Text Choice Helped Boost This District’s Literacy Success—and Empower...


Text Choice Helped Boost This District’s Literacy Success—and Empower Students

from Reading Plus

By Kelli Anderson     Mar 19, 2019

Text Choice Helped Boost This District’s Literacy Success—and Empower Students

Amalia Lopez became a high school English teacher because she thinks functional English is one of the greatest gifts you can give anyone trying to navigate life in the United States. So it may have been fate that she landed a job in the low-income, heavily immigrant California Central Valley community of Lindsay in 2009. That year, after decades as one of the most underperforming districts in the Valley, the Lindsay Unified School District was embarking on a bold and pioneering project to switch from a traditional education system to its own community-sourced, performance-based learning system. Out went A-F grading, social promotion and even the terms “student” and “teacher.” In came competency-based structures, student empowerment, and terms like “learner” and “learning facilitator.”

At the heart of the Lindsay system is literacy. “We view literacy as the wheel in the middle that every other spoke comes off of,” says Lopez, who now manages a $28 million federal grant that was awarded to the district in October of 2017 to develop teacher and leader capacity.

EdSurge recently asked Lopez to share insights into Lindsay’s transformation from a chronic underachiever to a nationally recognized model of competency-based education whose four-year college entrance rate is twice the national average for low-income communities. She discussed the role that Reading Plus, an adaptive reading intervention program, has played in her district’s literacy success. And she emphasized the impact of text choice on reading motivation and why that is especially powerful in a community where 75% of the residents are both English learners and living below the poverty line.

EdSurge: What motivates you as an educator?

Amalia Lopez: Here in Lindsay, we need our children to be literate because they are taking care of the older generations who did not come here with English skills. Watching kids become more literate and start to feel good about it is a really powerful motivator for a teacher.

We do senior exit interviews every year where the seniors stand up in front of a community panel and talk about the future and the challenges. I remember my last year at the high school I had a learner who stood up and said, “I was an English learner. I came here from Mexico at eight, and I never thought I’d be able to stand up here and speak in English and read in English like I do.”

I was his teacher for about three years; it’s a powerful moment to realize every door has opened to him because he can read and write in English. That’s a huge thing for me. That has always been my motivation.

How important is it for your students to be successful readers?

It’s huge. The reason our district was underperforming for many years was literacy. If learners can’t read, they can’t access content instruction. For us, literacy is the big thing, because we are always going to have a population of students who have language acquisition needs.

Our community is predominantly Hispanic, and we have a growing population from Yemen, as well as a contingent of Hmong students. A lot of our teachers intentionally try to work with texts that are going to be culturally relevant, and Reading Plus does a great job of including those texts in their offerings.

Literacy for us is the gateway to equitable access to literally every other subject. If students want to be engineers, they are going to have to be proficient readers.

Can you explain how your reading intervention program works?

After an initial reading assessment, learners read texts that automatically adjust depth, pace and difficulty to an individual’s vocabulary, comprehension and fluency levels.

I think of Reading Plus as a vitamin. It doesn’t replace good instruction from a teacher. It’s meant to give every single learner personalized reading support, and that completely matches our model. The program gives students that daily dose—sometimes two—if they want it. They are reading at a level that is instructionally challenging but is in line with their development, so the vocabulary is leveled to them, the reading passages that they choose are leveled to them, and there is a fluency rate that they are working towards.

How does students’ ability to choose their own texts impact their motivation to read?

We find that learners are really motivated by it. The neat thing about the text choice in the program—and this is the English teacher in me—it includes excerpts of touchstone novels such as the “Canterbury Tales.” That’s a huge deal because those are texts that our kids might not have had access to in their main content instruction.

We’ve tried to teach kids to be advocates for their own learning. Reading is a really good example. They know their reading goals. They know why they are trying to become better readers. They know they have different avenues to improve their reading: They can check out books, they can work with a teacher, they can do Reading Plus. The motivation comes when they really start to get into the stuff they read. Some of the librarians tell me that the kids will come in and say, “I read this thing on Reading Plus. Is that a book? Can I check that out?”

Do you see kids’ enthusiasm for reading blossom outside the classroom, too?

Absolutely. If kids are English learners and their homes do not have English newspapers and books, that lack of print leads to a lack of ability to think about reading choices. Because our program is giving them those daily personalized choices, it’s actually teaching them to think about what they want to read.

When we first started the program at the high school, I had the struggling readers who were 10th and 11th graders but reading at about the fourth or fifth grade level. One of the first things I noticed with Reading Plus was that the kids wanted to go on to the next lesson because it’s the next part of the story. I think that’s one of the scaffolds that the program does really well.

Have you seen students’ confidence in reading affect other areas of their lives?

In our model, there’s peer interaction, lots of voice, setting goals. I always tell people, “It’s beautiful chaos.”

We have some of the most vocal kids in the world because we have done nothing but build their confidence. They’ll say things like, “This lesson isn’t working for me today.” We want that! We don’t want passive, compliant kids.

We see the confidence in lots of areas, but we see it particularly with Reading Plus because the learner will tell you, “Wow, I’ve already gotten two Combos this week—I’m on fire!” (To earn a Combo, a learner has to achieve 80% or better on two lessons in a row.) They tell you because they are empowered to know their data. They are empowered to make decisions about their learning. Reading Plus is an extension of this idea that confidence comes when you let kids have a voice in what’s happening to them for six or seven hours a day.

Reading Plus develops reading efficiency in order to free up mental energy for comprehension, and make reading more enjoyable and rewarding.

How does the program fit into the goals of Lindsay’s performance-based system?

After testing it at the high school level, we implemented Reading Plus district-wide in 2016. Every school has some autonomy in how they use it, though most use it during their ELA blocks.

It quickly became a powerful tool for us, especially in our six third- through eighth-grade classrooms, because it does a couple of things very well. It’s structured with high-interest choice texts that learners can pick from at their own level. Also, the analytics you get from the assessments kids take for placement are really comprehensive. For example, a sixth grader taking the reading placement test might have a third-grade vocabulary and a fifth-grade comprehension, and he might be reading way too fast from a fluency standpoint. You get a reading profile for each learner.

Our coordinator of research and evaluation crunched all the data and he found that a learner in Lindsay who did 80 or more daily reading exercises moved more than a grade level in a year.

Can you share any specific success stories?

Last year we had four or five eighth graders go all the way through the program, get to the 12th-grade level and basically exit out of the program. When we looked at their district data, we saw this massive increase in reading ability and reading confidence because the learners had really engaged in the program and found a way they liked to read—which then lent itself to success in other areas.

Having students who no longer need the program is an okay problem to have!

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