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Reading Richmond: How Scientifically Based Reading Instruction Is Dramatically Increasing Achievement

Ohanian Comment: Leave it to the AFT to once again assert their preeminent position as Standardistos. As I learned while reporting for Substance at the 2008 AFT convention in Chicago, Al Shanker Lives. The subtitle of this press release posing as an article should be In Praise of Voyager. And Houghton Mifflin.

Of course this comes as no surprise. The AFT has already rolled over and played dead for DIBELS, which they liken to Preventive Medicine. I'd warn people who are tempted by the bogus medical metaphor for education to take a look at how many patients die every year as a result of medical error. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to why a medical metaphor is both bogus and dangerous.

Reminder: Re-read Elaine Garan's wonderful article Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics in Phi Delta Kappan. Read her Resisting Reading Mandates: How to Triumph with the Truth (Heinemann, 2002). Garan explodes the my of science-based reading and delivers lots more besides.

By Jennifer Dubin

It was a typical day in Kimberly Baileyâs second-grade classroom.
Her students played in a sleeping bearâs cave, made
friends with animals named Badger, Mouse, and Gopher,
and attended a small party in their honor. No guest from
the local zoo walked around the room. No special visitor held
their attention. Yet the students, clearly excited, constantly raised
their hands to participate in the class discussion. So what
accounted for their enthusiasm? Something as simple as reading
a book aloud to each other.

But not just any book. The textbook these students were reading
is Hiding Places. As its title suggests, the book features reading
passages about animals and their habitats. Itâs specifically
geared toward second graders and is part of a scientifically based
reading program.

There is indeed a science to teaching children how to read. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report based on a
comprehensive review of reading studies. The panel found that
early reading instruction ought to include explicit teaching of
five key components: phonemic awareness (identifying and
being able to manipulate the sounds in words), phonics (understanding
how letters are linked to sounds), fluency (reading
orally with speed, accuracy, and proper expression), vocabulary
(understanding the meaning of words), and text comprehension
(understanding whole passages). Instruction that focuses on
these five components is especially important for children who
have had little to no exposure to print before they begin school.
And, according to Bailey, this type of instruction is exactly what
the children in her class need.

Her students attend Fairfield Court Elementary School in
Richmond, Virginia. The school, like the district, is majority African
American. And like the district, its students mostly come
from low-income families. Of the roughly 500 students enrolled
in the school, 97 percent receive free or reduced-price meals.
Thatâs 26 percentage points higher than the district and 64 percentage
points higher than the state.

Fairfield Court is in Richmondâs East End, which has high
rates of poverty and crime. Despite such challenges, an important
story about student achievement there, and across the entire
city, has begun to emerge. Since Richmond Public Schools
started to focus on research-based reading instruction eight
years ago, the reading scores of its students on state assessments
have climbed substantially. (See the charts with third- and fifthgrade
results, the only elementary grades with longitudinal data,
on page 32.)

Of course, reading programs alone
did not raise achievement in the district.
The schools benefited from a new superintendent,
an overhaul of the central
office, and more support for more targeted
approaches to professional development.
As many teachers in Richmond
will quickly tell you, programs donât
teach reading; teachers do.

At the same time, educators like
Jean Gritz, a first-grade teacher at Fairfield
Court, readily attest to the effectiveness
of research-based reading
programsâhow phonemic awareness,
phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and
comprehension instruction have
helped them reach their students. âWe
tell the children,â says Gritz, âIf you
read, you can do anything.â â

The Need for a
Phonics-Based Program

Richmondâs success in reading did not happen overnight. First,
administrators had to figure out what the district was doing
wrong. In 1999, Yvonne Brandon, who is currently serving as the
districtâs interim superintendent, had just been appointed the
director of instruction when she was charged with unpacking
studentsâ low test scores. âOne of my first tasks was to find out
just what we were using in areas of reading, especially elementary.â
She surveyed the schools and found that at least 29 different
reading programs were being used. Programs varied from
school to school, even within schools.

