Reading First :: Reading First...Technology Second?


The federal early-literacy program gets a big boost from tools used for professional development and personalized student instruction. But that potential is too often going unrecognized.

Reading First BREWSTER ELEMENTARY, a rural K-6 school of almost 500 students, just north of Yakima, WA, could reasonably be considered a school at risk: Fully 92 percent of its students qualify for Title I funding; 83 percent use English as a second language. For eight years running, Brewster has been using the HOSTS Learning system, with fundinghelp from the federal Reading First program.

Though it doesn't formally approve particular reading programs, Reading First-whose goal is to ensure that all children are capable readers by the end of third grade-requires that programs provide instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. HOSTS, which stands for Help One Student To Succeed, does all that and more, offering mentoring intervention, an online instruction management tool, and professional development consultations. The program is a hybrid of professional development, assessment, and direct instruction.

At the beginning of each school year, Brewster Principal Eric Driessen screens his students, using both a standardized test and a HOSTS assessment. He discusses the students' needs with the program coordinator and the school's reading coach; typically about 60 students are chosen for the program. Those students then receive half an hour a day of extra reading instruction from a mentor; the mentors are all volunteers from the community. Margaret Reynolds, a retired teacher, has been mentoring third- and fourth-grade students in the program for four years. She says she's seen great improvement in almost everyone, in no small part because her students know that someone cares. "It gives them more confidence," she says. "You can see that they're enjoying it more. There's somebody who's interested in what they're doing."

The program coordinator, it so happens, is the principal's wife, Liz Driessen. Liz talks with virtually everyone in the community-attending organizational meetings and visiting businesses, middle schools, and high schools-in the effort to recruit mentors. "Sometimes," sheadmits, "I feel like a used-car salesman."

Whatever the strategy, it seems to be working: She garnered more than 100 volunteers this year, and that doesn't even include the money, goods, and services donated by businesses. She thinks that the strength of the program is its personalization- the 1-to-1 mentor-student structure and the individual learning plans. Technology has a key presence as well. Each student's assessment results are entered into a computer, and the program generates a long-term plan that includes weekly objectives. Students are also tested on the computer and receive feedback. All the effort is paying off richly. Eighty percent of Brewster students who go through the program end up passing the state assessment in reading-these are studentswho were previously failing.

What's happening at Brewster Elementary illustrates the role technology can play in Reading First. The question is, What role is technology playing in Reading First to realize the program's objectives, which are, direct from its website: "to select, implement, and provide professional development for teachers using scientifically based reading programs, and to ensure accountability through ongoing, valid, and reliable screening, diagnostic, and classroom-based assessment"?

Eighty percent of students who go through one elementary school'stechnology-supported literacy program end up passing the statereading assessment-these are students who were previously failing.

Unfortunately, in too many instances, not as prominent as the role it should be playing. For example, Kathleen Doyle, Reading First regional coordinator at South Cook Intermediate Service Center 4, says she knows of no Reading First funds in her six South Chicago districts that have been allotted to technology. Doyle says the Illinois State Board of Education"wants kids to be able to read booksfirst." In California, Jeff Cohen of thestate's Reading/Language Arts LeadershipOffice says his office doesn't trackthat kind of information, but that "eachdistrict will be somewhat unique."

Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, which makes wireless assessment tools that are used by many Reading First schools, says a lot of his customers don't even consider their handheld products to be technological devices. "Sometimes," he marvels, "a technology person isn't even in the decision tree"-which is astonishing considering the reading improvements that technology has shown to generate. Wherever it is being applied, whether through professional development, student assessment, or individual instruction, technological tools are helping Reading First live up to its goals.

