Thinking Strategically About Secondary Reading

“Miss, come see my streak,” said Isaiah,* sitting at a computer and fully engaged in a Lexia grammar lesson. Isaiah, like many of his peers, benefits from the immediate feedback the computer program provides him during Literacy Intervention Block. He is practicing building compound sentences, a skill we reviewed in a small group the day before, and Isaiah boasts a streak of 57 correct answers (so far). Students in Isaiah’s literacy intervention are reading 2-3 years below grade level and use the Lexia PowerUp program to address gaps in their reading skills.

Next door, students work on projects that extend the Humanities curriculum, currently focused on Greek myths, to the myths of Ancient China and Egypt. Students read and analyze new myths and do research projects on their country of origin, and present their projects. This Goalbook Mini-Projects Intervention is for students who tested at or above grade-level in reading.

Across the hall, students are doing a cold-read of a text. To begin, the first student–Clairson*–reads aloud for a minute, When the timer beeps, he marks where he stopped and continues until the end of the passage. Later, he and his partner, Franky,* will calculate words per minute. The partners switch roles and Franky reads to Clairson, who times. Franky has a lower reading level than Clairson and, when Franky gets stuck on a word, Clairson points to it and decodes. Franky repeats the word and then continues reading. In content class, Franky is hesitant to read aloud. In intervention, he confidently takes risks with his reading. Franky, Clairson, and the other students in this intervention are using a curriculum called STARI (STrategic Adolescent Reading Intervention) lesson, designed for students reading two or more grade levels behind that targets both basic reading skills and the skills that underlie deep comprehension, such as academic language, perspective-taking, and critical reading.

At the end of the last school year (2017-2018), 97.6 % of students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School read below grade-level. This problem of low reading levels was further evidenced by low grades, poor motivation, and lack of independence. Systemic consequences are at play for students who cannot read at grade level, including fewer career opportunities and lower life expectancy. But what are the root causes of such low levels of literacy success?

One of the roots of this problem is a lack of skills among teachers to assess need and provide literacy instruction. Another is that students do not get systematic, research-based intervention. Using the Teacher Leadership Grant, we confronted both of these challenges.  

To address a lack of skill and training for teachers, a small team of cross-content teachers committed to develop their own knowledge and expertise in adolescent literacy. The team began work over the summer, reading two texts (Teaching Reading in Today’s Elementary Schools by Roe, Smith, and Burns and Speech to Print by Louisa Moats), attending a two-day seminar at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute of Health Professionals, and meeting for a day-long retreat to synthesize our learning and set goals.

During the school year, this team took charge of examining data and placing students into appropriate interventions, as well as facilitating all outside partnership with literacy organizations such as 826 Boston, Renaissance, Lexia Learning, the Isabella Gardner Museum, Excellence for All, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, MGH Institute of Health Professions, MobyMax, GoalBook, and Boston Partners in Education. The team also developed and implemented literacy PD for the rest of our staff.

Next, the team delivered research-based, informative professional development for all Frederick teachers so that students will benefit from strong literacy practices in all classes. We began our PD at the end of last year in an hour-long literacy workshop and have facilitated ten more hours of programming so far, ranging from looking at student data to planning literacy instruction for individual classrooms. We will deliver at least four more hours of high-quality literacy PD before the school year ends.

In our last professional development, the group comprised of elective, science, and SLIFE teachers met together and shared literacy strategies across content and grade level. One SLIFE teacher shared exactly how he pairs images and vocabulary words for his newcomers so that the Physical Education/Health teacher could use the same strategy. Another teacher asked the group for ideas for how to move students from high quality discussion to high quality writing. Several teachers in the room recommended resources on that topic. Before leaving, each teacher committed to use a new literacy practice in his/her classroom with the intention of reporting back on progress in our next session.

To address the need for systematic, research-based intervention, the literacy team led implementation of school-wide, research-based reading intervention. To do this well, we investigated literacy intervention programs and selected several to use with different student populations. Each sixth and seventh grade student has a protected 45-minute intervention period at least four times a week, mostly in groups that are smaller than their regular class sizes, guaranteeing more targeted attention. All teachers conferenced with students about their reading level and their reading skills, and students set goals for their own growth in particular domains of reading.   

At the January benchmark students made gains in Lexile Level and more specific reading skills (word recognition, vocabulary, syntax, and reading comprehension). Some studies suggest that average growth for a middle school student over a year should be 70-80 lexiles. Our students who started the year reading below a 4th grade level had an average reading gain of 109 lexiles in just three months. Students in the MobyMax intervention grew, on average, 11 percentile points in word recognition. Students in the Language Live intervention grew, on average, 12 percentile points in reading comprehension. Of our students who started the year below grade level in reading, 71% have made gains.

We still have many questions to answer about teaching literacy skills to adolescents. And, we know that this work takes time. This project is just beginning, and, although we have encountered challenges, we can see literacy growth both in our data and in our school’s mindset about literacy instruction as a priority in all contents and for all students.

*All student names have been changed.

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