Having a coherent curriculum is crucial for districts like Richmond
with high student mobility. Richmondâs mobility rate is
more than 40 percent. All that variation in the reading programs
hampered student achievement, since many children would
start the year in one school, and then have to adjust to a different
program each time they moved. But Brandon noticed the district
did have one program that seemed to work well: a Voyager reading
series used in elementary summer school. Called Time Warp,
it took kids on a journey through history. âWe saw great gains,â
Brandon says, because the program was meeting studentsâ
needs. âThe data showed we needed a program strongly based
in phonics.â

At the time, Voyager published only the summer program,
which the district continues to use in summer school as an intensive
intervention for students who are behind. But in 2000, the
company created a year-round program for grades K-2,* the Voyager
Universal Literacy System, and Brandon traveled to Voyagerâs
company headquarters in Dallas to see it. She recalls being
impressed by what she found.

The program has a different adventure theme (such as sea
castles or hiding places) for each grade that is designed to increase
studentsâ reading skill, vocabulary, and background knowledge
by having a mix of fiction and nonfiction texts. For instance, the
first-grade reading program includes Hercules the Harbor Tug, a
story about boats with pictures and passages that familiarize students
with words such as buoy, channel, and dock.

Teachers in each grade receive a detailed manual complete
with lesson plans for a daily two-hour literacy block that includes
a 45-minute large-group lesson, 60 minutes for reading stations,
and then a 15-minute writing, vocabulary, or spelling lesson. For
the reading stations, teachers place students in three groups,
which rotate every 20 minutes. Students work together at two of
the stations on recently introduced reading skills. At the third
station, students work with the classroom teacher, who follows
a detailed lesson plan to give students small-group instruction.

At the beginning of the year, students take assessments to
determine whether they are âstruggling,â âemerging,â or âontrackâ
in key literacy skills like letter-naming fluency for kindergartners
or reading connected text for second graders.
assessments are equivalent to the Dynamic Indicators of Basic
Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a set of standardized, individually
administered one-minute measures of early literacy

Students who score at the âstrugglingâ level receive additional
instruction during the day and take weekly progress-monitoring
assessments until they master the skills in question. Thereâs also
an Extended Time Curriculum for âstrugglingâ first and second
graders, which reinforces the reading skills they are learning during
the regular literacy block.

Students who score at the âemergingâ level are also carefully
monitored and receive targeted instruction.
They are assessed once a month until they
reach the âon-trackâ level.

Students identified as âon-trackâ do not
take weekly or monthly assessments. They, as
well as all students, take a set of one-minute benchmark assessments
three times a year.*

Monitoring studentsâ progress and delivering targeted
instruction is demanding, so teachers also receive intensive professional
development. When a school or district first adopts the
program, a trainer from Voyager provides a two-day training for
district and school-based âcoachesâ (usually Title I reading specialists)
and a three-day training for teachers. Then, spread
across the school year, there are eight three-hour monthly training
sessions that consist of teachers practicing direct instruction,
administering assessments, grouping students, and modeling
lessons. Thereâs also ongoing professional development throughout
the year delivered by the coaches. They visit classrooms and
model lessons to help teachers hone their instruction. They also
help teachers use student data to inform their instruction.

With so many teaching materials, embedded assessments,
and significant amounts of embedded professional development,
Brandon liked the Voyager program immediately. âI came
back excited,â she says.

Overcoming Doubt
In 2000, Brandon conducted focus groups with teachers and
principals who attended Voyager demonstration lessons held at
an elementary school in the district. Not everyone shared her
enthusiasm. She recalls that some veteran teachers, used to relying
solely on a single textbook, thought the program offered too
many instructional tools. Nonetheless, Brandon persuaded the
districtâs top administrators to pilot the program in 2000 in a
handful of schools with very low reading scores. Then, in 2001,
the district added a few more low-scoring schools, including
Fairfield Court.

