Taking a Balanced Approach to Reading
When a third of its sixth-grade students failed a state reading test in 1995, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) realized it needed to determine how to improve student performance. The outcome of that analysis was the adoption of A Balanced Approach to Reading, a program that builds phonological awareness and decoding skills while providing students with opportunities to engage in content-rich, literature-based activities. The results have been exceptional.
The HISD is by no means alone in the challenges it has faced. Of the roughly 40 million children in the United States between the ages of 4 and 13, 40 to 50 percent have reading problems, according to estimates by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In recent years, school districts throughout the country have made a determined effort to repair this situation. Many have found success by taking a holistic, balanced approach to reading.
Addressing Student Needs
In addition to building basic skills and creating situations in which students can put those skills to use, a balanced approach to reading requires interventions that address the needs of students facing significant challenges. Depending on the grade levels involved and on the specific requirements of their students, school boards can choose from a wide variety of programs and products. In Houston, for example, the HISD employs 12 different reading intervention programs. Among the top three are Success for All, Read*Write*Now and the Academy of Reading.
Success for All was developed at Johns Hopkins University and is a school-wide program intended for students in grades pre-K-5. It has a strong family support component that encourages parental involvement. Read*Write*Now is part of the America Reads Challenge, and encourages K-6 students to improve their reading and writing skills with the help of a partner. The Academy of Reading differs from the others in that it is technology-based. Produced by AutoSkill International, Inc., it is a comprehensive software application that complements educators' balanced approach to reading. It is based on award-winning neuropsychological research into the reading process. Building on the work of doctors Christina Fiedorowicz and Ronald Trites, the program leads students from developing fundamental skills, such as recognizing and manipulating phonemes, to more complex tasks, including the identification of common words and sounds in order to read longer sentences and passages.
"In our balanced approach to reading strategies, we have six critical components," explains Phyllis Hunter, former reading manager of the Houston Independent School District. "The first is phonemic awareness, the second is print awareness, and the third is reading practice. They are all addressed in the Academy of Reading."
The Houston experience
Jefferson Davis High School is a typical inner-city educational facility in Houston. With a large Hispanic population, approximately 60 percent of the school's students come from homes where Spanish is the language of choice. Therefore, many of the students are learning English as a second language.
"That's a huge obstacle to overcome when it comes to basic reading skills," says Warner Marsh, Technology and Reading Coordinator at Jefferson Davis. "Fundamental reading skills are missing." To help students build and reinforce those fundamental skills, the Houston Independent School District instituted its balanced approach to reading. The AutoSkill Academy of Reading software is currently being used to support that approach in 35 schools throughout the district, including Jefferson Davis High.
Breaking the complex task of learning to read into its component skills, Academy of Reading acts as a virtual school, assigning training programs to students based on their individually diagnosed needs. The software comes with a full range of diagnostic tools that quickly and accurately assess students' reading levels and identify areas for improvement.
"Since we started with the Academy of Reading," says Marsh, "our grade results have improved significantly. We're seeing students improve by about 2.5 grades after 25 hours on the program." Students can progress from one level to the next only when they are able to complete training exercises consistently at success rates of 96 percent or higher. The speed at which they respond is also factored in, because speed is a strong indicator of "automaticity" - the ability of a student to process the basic elements of reading automatically.
As a software program, Academy of Reading can serve any number of students economically and effectively. The system is designed for easy management, so teachers can always remain informed of how their students are faring and produce reports as necessary.
Success Across the Map
As mentioned previously, the Houston Independent School District is not alone in facing the challenge of improving its students' reading skills. Fillmore Junior High School in Ventura County found 68 percent of its students reading below California state standards. "Naturally, there was a lot of residual resentment in students who were held back," says David MacDonald, a Technology Coordinator at Fillmore. "They had no incentive to learn and became somewhat stigmatized by their inability to read at an adequate level."
As part of its balanced approach to reading, Fillmore introduced the Academy of Reading into its summer-school classes. By the end of the summer term, some students had improved by as many as three grade levels. Educators in Wellington, Kansas were similarly concerned with building their students' confidence. Not only did a group of children advance their reading skills by 2.8 grade levels in just eight weeks, but they also gained a genuine sense of accomplishment.
"All of the students were eager to use the program," says Shari Carothers, a sixth grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School. "We couldn't keep them off the computers. They all took great pride in printing out their achievement certificates. They really feel they earn them."
Because it supports a holistic approach to learning reading skills, the program strengthens students' critical-thinking abilities in addition to raising their test scores. "There was a need to improve the basic skills in reading," says Vera White, Principal of Jefferson Junior High School and Assistant Superintendent of Middle and Junior High Schools in the District of Columbia. "However, the most important thing we needed to teach our students was how to use their minds well."
"Success breeds success," says Phyllis Hunter, former Reading Manager of the HISD. "The more students see that they're learning, the better they feel about themselves and their reading curriculum."
Autoskill International, Inc.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.