‘One Bite at a Time’

Intervention practices in Utah districts strengthen reading teachers and improve student literacy by Kathleen J. Brown

 Why are so many of our kids reading below grade level?” “What are you doing to improve reading scores in this district?” “Do teachers know what to do when at-risk and struggling readers enter their classrooms?”

These hard-hitting questions today are being directed to superintendents across the nation with ever-increasing frequency. And despite the best intentions of those on the front lines and the sunniest promises of consultants and academic experts selling silver bullets, easy solutions do not exist.

Part of the answer, however, lies in teacher knowledge. While state-of-the-art classroom materials are important, they are no substitute for educators who have deep expertise in reading development and reading instruction.

What is the best way to help teachers develop this expertise? University teacher preparation programs lay some foundation, but superintendents and principals know full well that novice teachers exit even the best programs only partially prepared for the complex job of teaching struggling readers.

Once engaged in classroom practice, teachers have access to a diverse range of professional development opportunities, all the way from workshops by colleagues to graduate programs in education. Certainly the quality of these experiences varies widely. What characterizes professional development programs that really make a difference? That is, what kind of professional development can help a teacher to respond effectively to a dejected 3rd grader who still reads at primer level or to a wiggly 1st grader who knows only 13 letter names?

Year-Long Training

At the University of Utah Reading Clinic in Salt Lake City, we are addressing those questions. Working together with school district administrators, reading specialists, classroom teachers, paraprofessionals and university professors, we believe we are making concrete progress toward satisfactory answers.

For the past three years, we have provided professional development in reading intervention for educators on-site in their own schools. The experience is intensive and ongoing, lasting a year or more.
As educators learn how to address the needs of struggling readers—the ones who keep us awake at night worrying—they become better reading teachers for all students. In fact, at the completion of the program, veteran teachers with 15 and 20 years of experience often report that they gained a significant amount of knowledge about reading development, and most importantly, improved their ability to facilitate that process for students who struggle.

We believe our reading intervention model and professional development program may inform the practices of other schools and districts anxious to make a significance difference in literacy levels. We have learned from three years of implementation what it takes to make the experience happen effectively, what the benefits are, why our approach is effective and how potential hurdles might be overcome.

Individual Tutoring

The content of the reading intervention itself is simple, yet elegant and robust. Although the amount of time spent and the sequence of activities vary somewhat with the child’s reading ability, each tutoring session includes three basic components: guided reading precisely at the child’s instructional level; systematic, isolated decoding/spelling instruction; and fluency work. For readers below a primer level, tutoring occurs daily. For those above primer, tutoring occurs twice a week.

How do we know it works? We collect pre-post data on all students who receive the intervention. Moreover, the model itself has been tested empirically in quasi-experiments with excellent results. (See resource list.)

All tutoring sessions take place in a one-on-one format. One-on-one is a powerful aspect of many reading interventions, but that power does not benefit students alone. The opportunity to watch reading development happen up close and personal, without the demands of classroom management, significantly contributes to teachers’ increased expertise.

“It’s the one-on-one and the on-line feedback,” says Peggy Lundberg, a reading specialist in the Murray, Utah, School District, pointing to the key elements. “I appreciate the fact that this intervention model is research based. I’ve been teaching for 18 years and I’ve learned more about teaching reading from this program than I learned in all of my university coursework and district in-services. For the first time, I was free to focus on the reading process itself, instead of trying to keep 25 kids on task. And we had follow up all along the way from people who know what they’re doing!”

Of course, the benefits of this increase in teacher knowledge are not restricted to one-on-one tutoring formats. Educators report that they apply what they have learned with other students in pairs, small groups and even whole group settings.

“I immediately started using the “writing for sounds” part of the intervention with my whole class,” reported Vicki Gomez, a 1st-grade teacher with 20-plus years of experience in the Granite, Utah, School District. “It really made a difference in my kids’ journal writing. I was able to read what they had written much sooner than in previous years. And that spelling knowledge transfers directly over into reading when the kids come across words they don’t know.”

A Practicum Model

In helping teachers learn how to deliver this intervention effectively, we follow a “practicum” model of professional development. That is, the bulk of the learning occurs in the course of actually tutoring young, struggling readers.

When the practicum takes place in a school, the cohort of educators who participate typically includes several primary grade classroom teachers, the school’s reading specialist, a half dozen paraprofessionals, a special educator and the English as second language teacher. When it takes place at the University of Utah Reading Clinic, the cohort usually is composed of graduate students and reading specialists from several districts.

After a general overview, learning begins in earnest when the reading clinician (a professor or a reading specialist with extensive intervention experience) explains and models the intervention lesson with young readers in front of the group.

The next day, cohort members begin implementing what they learned by tutoring the child or children they will work with for the next several months. Then at monthly intervals over the course of the school year the cohort comes together for half-day clinics. Each time they meet, the clinician observes as 4-6 educators conduct actual tutoring lessons with students. The clinician provides feedback and coaching online as needed. The rest of the cohort observes, taking advantage of this opportunity to learn from the professor, their colleagues and the young readers themselves.

