accomplished teachers and the EDC team, there remained a certain segment of students who could not read well enough to participate in a program based on comprehension and interpretation.
Targeted instruction for struggling readers
In response, Morocco and her team expanded Supported Literacy to address the particular needs of the most challenged readers. This supplementary, targeted reading instruction draws on the best of research-based approaches to reading instruction and adapts them for adolescent learners. It focuses on foundation reading skills such as phonemic awareness, decoding, word identification, fluency, and comprehension strategies. For the last two years Kotula has been piloting the program at the Collins Middle School with sixth and seventh grade students with reading test scores below the 25th percentile. There are currently forty-one sixth graders and thirty-eight seventh graders participating in the program.
“The instruction is evidence-based, explicit, and teacher-directed,” says Kotula. The program is also carefully coordinated with the rest of the Supported Literacy curriculum so students in the program do not miss out on other core aspects of their language arts instruction.
Students in the targeted program meet in small groups for a forty-minute period of intensive reading instruction every day. Each period begins with a 5-10 minute session on phonemic awareness, or the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds that can be manipulated in different ways. This work involves isolating initial word sounds, blending sounds, segmenting words into individual sounds, and manipulating sounds by adding, dropping, or substituting them. Students also work with letter tiles so they can manually use letters to build words and manipulate different sounds within them. “They might change lope to cope, for instance,” says Kotula. “We try to use low frequency words like these to make the work more challenging for older students. Initially students say things like, ‘Why are we doing this baby stuff?’ But during the course of the year they come to enjoy it very much—they can master this work, succeed at it, and have fun.”
In addition to building phonemic awareness, students are taught how to decode words—to use letter-sound associations and common spelling patterns to identify unfamiliar words. They practice this new knowledge by reading and writing words and sentences that contain the elements they have learned and by reading similarly constructed passages.
Next the students memorize “sight words.” Drawing from a list of the 3,000 most frequently used words in print, teachers introduce students to 3 new words a day so they learn to identify high frequency words, building their vocabularies and aiding in their fluency as readers. “We pretest them on these words to learn what they do and do not recognize, then we build up their repertoire from there,” explains Kotula.
At the end of each period the teacher and students read aloud from chapter books written specifically for struggling middle school readers. Known as “high interest, low vocabulary,” books, they speak to adolescent issues and concerns in a format that beginning readers can master. Though silent reading is the ultimate goal, students in the targeted instruction groups read aloud so that the teachers can identify weak areas and help as needed. Teachers also model fluency by taking turns during the oral reading. “Reading aloud is important at this stage because once students start falling behind in reading, they try to compensate by guessing at words, so teachers need to hear them to monitor their needs and help when they get stuck,” explains Kotula.
The chapter books proved so popular with the students that last year the Collins Middle School staff and teachers raised money to purchase two books for each student in the program to take home with them over the summer. “The idea was that they would continue to read aloud to a parent or sibling while school was out,” says Kotula. “We also wanted them to experience the pleasure of owning some books that they love.”
The goal for the targeted reading instruction is to have all students reading in the average range by the end of seventh grade. At the end of the first year of the program, test results indicated that on average, students made big gains in phonemic awareness, but not yet in the other areas of reading development. Over the summer, teachers and staff planned for the second year. After reviewing the test results and interviewing the teachers, the EDC team modified the program to give more emphasis to the other components of reading. At the end of April this year, all participants will be post-tested and Kotula is hopeful that they will show similar gains in the other areas.
“The reflection time this summer was a good thing,” says Manning. “It gave everyone time to restructure. It is great having a staff that is flexible and willing to work together to achieve improvement.”
Kotula has also noticed an unusual degree of commitment across the entire staff in the literacy effort, a phenomenon she attributes to Mary Manning’s leadership and the Reading Improvement Team. “Middle schools are not an easy environment in which to provide intensive reading instruction because generally they are not set up for small group learning,” explains Kotula. “School staff really want to help the poorest readers, but when you explain what it takes to make it happen, they often think they can’t find the staff or the time. I have come to realize that what it takes is strong leadership at the top and a schoolwide commitment to all students.”
Originally published on February 1, 2006