This article appeared in the November/December edition of “Each and Every Child,” an e-newsletter by the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of Student and Family Support Services. The e-newsletter is designed to enhance communication between parents and educators. Past issues can be found here.
Based on new research, we now know that teaching students how to read must continue throughout a student’s school career. But when a student enters high school effectively unable to read at even a basic level, that puts educators in a tough spot: Do you run a series of interventions and forge on with skill development and hope for the best?
Until a couple years ago, that answer was a reluctant “yes” at Benton County Community School District in east-central Iowa. But that was before the district teamed up with Grant Wood AEA and the Iowa Department of Education to create a new approach: They dramatically increased reading time. And they were astounded by the impressive results.
“We saw unbelievable data growth across the board,” said Benton’s special education director and principal Ryan Junge. “We didn’t have a single kid in which it wasn’t working.”
The emphasis on reading was simple, Ryan said.
“Reading is used in everything,” he said. “So if they struggle with reading, they will struggle with everything.”
All students with reading goals on their IEPs are now assessed for specific instructional needs, and highly focused individualized plans are created. It required a paradigm shift among the staff.
“In the past, the role of the special education teacher – especially at the secondary level – was split between providing interventions on the students’ IEP goals, and helping their students pass their classes and earn graduation credits,” said Grant Wood’s Deanna Thursby.
“Unfortunately, those roles were not in balance and the scale tipped more toward the second role. We have provided the teachers with the training about high-quality reading instruction, the diagnostic tools to make better decisions, and the research-based intervention materials they need to provide instruction. My teachers now have the tools to teach reading, the time to teach reading, and they believe they can teach reading.”
The change wasn’t done overnight.
The entire high school team, from educators to administrators to counselors, worked together to create block times into the existing school day for reading instruction. Then, students were put into groups of no more than five, and instruction was matched to their skill level and needs. The amount of time, and number of sessions, vary depending on the individual’s needs. Some specifics:
• The specially designed reading intervention time is in addition to the language arts time that these high school students receive.
• Educators believe the block schedule actually helps them with finding additional time. It allows for instruction on Iowa Core standards and skill instruction.
• In order for teachers to have the skills to identify a student’s needs and what instruction to provide, special education teachers are involved in research-based professional development that is focused on improving the literacy outcomes for students with reading disabilities.
• Teachers have received focused professional development on reading materials and strategies that are designed with struggling adolescent readers in mind.
To ensure success, the commitment has got to be strong.
“This is top-down,” Ryan said. “The superintendent has to want to do this, and let every administrator know this isn’t optional.”
Teacher Michelle Smith is confident she’s reaching each and every one of her students.
“My job is harder, in some respects, because some of the kids feel that this new program is foreign to them,” she said. “They haven’t received this kind of instruction in years. But my job also is easier because I know what do to day to day – it’s a great planning component.”
The effects go far beyond improved reading comprehension.
“This has not only increased their comprehension, but it’s built their confidence,” Michelle said. “One student told me, ‘I’m getting better.’ And even though you may encounter some push back from the students initially, you know they do appreciate it because you haven’t given up on them. And they see the results themselves.”