When the tutoring lesson concludes, the professor facilitates a short debriefing session wherein each cohort member has an opportunity to present his or her student’s progress, ask questions and discuss what direction the intervention will take in the coming weeks. As the discussion proceeds, questions range from “What can I do about Jessica’s lack of comprehension?” to “I’ve tried everything, but Tavita still has trouble with ‘saw’ and ‘was.’ What do I do?”

The professor capitalizes on these questions as opportunities to help participants understand not only the nuts and bolts of effective intervention, but also the big-picture concepts of reading developmental theory.

Once the debriefing concludes, the process starts all over again. Those who just tutored become observers, while the remaining cohort members conduct their own tutoring lessons and engage in a debriefing. Two weeks later, a clinic-school liaison visits the site and observes each cohort member one-on-one during a tutoring session, providing additional coaching.

This extensive, ongoing opportunity for hands-on practice with mentoring is the foundation of our professional development program. It is a venue where theory meets practice in front of professor, clinician and educator. And it is what differentiates a practicum from the “sit-and-gets” and “make-it, take-its” of traditional professional development in reading.

“It’s time-consuming and it’s costly,” observes Hazel Peterson, Title I facilitator at Monroe Elementary School in the Granite district, “but there’s no substitute for it. It’s the hands-on and mentoring in the practicum that develops expertise.”

Tools in Place

We have learned, sometimes the hard way, that the following components are essential to ensure the success of our intervention practica:

• a perception on the part of participants that they have something to learn about reading intervention;

• commitment from building administrators (principal, Title I specialist and/or reading specialist);

• commitment from at least two primary grade teachers and several other personnel (up to 12) who agree to tutor at least one child each;

• a professor or clinician with deep knowledge of reading developmental theory and extensive experience working with at-risk and struggling readers;

• a clinic-school liaison who provides one-on-one observation and feedback between clinic sessions;

• an educator whose role in the school includes coordination of the intervention program;

• workspace in the school adequate for 4-6 pairs tutoring simultaneously; and,

• funds to support consulting fees and purchase of materials.

Funding Mechanisms

Our experience indicates that school districts vary in how they put the resources together to fund this professional development program. Some have clear district-level involvement through a curriculum director or an assistant superintendent. Others leave the decision to implement a practicum and the responsibility for acquiring funds to individual school principals.

Sources of funding vary as well and include Title I professional development monies, state office of education grants, state trustlands grants and PTA support. In some schools, faculties have elected to use career ladder funds to support teachers who tutor students before or after school hours.

For schools without paraprofessionals, use of career ladder funds has greatly increased the number of struggling readers those schools are able to serve.

The amount of funding necessary varies with the number of participants in a particular school, but, in general, principals find that somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 adequately covers the costs of training, books, materials, substitutes and teacher stipends for the year.

Intervention Benefits

Our experience suggests several tangible benefits occur as a result of educators participating in a reading intervention practicum. Those benefits include:

• students who receive intervention gain 1½ years in reading ability on average;

• primary grade referrals of students for special education services are reduced;

• educators significantly increase their knowledge about the reading process, reading instruction and reading intervention;

• a ripple effect of knowledge ensues as those who participate in the practicum share what they learn with other colleagues;

* Teachers, paraprofessionals, special educators and English-as-second-language personnel speak the same language when discussing reading instruction and intervention;

• a team approach to serving at-risk and struggling readers often evolves; and

• respect for and self-esteem on the part of para-professionals increases.

Hearty Endorsement

While the need for program evaluation through systematic collection and analysis of student outcomes is necessary, it does not always convey the affective outcomes that this type of professional development produces.

Janet Thorpe, curriculum specialist for the Granite schools, says: “Our investment in intervention practica is verified by the data. What doesn’t show up in the numbers, however, is the attitude change that occurs when students come to believe they can read and be successful academically. The 4th grader I tutored was really excited to move ahead through the books and decoding games as he became more proficient. His classroom teacher often commented that she could see his ‘new’ attitude when he was more willing to speak up in class and participate in group work. Even though you can’t quantify that outcome, it’s there and it makes a difference.”

Students are not the only ones who encounter positive affective outcomes from intervention practica. Educators experience them too as they reap the benefits of confidence inspired by enhanced knowledge.

Yvonne Etherington, Title 1 teacher specialist for the Jordan, Utah, School District, finds her district’s investment in this type of professional development well spent. “Learning how to help struggling readers is difficult and time-consuming. Because an intervention practicum lasts for an entire year, teachers receive support all along the way. The old saying, ‘I can eat an elephant, one bite at a time,’ is just how this training works. The step-by-step instruction with time for questions, the observations and debriefing make this the most effective type of staff development I have ever been a part of.”

Kathleen Brown is director of the University of Utah Reading Clinic, 2932 South 2520 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84109. E-mail: brown@gse.utah.edu