Boosting Student Reading Takes Center Stage

Credit: Mike Buck

While it isn’t clear if nationally renowned researcher Richard Allington was excited to see staff from the school district where he started his career, it is clear that literacy coach Kathy Arlen and elementary Principal Pamela Thomas were interested in what they could learn from him.

When the pair attended a reading conference at which Allington was the keynote speaker, something he said jumped out at them. During a break, they went to meet him to make sure that the man who taught fourth/fifth grade in Kent City during 1968-69 knew that they were from Kent City too.

“He didn’t seem too impressed,” said Arlen, but his ideas and research impressed her.

Allington moved from the Kent City classroom to become the Title I director for Belding Area Schools. During doctoral studies at Michigan State University, he began his focus on literacy issues in education. Currently employed as a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, he has served as president of the National Reading Conference and the International Reading Association and has authored numerous books on literacy.

Allington’s conference presentation sparked an idea for encouraging students to read during summer break — one of several strategies the school is using to boost interest in reading.

In a program modeled after his research, first-grade students – and in particular the 60-some who had received reading assistance under the federal Title I law — were targeted as inaugural recipients of the Ten Books for Three Years program promoted by Allington.

The students were allowed to choose 10 books, which were theirs to keep. After three years, each participant would have 30 books and, according to the research, would likely show marked improvement in what teachers have long recognized as the “summer slide.”

“We often see kids at their benchmark in the spring that have fallen behind when they return in the fall,” Arlen said.

Students Choose Books

A big element in Allington’s theory is choice, she explained, noting that she used donation money to purchase a variety of books and then the students went shopping for their own.

The school hoped to capture parent support for the summer initiative, so only students whose parents attended a short session on the program, which included tips on how to encourage reading in the home, were included in the pilot program.

“We were thrilled with the participation,” Arlen said. “Approximately 40 of our students received the free books.” Participants also received a storage basket and a journal, in which they were expected to write a short snippet about what they read.

Throughout the summer, Arlen sent text reminders to parents and received some great feedback. “Thank you for inviting us to be part of this pilot,” said one first-grader’s parent. “We enjoyed ourselves. Plus it held us to be accountable to read throughout the summer, which had been a struggle in the past. I hope his testing scores reflect his hard work.”

Reading the Results

English language arts M-STEP scores have been trending upward over the past three years in the district, according to Will Lepech, assistant principal for the school, who also serves as Director of English Learner, Migrant and Homeless Services. For instance, third-graders proficient in reading rose to 57.8 percent last spring from 50.9 in 2016. It is too early to say if the Ten Book pilot made a significant difference in the testing, he said.

“Several teachers shared with me that they were seeing higher reading scores when they tested students this fall than they had in previous years,” Lepech said. “We are still compiling and analyzing this data to determine if this was seen at all grade levels or if it is related to any specific strategies we utilized.”

Proponents of the pilot are optimistic.

“Even Allington’s research didn’t show much change in the first year,” Arlen noted, “and we are now looking at ways to evaluate how we can increase participation and support for the program.”

The free book reading initiative was only one of the ways the school promoted summer reading. A Kent District Library initiative, known as the “six-book” challenge, fit right into the all-building approach to encouraging summer reading for its students.

“Research shows that if a child reads six chapter books over the summer, reading loss is reduced,” said school librarian Sara Schutt.

She devised a worksheet with over 50 ways to encourage reading and sent every student home with a form, which required a simple sentence or two about the book. “You need to read the book to decide on its purpose,” she said.

The actual number of students who participated was less than organizers had hoped for, but they are encouraged.

Students who participated in either reading challenge were treated to a cookout, with music, games and ice-cream treats. The celebration was held recently during school hours on school grounds, in the hope that more students would be encouraged to join in subsequent years.

“It was a great place to start,” Schutt said. “Maybe six kids were reading in the summer after first grade that weren’t before, and that is a good thing.”

Trusting the Research

“We may not have seen big returns in our scores this year, but we are encouraged for the future and we believe we will see good results in the long run,” Arlen said. “We are putting our trust in the research and know we are getting results.”

The school also finds ways to make reading fun throughout the school year. A recent celebrity reader in many classrooms was Michelle Alt, who attended Kent City Elementary and now is serving as Apple Queen runner-up.

Another ongoing effort to encourage love of books and stories is a literary lunch, in which students are invited to eat their lunch in the library while someone reads to them. After they finish eating, they are encouraged to doodle their thoughts.

“It is my favorite part, seeing what they draw or come up with during the period,” said Schutt. “Often they stop at my desk to share their pictures of what the story meant to them.”

CONNECT

Richard Allington’s literacy research website

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