âThat first year, Iâll never forget,â says Velicia Coleman, Fairfield
Courtâs Voyager coach and Title I reading specialist. âThere
were reluctant teachers. They were coming from a program
where they had complete control, and they could do what they
wanted.â So the Voyager program, which has a detailed teacher
manual, was not always well received. Some teachers objected
because they couldnât keep up with the time limits for delivering
whole-class and small-group instruction. And they didnât like
timing their students on one-minute reading tests. Teachers
would say of a student who didnât pass the tests, âI know he
knows it, but he didnât do it in one minute,â Coleman recalls.

She remembers her own uncertainty as to whether such short
assessments could measure a studentâs reading ability. âHow in
the world can you project what a child can read after one minute?â
she recalls thinking. After using the assessments, she realized they
worked. âYou can tell if a child is on track or not, and you can find
out immediately.â One-minute assessments work because in
reading, efficiency (or âautomaticityâ) is important. Although
children initially become accurate readers by learning to decode
words through phonics, they must eventually learn to recognize
most words instantly in order to become fluent readers.

Once teachers began to follow the program, they saw results
with their students. Those results, though, didnât materialize just
because teachers followed the manual; they materialized

because teachers put their personalities into the program.
âYou have to have a little bit of gusto to do a
Voyager lesson,â Coleman says. âYou canât just get up
there and read a statement with no expression. If you
put a little life in it, the kids are going to listen.â
Coleman, herself, initially doubted the program. A
reading specialist since 1988, she had seen her share of
educational fads. Then one day in the spring of the programâs
first year, she observed a kindergarten class at
the school. She recalls, âThe kids kept saying, âMs. Coleman,
I want you to hear me read.â I stayed and I listened
and I was amazed.â The students read much better than
she had ever heard kindergarteners read. She remembers
she wore white pants that day. After leaving the
classroom, âI had all these handprints all over my pants
because the kids were eager to show me they could
read.â The experience convinced Coleman that the program
would work.

Signs of Improvement
Resistance to trying a new approach to reading instruction districtwide
did not diminish until Richmond reached a low point. In 2001-02, Brandon recalls, âWe were declared the second lowest
school division in the state of Virginia.â That was âa point of
embarrassment.â Only then did teachers and administrators
agree it was time to make some big changes.

In 2002, Deborah Jewell-Sherman became Richmondâs superintendent,
and she made sure that when it came to scientifically
based reading instruction, everyone was on boardâbut she
didnât force all of the elementary schools to adopt Voyager.â 
Instead, in 2003, the district piloted Houghton Mifflin Reading,
another research-based program, in eight elementary schools.
Yvonne Brandon says district officials were drawn to it because,
like Voyager, it focused on the National Reading Panelâs five
components of reading instruction, and it offered extensive professional
development, embedded assessments to monitor studentsâ
progress, and plenty of work on comprehension and writing.
For instance, the program features weekly teacher
read-alouds, in which students listen to the teacher read aloud
a particular passage and then respond to a series of questions.
The read-alouds help students expand their vocabularies and
improve their comprehension. Also, in grades 3 through 5, books
in the programâs âReaderâs Libraryâ continue to reinforce highfrequency
vocabulary words. Under Jewell-Shermanâs watch, in
2003 all elementary schools in the district implemented one or
both of these research-based reading programs. Today, 10 of the
districtâs 28 elementary schools use Houghton Mifflin for kindergarten
through fifth grade, and 18 elementary schools use
Voyager for kindergarten through second grade and Houghton
Mifflin for third through fifth grade.
To facilitate the adoption of research-based reading instruction,
Richmond also applied for, and won, a Reading First grant.
(Reading First is a federal program that supports the implementation
of research-based reading instruction; see sidebar, page
34.) Today, five elementary schools receive Reading First grants . . . .

* This program has since been expanded to include third grade, but Richmond still
uses it only in grades K-2.
â  To learn more about DIBELS, see Preventing Early Reading Failure by Joseph
K. Torgesen in the Fall 2004 issue of American Educator.

For the rest of the article, complete with pictures and charts, go to the url below. It is a pdf file.

Jennifer Dubin is assistant editor of American Educator. Previously, she
was a journalist with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

— Jennifer Dubin
American Educator


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