Game-changer: Successfully ramping up literacy efforts
Tynne Sulser strived to be a good teacher. She worked hard. She loved her students. And a majority of her kids were proficient in reading.
But then the third grade teacher and her colleagues at Lakeview Elementary in Centerville learned the jaw-dropping news: If less than 80 percent of the students in a classroom are proficient in reading, there is a problem in the delivery of core instruction. Perhaps it is what is being taught. Perhaps it’s how it is taught. Perhaps it is both.
That was in the 2013-14 school year, when the school became a pilot for work done through Collaborating for Iowa's Kids, or C4K, which is a statewide partnership among the Iowa Department of Education, Area Education Agencies and school districts.
“This has been the most eye-opening in my time as a teacher,” said the 18-year teaching veteran. “And here I was thinking, ‘hey, I am a pretty good teacher, I don’t need to change my ways.’ I wasn’t thinking there was a problem.”
But there was. That problem, it turns out, was systemic throughout the school: Teachers working in isolation, data of student achievement not being used effectively, interventions not designed specifically for the child’s personal core instructional need.
“We were working really hard to overcome a SINA (School In Need of Assistance) designation,” said Lakeview Principal Terri Schofield. “We had no place to go but up. Through the work we did with C4K, that really helped guide the staff.”
Specifically, accuracy became the primary focus of literacy instruction.
“If kids aren’t accurate (in deciphering words), they can’t be fluent with their reading,” said Lakeview Title I third grade teacher Shari Witt. “If they are stumbling on words, they lose comprehension.”
Sulser said she breaks literacy instruction into six areas, all of which can enhance comprehension:
- Being accurate with the words they are reading.
- Learning to read at an optimal pace, neither too slow nor too fast.
- Striving to read text smoothly.
- Learning to pause for commas, stop for periods.
- Incorporating expressions in reading, because using emotion furthers the understanding of the text.
- Learning to stress, or emphasize, certain words.
Then there’s the data, in which teachers pore over each student’s progress. The teachers have incorporated a data wall in which students fall into one of four quadrants: fluent and accurate, fluent but not accurate, not fluent but accurate, and not fluent or accurate.
The school’s work in the last three-plus years speaks for itself:
From spring of 2012-13, 20 out of 98 third-grade students, or 20 percent, read inaccurately and slow.
From spring of 2015-16, 11 out of 97 students, or 11 percent, read inaccurately and slow.
While their work clearly has shored up the lowest-quadrant readers, it also pushed many more students to excel:
From spring of 2012-13, 29 out of 98 students, or 30 percent, were fluent and accurate.
From spring of 2015-16, 44 out of 97 students, or 45 percent, were fluent and accurate.
Those categorized as fluent and accurate were reading at the expected spring outcome score of 131 words per minute with a 96 percent-or-higher accuracy rate. Students on Individualized Education Programs perhaps saw the biggest leap in success. Before the bolstered literacy efforts at Lakeview, most students on IEPs fell in the lowest quadrant: not accurate, not fluent. Today, the majority of those students have achieved at least the accurate portion of literacy.
Lakeview’s progress underscores what’s going on statewide. A state initiative on early literacy instruction has yielded nearly 9,000 additional students in kindergarten through the third grade who have met or surpassed benchmarks in the spring of 2016, representing a 4.2 percent increase from the previous fall.
Though pleased with the progress, the team at Lakeview is nonetheless impatient.
“We all want to see that data improve faster,” Schofield said. “Our data is not moving as fast we want it to, but we also know that it’s a journey and that we are reaching so many more students.”
The whirlwind of change has both been embraced and, initially, feared.
“When you know better, you do better,” Schofield said. “Before, everyone was doing their best. But now we have greater knowledge, and we can do better. At the beginning, we needed everyone to know that we are all in it together. As (Iowa Department of Education Consultant) Jen Adams said, ‘We have to agree that everyone gets in the same boat. You don’t have to row, but you cannot drill holes.’
“The power of change comes from our teachers, and their response in the data. And they know the value of relationships with the kids.”
Indeed, the relationship with students was an integral part of the strategy. Staff made the students partners in the literacy efforts, so much so that the kids started understanding the strategies that support growing literacy scores.
“If kids truly understand where they are supposed to be, they are more engaged, they are more motivated,” Witt said. “They understand what they are working towards. They are being successful because they see their growth. The students have become completely goal oriented.
“And through this process, we learned that it is not about reading fast, it’s about quality reading. When students read too fast, accuracy goes down. We are teaching them to be natural readers.”
Schofield points to a student who is the epitome of the school’s newfound success in literacy.
“One of the kids who hadn’t achieved benchmark at the beginning of school became proficient by the winter term,” she said. “He was so excited, he gave the teacher a high five. And his mom cried when she learned the news.”
Sulser adds that it is the team approach that makes the difference in the district.
“When we first started our (stepped up) work, we viewed it as an approach,” she said. “Today, it is a mindset – it’s how we do business.”
“It’s really important that people understand this isn’t just a DE (Department of Education) initiative,” Schofield said. “This is something that is really benefiting kids and teachers. Our staff feels we have better information to better serve our students.”
“And our staff feels more confident in this work,” Sulser said.