Getting to the A, B, C’s of effective literacy instruction
It’s no small wonder that the importance of being proficient in literacy has taken center stage in Iowa’s schools. The emphasis on third grade literacy isn’t random: it’s a time when students begin reading to learn, as opposed to simply learning to read.
Perhaps more important is that studies show if students are weak in literacy by the fourth grade, they stand a much greater chance of doing poorly throughout their educational career, including possibly dropping out of school in later years.
As districts work to improve literacy rates, one need look no further than Johnston Community School District as a model. Take a school there – any school – and you will find solid practices at work. Indeed, nearly 90 percent of the district’s students are proficient in literacy. And the all-important third graders? An impressive 90.1 percent, which compares to the statewide proficiency rate of 76.8 percent.
Upon entering Lawson Elementary in the northwestern Des Moines suburb of Johnston, you are immediately struck by order, precision and determination. And that’s just among the students. The staff? Even more so.
That discipline – or communal mindset, perhaps – is, in part, the product of the district’s literacy efforts. But the district’s success wasn’t overnight, said Principal Trisha Lenarz-Garmoe. The school’s emphasis on literacy started over 10 years ago, and evolved to the point that schools have reading teams and/or grade levels that meet regularly and examine data.
“The body of research in reading has improved so much over the past 20 years that it’s really impacted our practice and continues to change our practice,” she said. “Every year we are working to improve. We are learning all of the time and putting things in place all of the time.”
Their work starts long before the third grade – kindergarten, to be exact.
“Little kindergartners are so smart – they have so much brain power that we haven’t tapped into in the past,” said Marjorie Costello, a reading specialist. “Since we started really working with kindergartners, reading levels have gone up.”
There’s one caveat with that, said Erin Grimes, also a reading specialist.
“You have to work twice as hard with the kids who didn’t go to preschool,” Grimes said. “That socialization part in preschool is often overlooked. In preschool, they learn how school works, and how to get from Point A to Point B without doing a cartwheel.”
By first grade, the most struggling students with reading deficiencies receive 20 weeks of intensive, targeted instruction, 30 minutes a day in Reading Recovery.
Costello and Grimes, who are among Lawson’s literacy specialists, say diagnosing problems upfront is key.
“We start each school year with reviewing end-of-year data from the previous year,” Grimes said. “So we already have an idea of what each student needs. From there, we start with benchmark assessments to see how they do.”
For students who transfer into the district – which is pretty regular since Johnston receives lots of new students throughout the year – no time is wasted to see where their skill levels fall.
“It can be several weeks before records come from another district,” Lenarz-Garmoe said. “We don’t have days and weeks to wait.”
“So we have to find out, dig into their past to see what they know,” Costello said. “If we can’t find that data, we have to do it ourselves.”
Once students with reading deficiencies are identified, a wide array of teachers are consulted to determine who can best support each student.
“We focus on their deficiencies,” Costello said. “If you need more work in comprehension, for instance, you will be working on comprehension. We are very flexible. We progress monitor weekly to decide what they need to learn next.”
“Our groups can change rapidly,” Lenarz-Garmoe said. “That’s true especially among the younger students and you have to be responsive to that. If they are getting good targeted instruction, these teachers can move these kids very quickly. We are moving lots of kids in and out of these groups.”
And sometimes students will require help down the road.
“There will be kids who pop up in the middle of the year because they have plateaued in their progress,” Grimes said.
The work really centers on foundational skills.
“We need to hit them early on with building these skills,” Costello said. “That’s where the power of our program lies – is building foundational skills, such as phonic awareness, blending, segmenting – all of those things you need in place before you can read and write.”
Today’s reading lesson looks a lot different than a generation ago.
“When I was a third grade teacher, it was whole class reading,” Grimes said.
But that was before the sea change in practice.
“Kids get targeted instruction based on their needs,” Lenarz-Garmoe said.
“Other kids are doing their reading practice in a variety of ways. One station might be a writing station, another might be word work, writing, listening to reading, practicing reading with a partner. It takes all of those pieces to create a sound reader.”
It sometimes seems as if it’s a three-ring circus, concedes Lawson first grade teacher Amanda Kirwan. But it is worth it.
“At the beginning of the year, you set clear expectations,” she said. “Yes, it is a bit harried at first. But now it’s smooth sailing. The kids know they will switch stations every 10 to 15 minutes.”
The business community is appreciative of the district’s work, Lenarz-Garmoe said.
“Business leaders say we need x, y and z,” she said. “They say, ‘we need critical thinkers, we need kids who can communicate, work on teams.’ We have to explicitly teach those skills, it doesn’t come naturally to some. Reading, writing and speaking is the foundation of those skills. You have to be able to read, write and listen to be able to do those tasks.
“It is education’s job – like it always has been – to prepare children for the future.”