Texas Middle School Adopts Software for Reading Assessment and Instruction

Humble Middle School in Humble, Texas, has a student mobility rate approaching 35%. With this high rate of turnover, the school needed a program that quickly diagnosed the academic skills of new students and improved the retention for those leaving the district. Instructors were especially concerned with students' reading aptitude. Only 58% of HMS students had passed the reading portion of a state-mandated standardized exam for the 1992/93 school year. Administrators at the Humble Independent School District, meanwhile, emphasized that any reading program they adopted would have to allow for the inclusion of all students in the regular classroom. Grant Supports Inclusion In 1993, the district used some of its federal funds to provide individualized reading instruction at three schools, including HMS. A technology committee purchased a total of 30 Macintosh LC computers and a comprehensive reading package from Autoskill Inter-national, of Ottawa, Canada. The firm conducted two days of onsite training for teachers, after which classes were scheduled to use the software for 20 minutes every other day. Reading labs at the middle school included both regular education students and those classified as having special needs. A separate reading program for special-ed students was abolished. Penrod Vladyka, special education coordinator for the district, ensured that teachers followed the guidelines for the study. He says 300 students attended the reading lab, including some with learning disabilities and emotional difficulties, plus ESL students. Vladyka reports that the Autoskill Reading Program produced noticeable gains for students at all grade levels, which he attributes to the software's unique combination of theoretical approaches. Based on extensive research done by neuropsychologists and reading experts, the program determines the specific needs and learning style of each student, then identifies one of three subtypes: S, A or O. For example, Type O students have trouble primarily in the oral aspects of reading. These students are assigned an orderly sequence of exercises that involve reading aloud materials presented on the screen. The package includes a student management system and sophisticated record keeping capabilities. A personal file is automatically maintained on each learner so that testing and training histories can be accessed at any time and displayed in table or graph formats. "Kids like it because they can track their success real easily," comments Vladyka. And, in the case of Humble Middle School, the success has been evident to all involved. Students in the reading lab were tested using two forms of the Gates-MacGinitie reading test, in August 1993 and in March 1994. According to the results, students achieved reading comprehension gains ranging from 1.13 to 1.45 years. Special education students also posted impressive gains. In fact, their acquisition of reading comprehension skills in 1993/94 was three times the rate of previous years. Vladyka adds that several teachers have told him they could identify students' reading problems simply by watching them work on the Autoskill program. Immediate Reinforcement And students seem to enjoy the quick feedback provided by the software. "The computer delivers immediate reinforcement for correct responses, and incorrect responses are immediately corrected for positive practice," says Vladyka. Following the successful trial at HMS, he and Ken Schrader, another special education coordinator, submitted a state grant proposal to expand the program. The grant was awarded, which enabled the opening of Autoskill reading labs on five elementary school campuses for the 1994/95 school year. Vladyka thinks people of all ages would benefit from the software's emphasis on skills mastery rather than gimmicks. "We feel that we need to focus on the younger learner," he says, adding that the program is also effective for adults, ESL students and more. Toward that end, the district plans to open a summer reading lab at one of its elementary schools so anybody can use the Autoskill Reading Program. Based on the comments of students thus far, Vladyka expects that there will be no problem attracting visitors to the lab, even on a summer day in Texas.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.