Professional Development

Professional development for Reading First teachers is undertaken on a large scale in the US heartland. Since Reading First can't meet the demand for training all qualified elementary and middle school teachers, it allows e-Learning for Educators to use a Ready to Teach grant to do it. The program involves public television stations and state departments of education in nine states, and offers internet-based courses for K-12 teachers. One of those states is Missouri, whose course offerings for summer 2007 include:

  • Helping Struggling Readers Improve Comprehension
  • Improving Reading and Writing in the Content Areas
  • Reading First: Supporting Early Reading Instruction With Technology
  • Supporting Literacy Development in the Lower Elementary Classroom

Christie Terry is the program coordinator for e-Learning for Educators: Missouri. Terry says that "teachers who support each other are much more likely to successfully complete the course," which is why the program encourages schools to organize teachers to receive the coursework. Each course costs $125, with an additional $100 per credit-hour for graduate credit from any of three Missouri universities: the University of Missouri- Kansas City, the University of Missouri- St. Louis, or Missouri State University. A five-week course is worth one credit-hour, and a seven-week course is worth two.

Next door in Kentucky, Bob Fortney is the senior consultant for Kentucky Virtual High School, as well as the state manager for e-Learning for Educators: Kentucky. The state has 700 elementary schools, of which 73 are Reading First schools, with 1,400 Reading First teachers. All seven of the state's Reading First online professional development courses are free, facilitated, and interactive.


Mission: To enable all students to become proficient readers by the time they complete the third grade.

Origin: A component of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002.

Overview: States receive funds based on the number of children living in families with income below the poverty line. Although there is no official list of approved reading programs, Reading First stipulates that programs must provide instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension.

"We're rural and we're poor," Fortney says, so online courses make a lot of sense. According to the feedback he gets, teachers like the ease of instruction, they like knowing they're improving their professional practice, and they like the idea of collaborating with other teachers. Besides, according to the state's Reading First co-coordinator, Linda Holbrook, all Reading First teachers are required to have 80 hours of professional development each year, and this is a good way to get those hours.

Student Assessment

Based in Brooklyn, NY, Wireless Generation provides teachers, schools, and districts with "observational assessment software" in addition to handheld computers for easy, 1-to-1 assessment. Currently, more than 100,000 teachers use WG products, a third of them in Reading First schools. Teachers administer benchmark and progress-monitoring assessments throughout the year, using the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and other literacy measures. The data is captured in the handheld devices, then encrypted and uploaded to WG's server, after which teachers, principals, superintendents, reading coaches, and parents get analyses and reports.

Previously, company CEO Berger had restricted himself to the not-for-profit world-running computer labs in Harlem, developing educational software for NASA, building an online world for sick children. With WG, though, he says there's "a chance to have a more lasting and important application of technology. What I really love about this is the ability to achieve effect [on a large] scale."

Judging by what's happening in West Virginia, he's certainly accomplished that. In West Virginia, 10 to 20 percent of Reading First funds go to some type of electronic technology. The state's Reading First project director, Beverly Kingery, is a big supporter of WG products: "Everything they have available, we use." The results? "The proof is in the students' achievement," she says. Namely:

  • All 36 Reading First schools recorded trend growth at one or more grades; 33 of the 36 showed adequate yearly progress (AYP), and the other three were not far off. Kingery says West Virginia had a higher growth rate in second and third grades than did most other states in the country.
  • Ten schools recorded trend growth in all grades.
  • Twenty-four schools had at least one class at the 100 percent benchmark.

Kingery says WG products are effective and efficient. Teachers, she says, are protective of their instructional time, and the company's handheld devices, along with the generated reports, allow them to conduct assessments much more quickly than before. That must be why Berger says, "We get a lot of hugs at educational trade shows." One teacher told him, "In my 19 years of teaching in public schools, this is the first time somebody tried to save me time."

Berger says the truly rewarding anecdotes are at the instructional level. Teachers' usual responses to assessments had been along the lines of: Yes, I know my kids are struggling. "Now," says Berger, "this shows them exactly where their students are and what they need to get where they're going."


Below is an example of an Associated Press article after it was rewritten for use by Achieve3000, which is contracted to rewrite AP stories at several different reading levels.

