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Reading program set to catch problems early

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Tuesday September 04, 2001

It’s been common knowledge in the school district for years that certain students – a high percentage of them minority students – were not learning to read in the critical early grades of elementary school. 

It was an alarming trend because in the teaching world, it is generally understood that third grade is the time when students go from learning to read to reading to learn. Those students who had not learned to read by third grade thus faced dim prospects in the years ahead. 

And, indeed, there are countless stories of students beginning to lose their self-esteem around fifth grade, and arriving at middle school the following year with a sickening sense that they cannot possibly succeed in school, no matter how hard they try. 

By the time students reach Berkeley High, scores on standardized tests have shown for years that they are divided into two groups: those who achieve way above the state average and those who achieve way below it. Again, the division more often than not happens along racial and economic lines. 

Chris Lim, a middle school principal in Berkeley for 12 years, was named the Berkeley Unified School District’s associate superintendent of instruction in 1998. She knew that all principals were concerned by the problems with literacy instruction in the early grades, so she immediately began looking around to see what the district was doing to address the problem. 

To her dismay, she found BUSD was doing very little. What efforts were being made to address the problem were being driven by individual principals, with the result that each school site had different systems in place – of varying quality and intensity. 

“I said, ‘OK, where’s the plan for this? How are we meeting this goal?’ And I realized there wasn’t a plan,” Lim said. 

So, in 1998, with the enthusiastic support of principals from 11 elementary schools, Lim launched a three-year plan to put a battery of literacy programs in place at every school site. A districtwide assessment tool would be developed to evaluate how well the program, known as the Early Literacy Program, was meeting its goal of having all students reading at or above grade level by the third grade. 

Last year was the first time that all of the city’s elementary schools reached full implementation. In October, Lim will present to the Board of Education for the first time a report showing the year-to-year changes in student literacy accomplished through the program. 

Anecdotal reports indicate that the program has been a tremendous success. Teachers and administrators report fewer students beginning second and third grades with the severe literacy deficits that had been all too common before. 

Under the project, students’ literacy is assessed in the first grade to determine those most at risk. The 20 percent who score lowest are then given intensive, one-on-one instruction every day from a Reading Recovery teacher with extensive training in literacy instruction – training above and beyond that of the average teacher. 

The Reading Recovery students’ progress is assessed every single day. Those who are deemed to have reached grade level are “graduated.” Those who fail to make progress are referred to special education. Those who have poor attendance are dropped from the project. 

If a student who did not test in the bottom 20 percent at the beginning of first grade seems to be slipping behind in the regular classroom, he or she might be placed in Reading Recovery at any time during the year. 

Far from focusing only on the lowest-scoring 20 percent of first graders, the district’s Early Literacy Program is a plan to improve literacy instruction for all students in grades K-3. All students are assessed for their literacy level at least twice a year at every grade. There is a weekly intervention program, similar to reading recovery but less intensive, for second- and third-graders who seem to be falling behind their classmates.  

Furthermore, aside from the so-called “intervention” programs for the students most in need, the new literacy program has appointed “literacy leaders” at each elementary school site. These teachers are trained extensively in the latest literacy instruction techniques and then given time during the school year to train all the teachers at their school. 

Whereas in the past, Berkeley, like other school districts, tended to adopt one literacy instruction technique and run with it, today the district has integrated nine techniques into a comprehensive plan for teaching students to read. 

They include:  

• Reading aloud to children, a technique believed to motivate children to read, develop their sense of story and increase their vocabulary. 

• Shared Reading, which involves rereading texts with students to build their confidence and comfort with reading. 

• Guided Reading, in which students are divided into small groups based on their reading levels. 

• Independent Reading, in which children are encouraged to read on their own. 

• Shared Writing, in which the teacher acts as a scribe as students compose messages and stories. 

• Interactive Writing, which provide opportunities to plan and construct text. 

• Guided Writing, in which teachers and volunteers work closely with students to help them complete a written document and perform edits of their work. 

• Independent Writing, in which students are encourage to experiment with different forms of written expression. 

• And a technique called Letters, Words, and How They Work. 

The new approach to literacy may not be universally popular with all teachers. But, under the new plan, teachers are discussing their successes and failures in literacy instruction more than every before at site staff meetings, Lim said. 

Said Oxford school literacy leader Mary Barrett: “Berkeley has one of the more balanced approaches around. We have a very solid reading program now.”