That Was Then ... This Is Now: An AISI Recipe for Teaching an Entire School to Read

December 7, 2010
Kurtis Hewson and Jim Parsons

In 1971, S. E. Hinton published That Was Then, This Is Now, a young-adult novel about how our life experiences change us. The way that people change according to their experiences can be compared to how schools change as they grow and develop in their practices and behaviours. In elementary schools, those practices and behaviours often revolve around teaching students to read.

Many young people take to reading easily, have strong home literacy experiences or other development supports, and their school experience is usually successfully and relatively easy. But for children who struggle with reading, school can be joyless, frustrating and demoralizing, and they achieve neither personal nor academic success.

These two goals—personal and academic success—became core activities around which Claresholm Elementary School (now West Meadow Elementary School) built its Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) program. Specifically, the two core goals the school adopted were (1) every child should learn to read and (2) every child should have fun doing so. Teaching 283 children to read became the focus of staff—teachers, administrators and teaching assistants—and the broader school community.

The recipe was simple but all encompassing. By using a dash of creative planning; a generous portion of timely and strategic interventions; several cups of the desire to know, assess and regularly track every student in the school, especially those who were struggling; and folding in regular collaborative team meetings among school faculty, the entire school aimed to develop a systematic response to the reading needs of each student. Staff regularly tracked and discussed every student in the school, working together (a key concept of the program) to create and implement a pyramid of interventions. When one thing didn’t work, they tried another. When success was achieved, they celebrated.

What happened? What were the research results?

Claresholm Elementary School’s core goal that every child should learn to read is becoming a reality. By the conclusion of the project, 75 per cent of Target Group 1 improved, and 67 per cent of Target Group 2 improved. Target Group 1 went from no students at grade level at the start of the project to 50 per cent achieving grade level. In Target Group 2, 33 per cent were at grade level at the start of the project, and 83 per cent were at grade level by the conclusion of the AISI project. These results were mirrored across the entire school population—grade-level reading proficiency rose by 13 per cent over the same timeframe.

What about the second goal—that every child should have fun? The survey found that a focus on reading continues to have a positive effect on students’ enjoyment of reading. Not only are students gaining skills to be proficient readers, they are enjoying the experience.

How did school staff respond? Principal Kurtis Hewson noted: “We expected that our work involved in reading interventions and communication of student levels in reading might adversely affect satisfaction rates, as parents gained an awareness of specific reading levels and areas of improvement for their children. But this has not been the case. In fact, the growth in good feeling throughout the entire school community—parents, children, teachers—is more than a pleasant surprise.”

For the administrative team, the greatest achievement during Cycle Three AISI project was a shift in culture from focusing on schoolwide averages to recognizing the success of individual students, and a positive change in teachers’ work and professional development. A sampling of staff responses illustrates these shifts:

Teacher 1: Each teacher used to teach her class and figure out what worked best for each student. Now teachers focus on the entire group and conference with other teachers in the same grade to find different ways to teach students. We collaborate on different methods of teaching so that we, as professionals, can learn better reading strategies.

Teacher 2: We used to find resources on our own. Now we share a wealth of resources for the entire grade, as well as the school, to enrich learning in reading. We used to teach in isolation; now we teach collaboratively.

Teacher 3: One teacher used to be responsible for a student’s entire programming. Now we understand it takes a community to teach a child and our community as a whole helps ... teach each student. Before, teachers came up with their own ideas and ways to teach reading. Now we work together in grade-level meetings to plan reading techniques together. We rely on other teachers for new ideas and methods.

Teacher 4: We used to engage in individual teacher interventions. Now we collaborate and take collective responsibility for providing purposeful, timely and directive (mandatory) intervention. Each teacher used to choose her own method of assessment. Now we use common assessments aligned to student outcomes. These assessments allow us to determine each child’s reading level and the specific deficits in a child’s reading strategies; knowing these, we can provide more accurate assessment.

Teacher 5: Before, only the severely low students went to learning support. Now we use learning support for children in the high-risk range and those we want to keep on track. We now serve a larger range of children.

Teacher 6: Before, many language arts lessons were taught in a large group setting; now we teach specific lessons based on student needs in small groups. We have implemented the Literacy Place reading program, we use Reading A–Z materials and approved language arts texts to provide reading support at students’ own level.

Teacher 7: Each teacher used to be in charge of finding ways to teach all the diverse children in her class. Now we work as a team to seek solutions to help as many children as possible, with the help of the whole school. (Our collaborative meetings and the new push-in BLAST program are great!)

Teacher 8: I used to basically teach reading on my own. Now I look to fellow teachers for guidance and ideas, and we work together for periods of time teaching reading. I used to pull out things each day to teach to students and taught reading and writing in isolation. Now I plan different items to address all strands of language arts.

Teacher 9: I used to have students read alone quietly and answer questions. Now students participate in group reading, echo reading, readers’ theatre and reading across the subject areas. We now have more discussion about what we have read and find deeper meanings.

Teacher 10: We used to have students read for a short period every day. Now we have a home reading program with incentives and reading activities throughout the day in each subject. Students see that reading is not just in language arts but is used in every subject and in their lives. The home reading program means that parents are also involved in their child’s reading.

In 2008/09, the last year of the Cycle Three AISI project, foundations established over the past two years began to influence school culture. For example, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) helped teachers monitor students’ reading progress and give biweekly feedback to grade-level teams about the effect of student interventions. Collaborative team meetings became truly data informed, and staff used frequent assessment data to guide programming decisions. Teams used assessment tools to gain a complete picture of student progress and the need for additional reading supports.

Successful practice is now firmly embedded in the program of the school. Three-way conferences show all-time highs in parent attendance, with students now successfully at the helm and parent participation rapidly approaching 100 per cent. A locally developed pyramid of interventions firmly guides programming supports for students. Collaborative team meetings, informed by ongoing, frequent assessment, provide a solid process for identifying, programming for and monitoring at-risk readers. Outcome-based progress reports provide feedback to families about their children’s progress. All these programs are aligned with curriculum maps and common summative assessments at every grade level.

Claresholm Elementary School has not stopped learning. School staff believe they continually improve and add to its pyramid of interventions so that they can offer effective instruction in every classroom. A literacy coaching model was used in 2009/10 to help teachers establish small-group reading practices in every classroom and more inclusive interventions to target both struggling readers and readers at the other end of the literacy spectrum. Staff continue to move to more robust, authentic and frequent assessments developed in-house by grade-level teams that align with literacy outcomes. School staff are becoming experts in their own professional development.

The school’s work is not going unnoticed. Teachers from Claresholm Elementary School presented at the Palliser Teachers’ Convention, and two staff members consulted with Turner Valley School. The school has been visited by teachers from Horizon, Foothills, Grasslands and Palliser and an administrator from Lac La Biche. These consultations are in addition to regular school council presentations and information sent home to parents.

Claresholm Elementary School’s Cycle Three AISI project has changed the culture and learning of an entire school. Children are becoming readers. And they are having fun. Parents are involved in school like never before. Teachers are growing, through their hard work, into energetic and effective professional communities of learning. The work is not easy, but it is rewarding and enjoyable. As one teacher said, “I am completely overwhelmed. And I can’t wait to get to work every day.” If that was then and this is now, where will this school be in three more years at the end of AISI Cycle Four?

Kurtis Hewson is principal of West Meadows Elementary School, in Claresholm (formerly Claresholm Elementary School).

Jim Parsons is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta and AISI Director for the Faculty of Education. Parsons contributes regularly to the ATA Magazine.