A Cloud That Won't Go Away

DisplaysSALT LAKE CITY, UTAH (Jan. 31, 2007)

In Utah, many people cannot go outside because the air is too dirty. How did the air get dirty? Cars and factories gave off gases. The gases went into the air.

The air is not safe to breathe. It makes people cough. Many people are staying indoors. Kids stay in at recess. The air was not as dirty last winter. Why not? Last winter, the days were windy. The wind blew the dirty air away. This winter, the air has been still.

People are hoping for a big wind. They hope it will blow the dirty air away.


  • Breathe (verb): to take in air and then let it out
  • Cough (verb): to quickly push air out of the mouth
  • Factory (noun): a place where things are made

Berger plans on developing a set of tools that would use data to drive a process of early screening and intervention for reading disability. The tools would provide district leaders with reports about at-risk students. In fact, Berger is stepping up emphasis on superintendents- giving them data and providing ways for them to use the data systematically.

Personalized Instruction

Where there is assessment, personalized instruction is sure to follow. Achieve3000's supplemental reading programs are used in both Reading First and mainstream classrooms. According to the company's vice president of curriculum and product design, Rivki Locker, "It's one set of materials to meet the needs of every learner in your classroom." Here's how one of the programs, KidBiz, works in grades 2 to 5:

  • Reading comprehension is assessed using a tool that assigns each student a Lexile level, which makes it easier to match text difficulty with reader ability.
  • Students receive daily level-appropriate, standards-aligned nonfiction reading and writing assignments via e-mail.
  • Student comprehension levels are regularly monitored and are assessed again at the middle and end of the year.
  • Teachers and administrators receive ongoing management reports and diagnostic data on each student.

How's this for an idea? Achieve3000 has a contract with the Associated Press."We are the only company that's allowedto rewrite AP stories," Locker says. Thecompany rewrites the stories at 11 differentreading levels. Students receive onenew article every day, plus they haveaccess to seven years of archives. Thearticles are about two weeks old, butAchieve3000 can make allowances forreally pressing news. (See "The News, inOther Words," side bar.)

A national study compared students' Lexile gains before and after using Kid- Biz. It concluded that the program has"a significant effect on students' nonfictionreading performance." The studyalso found that the more often studentsused the program, the better they did.

Another digital tool that individualizes reading instruction is Evan-Moor's, an online collection of more than 32,000 activities for K-6 in all major subject areas such as literature, science, social studies, and in thinking and writing skills.

With TeacherFileBox, users can search by curriculum area, grade level, skill, theme, holiday, or keyword. They can download one activity or an entire yearlong course. And as long as an internet connection is available, students and teachers can access the activities any time of the day or night, throughout the year.

Julie Hillman uses TeacherFileBox in the homeschooling of her son, Johnny, who's in the first grade but reads at a third-grade level. Hillman especially likes the ability to preview every page of an activity before printing it. "It's a really nice resource," she says. "You don't want to spend $20 or $30 on a book when you want to use only part of it." These days her son is immersed in its astronomy and National Geographic specials. "He's having a blast," she says.

Qualitative Benefits

With all that technology has to offer Reading First, districts that don't incorporate it into their literacy programs are losing out and depriving their students of a significant learning implement. Witness the remarkable rise in reading proficiency at Brewster Elementary documented earlier. But the positive outcomes go beyondthose that are quantifiable.

"The things that aren't measurable," says Brewster Principal Driessen, "at least on paper, are the relationships that are built between kids and the mentors. In the spring, when it's all over, we get tears."

Sometimes they gets smiles as well. When shy fourth-grader Sonia, who is mentored for half an hour a day, Monday through Thursday, is asked how it feels to improve in reading skills, she replies with a confident, face-busting grin: "It feels really good."

:: web extra ::For more information on this topic, visit T.H.E. Journal and search by the keyword reading.

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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