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Practicing Prevention

How One School District Helps Students Avoid Reading Failure

By Catherine Paglin

Brandon is a busy and capable kindergartner. One morning before Christmas, he kept right up with his classmates at Clear Lake Elementary as he counted the 67 days of school he's attended so far, recited a poem about the five little Santas, and made a construction-paper wreath. When his work was done, he settled on the floor to play with trucks and blocks.

Brandon also knows quite a few letter sounds. "That one says /b/ and that one says /a/," he tells a visitor, pointing at the large letter cards hanging over the blackboard. As he speaks, he gets up from the rug. "I have to stand up to do it," he explains. Demonstrating his expertise in the alphabetic principle, it seems, takes Brandon's full concentration. "That one's /r/ and that one says /f/," he continues. "And that one is /p/. And /s/," he announces proudly with a prolonged, snakelike hiss.

Brandon is on target to become a reader. But if he'd been in school seven years ago, he might well have been on track for special education instead. That's because he started kindergarten showing clear signs of reading difficulties. An assessment found that he was having trouble with such tasks as identifying letters and recognizing or reproducing the initial sounds in spoken words. Most telling, he was making little or no progress after a few weeks in school. The school's old approach wasn't geared to dealing with reading problems quickly and systematically. A learning disability label and a referral to special education might have been the outcome for this bright boy.

But luckily for Brandon, an innovative approach adopted by the Bethel School District in Eugene, Ore., several years ago rapidly intervened with strategies tailored to his needs. The results district-wide have been stunning. Today, only two percent of kids leave first grade as nonreaders*—phenomenal for any district, and especially so given the low socioeconomic status and high mobility rates of Bethel students.

Before the initiative, the numbers were discouraging. In those days, 15 percent of kids left first grade unable to read. Second-grade special education referral rates were soaring—hitting 17 percent at one school in 1996–97. Worried, the district began analyzing its approach to reading. Recalls Carl Cole, special services director, "We were concerned about the high number of kids identified as learning disabled, and when you're talking about kids who are learning disabled, you're almost exclusively talking about kids with reading disabilities."

Looking into the matter, the district found that the problem was not with the assessments and identifications of the referred students. They were accurate. But assessments of kids were not tied to what was happening in the classroom instructionally. Sometimes the evaluation team referred kids to special education to make sure students would get instruction of a kind not available in the regular classroom. "When it was discovered that kids were discrepant readers, we didn't use that information to say, ‘What are we doing instructionally that's causing this?'" Cole recalls.

What they were doing instructionally was, as in many districts across the country, "a recipe for disaster," says Cole, particularly for a student population in this low-income community where transient hotels and homeless shelters are plentiful. Because the district had a site-based approach—allowing each school to choose its own reading program—there was no consistency from school-to-school, grade-to-grade, room-to-room. Different textbooks were in use across schools, within schools, and even within grade levels at the same school.

Also, the district's half-day kindergarten was mainly a social-readiness program, not an instructional program. Had Brandon entered a Bethel kindergarten back in the old days, he would not have been tested and monitored regularly on indicators of progress toward reading. His exposure to letters and letter sounds would have been incidental, not direct. If he didn't seem to be catching on—if, for instance, he had nothing to contribute when his teacher asked the class to brainstorm for words that start with a b—his teacher would have concluded that he was just "not ready for reading."

District administrators became convinced that most kids identified as learning disabled are actually "instructionally disabled," meaning they hadn't received the instruction appropriate for their needs. So they set out to build a reading program that would be effective for all students. They joined forces with University of Oregon's Institute for Development of Educational Achievement, directed by nationally known reading researchers Drs. Edward Kame'enui and Deborah Simmons. A four-year, $700,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs was committed to the development, implementation, and evaluation of Bethel's reading initiative.

"The amount of support we had was phenomenal," says Cole. Besides bringing in the expertise of Kame'enui and Simmons, the grant paid for staff development and a new position—reading coordinator.

Today, Bethel's approach to reading is more than an instructional model—it's also a prevention model, designed to head off many learning disabilities at the pass. The model includes:

• Measurable district goals for each grade level;

• Regular and frequent assessment and monitoring;

• Research-based reading curricula that involve direct, explicit, and systematic instruction;

• Protected time for reading instruction;

• Instruction in small groups at each child's skill level;

• Leadership role for principals; and,

• Training for all teachers and educational assistants in using the curricula and assessment measures.

*  *  *

Research shows that the "wait-and-see" attitude toward reading problems—common at many schools—is a mistake. Instead, Bethel takes an "as-early-as-possible" approach. In the second week of school, a building assessment team (typically, the Title I and special education teachers, plus educational assistants) tests kindergartners for initial-sound fluency and letter-naming fluency using a set of indicators and benchmarks developed at the University of Oregon. The DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills), each of which takes about three minutes per student to administer, are reliable predictors of later reading performance, according to research findings. Based on these assessments, as well as subsequent teacher observations, students are placed in small groups in one of three categories: "benchmark," which means on track to meet district goals and ultimately state standards; "strategic," meaning progressing but behind; and "intensive," meaning at risk of failing to meet goals.

