Struggling Readers Perk Up under New Program

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"These students just blossomed.... We saw their self-esteem go through the roof." That's Trena Nave, a reading specialist at Carbondale Middle School in Illinois, talking about a group of 12 seventh-graders in self-contained special education who last year benefited from a new, partly computer-based reading program.

"If you haven't been successful with reading since kindergarten, you just hate reading," Nave explained. "Then all of the sudden you're in this program where ... teachers are like cheerleaders, and small groups are reading together, and you're able to stop and discuss ... and the online activities are so motivational. All of a sudden, you're beginning to feel good about your reading and yourselves. We saw [students] really excited about their progress."

Nave oversees Carbondale Middle School's reading program school-wide. As part of the program, special education seventh graders used a program called Read Now Power Up!, from Renaissance Learning, during the 2006-2007 school year. Those students' grade equivalent (GE) scores increased by 1.4 GEs, exceeding the level of growth typically achieved by that level of student during a school year.

Based on last year's success, Carbondale this year expanded the program to 45 students, concentrating this time on sixth graders, moving more to small group instruction, and including students outside self-contained special education classes. Small groups of designated students are pulled out of class to work in the Read Now program, then return to their regular classroom, where the teacher continues to follow the program's techniques.

Read Now Power Up! works by offering a system of instruction in critical reading skills that incorporates a computer-based component. Students read and discuss literature both in small group settings and independently, using a computer at times for specific tasks. The program helps students build and practice comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, writing, and decoding skills.

The technology includes daily progress-monitoring tools to support instructional activities, allowing teachers to personalize instruction for each student.

Working with a small group of eight students or so at a time, reading in the program is always done together, whether out loud by the teacher or student, or silent reading individually. Each novel begins with standard pre-reading strategies discussing the genre and topic. As students complete each chapter, Read Now Power Up! provides computer activities such as a vocabulary builder. Students particularly enjoy the interactive aspects of the program, and the ample positive feedback from the computerized portion, Nave said.

So how does she explain the success of the program? "It's a lot more intense," Nave said. "The instruction is very structured.... With this product, you repeat certain strategies over and over again." Students don't seem to notice the repetition, she said, and are clearly enamored of the product, and of their progress in using it.

Nave said she thinks that several components of the Read Now program have helped make it a success at Carbondale, including its focus on small groups, the use of strategies that are repeated over and over, and the motivational aspects offered by the computerized portions.

"It's set up so that you read a novel or small trade book together in small groups," Nave explained. "The computer part is interwoven." Since Carbondale often does not have enough computers for each student in a classroom, half work at a computer while half use paper to perform the same sorts of tasks.

"We feel like our results have been phenomenal," Nave said, with dramatic reading skill jumps so far. Students have already shown half a year's growth in reading skills in the first semester, Nave said, which is expected for an average student, but "amazing" for these students--the most reading progress many have seen for any full year since starting school.

Training for teachers consisted of half a dozen two-hour stints of online training, using a conference call line and a computer controlled by a Read Now instructor, which Nave found an effective way of saving on travel and time away from the classroom. The training was capped by two days of onsite training during the summer. Two Read Now instructors helped Carbondale teachers set up the classrooms and computers, and then reviewed reading progress reports once school started, offering guidance.

Read Now Power Up! is sold for a fixed price as a classroom package for the first year of use, plus an annual subscription cost per student, with prices based on specific needs of schools. According to the vendor, Read Now Power Up! qualifies for federal funding under No Child Left Behind, including Title I, Reading First, Comprehensive School Reform, and various potential state, local, and private funding sources.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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