By the beginning of October, the at-risk kindergartners are getting an extra 30 minutes per day of reading instruction. They also get progress monitoring with DIBELS twice a month—twice as often as their classmates. The extra instruction is not a pullout but an add-on. At Clear Lake, the additional time is sandwiched between morning and afternoon kindergarten. A van collects and delivers the afternoon extended-day kids early, and takes the morning group home half an hour later than their classmates.

The curriculum for this extended kindergarten (playfully named the "Reading Raccoons") is Early Reading Intervention (ERI), developed by Kame'enui and Simmons and field-tested in the Bethel district before being published recently by Scott Foresman. During the half-hour lesson, the instructors—teachers and educational assistants—move almost seamlessly from one activity to the next, hardly wasting a breath. Speaking smoothly and sometimes rhythmically, they deal out and sweep up manipulatives such as letter tiles, erasable white boards, alphabet and picture cards, tracing cards, game boards, pencils, and paper. As they do, they model and test children on very specific phonological skills, for instance, the ability to isolate particular initial and final sounds.

Teacher Jane Sterett's group of five Reading Raccoons is all attention as she passes out yellow plastic letter tiles—clink, clink—p, t, s, m, and l to each child. In front of each child is a laminated strip printed with a row of three squares. The teacher holds up a picture card.

"This is cat," she says, then asks, "What is this?"

"Cat," they chorus.

Then, following her instructions, the students move their index fingers along the strip, pointing to each square as Sterett slowly says each sound: /k/, /aaa/, /t/.

"Where is /t/?" she asks. The students point to the last square. "That's right, /t/ is the last sound in cat. Now find the letter for the sound /t/ and put it in the last square." The plastic tiles clink as each child finds the "t" and places it on the strip.

Each daily lesson offers many chances for children to respond individually and as a group. Though ERI is highly scripted, experienced teachers often fit in even more opportunities for responses, while still delivering the program as intended, says district reading coordinator Rhonda Wolter. The 126 ERI lessons take students along a skills continuum—from learning letters and sounds to segmenting and blending phonemes in sequence to reading words and, finally, to reading sentences and storybooks. Each lesson includes writing and spelling activities as well as activities for phonological awareness and alphabetic understanding.

Another research-based curriculum, Open Court, is the core reading program at Clear Lake and most of the district's seven elementary schools, where it is used for daily class instruction, K–3. Each day, following the whole class instruction, students break into small groups. In those groups, which last about 30 minutes, three educational assistants join the teachers to provide instruction geared to the kids' skill levels. The "strategic" group (progressing but behind), gets ERI. The "benchmark" group (readers who are on track) might read decodable or leveled books. And the "intensive" group gets a "double dose" of reading with different materials, a reinforcement of ERI material they have already encountered in Reading Raccoons.

The extra instruction for at-risk readers, as well as the small daily groups for all students, continues through the primary grades. "Part of what has been really successful with our model is that for kids who need interventions like this, we always try to make it in addition to the regular program," says curriculum director Drew Braun. "In the past, it was ‘instead of.' For example, when you broke into reading groups, if you were Title I, you went to Title I. Now Title I and other services are a second dose for those kids—not instead of—because kids are not going to get caught up unless we give them extra."

Another "extra" is the district's five-week summer school for students who are not meeting benchmarks or who are in danger of losing ground over the break. "They're kids that we're not sure how much support they're going to get over the summer, whether anybody's going to get them to the library, so we give them the opportunity to continue practicing their skills," says Wolter.

*  *  *

The district's commitment to reading is paying off. For children who have been in the Bethel reading program since kindergarten, second-grade special education referrals are now between four and six percent, even though students are actually entering school with lower prereading skills than before. And, despite the fact that the proportion of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has increased in recent years from 37 to 48 percent, the proportion of third-graders meeting state standards in reading has also increased—from 79 percent in the 1998–99 school year to 92 percent in the 2003–04 school year. Results like these are just what Bethel's educators were hoping for when they began using DIBELS in 1998–99 and ERI in 1999–2000.

"I think one kind of kid we catch is a kid who has trouble paying attention," says Wolter. "We have a lot of those kinds of kids. In a big group, they start losing out on what's going on. By doing our small groups, we've been able to capture those kids, keep them in a structured setting, and work with them."

Some kids, despite the research-based core classroom curricula, the twice-monthly progress monitoring assessment, and the early and extra intervention, still don't make progress. In that case, says Wolter, "a whole series of checks" happens. "Has the student been absent a lot, does the student have health problems, has their vision been checked, their hearing?" Wolter says. "Maybe it's in the instruction. Maybe the instructor's been shaving off five minutes because the kids have been coming in late. Are they in a group too large? Is the program being used with fidelity?"

Going down this checklist usually roots out the problem. Sometimes, it's found in surprising places—literally. Two years ago, a doctor turned up foreign objects—a bead and a twisted piece of aluminum foil—in the ears of a boy whose progress in extended kindergarten had stalled.

Flip of a Switch

The reading initiative has wrought changes on a lot of levels. At the district level, it broke down a dividing line between regular and special education. These days, Cole—the special education expert—might run a general curriculum meeting, while Braun—the generalist—might facilitate a special education meeting. "It's just a continuum," says Braun. "We've taken a lot of the bags of tricks of special education and put them in the regular classroom because they work really well."

Kindergarten teachers were resistant at first to the new instructional methods and assessments when the program began to phase in spring of 1999.

"It was very, very difficult—I got my phone unlisted," Cole jokes.

Clear Lake Principal Betsy Fernandez also recalls some tension. "Some of the teachers in my building were pretty outspoken in the questions they asked—‘What about the pressure that's being put on kids academically? What about the whole developmental approach to teaching kindergarten?'" she says. "They were tough questions. Now, kindergarten teachers are some of the most dedicated to the program, and the results they're getting are really good."

The change, she says, came when teachers began seeing the hard data after the first half-year. "It was like the flip of a switch," she remarks.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Radke notes that "having more intentional instruction and more direct instruction to their levels was helping" the strugglers.

The other thing that changed kindergarten teachers' minds, besides the data, was the depth of the district's investment in the program. "We couldn't do it without all the support," says kindergarten teacher Linda Tindal. "It wouldn't work if I had to try to run four reading groups by myself. But our district is very committed to it, and it's wonderful."

With students entering first grade more prepared, they catch on more quickly. To accommodate those stronger learners, teachers are making adjustments. Reading coordinator Wolter had to scramble for appropriate reading materials when the first wave of better-prepared students hit first grade.

"Most of the kids come in, if they've been here, knowing the majority of their letter names and sounds," says first-grade teacher Vivian Ewing. "They're really ready to take off with the reading. It's amazing to see, because it used to be that out of a class this size, a third of them knew all the letter names and sounds, a third of them knew about 10, and a third of them hadn't had any experience or they'd had experience but it wasn't consistent enough."

Wolter has seen the same effects. "Even Title I classrooms don't have as many kids in them as they used to," she says. "And the kids are doing higher skills"—not the typical Title I work. Another outcome, she says, is that many Title I first-graders are new kids moving in who haven't experienced an academic kindergarten. "So," she says, "we need to start all over with them."

A major impact of the program has been in special education classrooms. There are many fewer kids in special education; and those who are there have much more severe, hard-to-remedy reading difficulties.

"They're really challenging" says Clear Lake's special education teacher Linda Duke. Still, Duke likes the new continuity between special and regular education. For instance, she uses the same DIBELS system of progress monitoring that the regular teachers use, just more frequently. Sometimes teachers are using the same direct instruction programs with their low readers as she does in the resource room. And when she mainstreams a child, various interventions, such as an oral reading fluency lab, are available in the regular program, allowing the child to keep working on key reading skills.

"The teachers are working together and the whole system is so fluid that we can move kids in and out of programs," she says. Meanwhile, to determine how best to help the kids who are not responding adequately to the reading interventions, the district is involved in federally funded research studies with the University of Oregon.

"I Can Do It"

The most dramatic changes in Bethel are in student performance. The statistics tell part of the story. Compare, for example, the first-grade oral reading fluency scores of kids who move to the district in the fall of first grade with scores of kids who enter in the fall of kindergarten. At the beginning of first grade, there's a significant difference between the groups, says Braun. By spring, the new kids have not caught up. They are still 10 words behind in oral reading fluency. For kids who enter the district in second grade, the end-of-year difference is 22 words per minute.

"Kids who have been here are reading 25 percent faster than kids who came in at the beginning of second grade," Braun reports. Late-entering students, in fact, are Bethel's next challenge, particularly with its high mobility rate. Between the beginning of kindergarten and the beginning of first grade, the district loses about 22 percent of its original kindergarten class and gains about 20 percent in new students in first grade.

Scores and statistics, however, don't tell the whole story. Changes have shown up, too, in student behavior. "Previously, kids were starting to misbehave because they were having difficulty with skills," says Wolter. "By putting them in a small group, by getting them right where their skill level is, we alleviate some of those problems. They start feeling good about themselves, and they don't have to act out."

Clearly, Brandon is one child who feels confident in his abilities. He likes to tell about the letters he's learned and show off how fast he can spell his name. "There's a lot of stuff I do in Reading Raccoons," he says. "We do Writer's Warm-Up, and that's hard. But," he reports with pride, "I can still do it."


Catherine Paglin is a freelance journalist who frequently writes for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL). This article is updated and reprinted with permission from "Double Dose: Bethel School District's intensive reading prgram adds beefed-up instruction for at-risk readers from Day One" in NWREL's Northwest Education Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 3.

*At the end of first grade, Bethel's nonreaders are defined as those students who can read less than 15 words per minute on the DIBELS measure of Oral Reading Fluency. According to the DIBELS Administration and Scoring Guide, students should attain a score of at least 40 words per minute at the end of first grade; those who obtain a score of 20 or below are considered at risk for reading difficulties and those who score below 10 are in need of intensive instructional support. (back to article)

The DIBELS measure of Oral Reading Fluency--the number of words a student can read correctly in one minute--is a reliable predictor of how well a student will do on later comprehension tests, such as the Oregon State Assessment. (back to article)