Case Study

Breaking Through Reading Barriers

Elementary school gets struggling readers and special education students interested in reading

After using a tech-based reading program with struggling readers and special education students at Homestead Elementary School in Crossville, TN, fourth-grade inclusion teacher Ashlee Ritzko witnessed a new phenomenon: Students that were reluctant or resistant readers were suddenly excited about reading the novels.

Ritzko, who is currently a fifth-grade teacher, credits the school's Successful Reader implementation with creating that breakthrough moment. Developed by Wisconsin Rapids, WI-based Renaissance Learning, a provider of computer-based assessment technology for preK-12 schools, the software was used as a Tier 2 reading intervention for response to intervention (RTI).

RTI is a multi-tiered approach to help struggling learners. Students' progress is closely monitored at each stage of intervention to determine the need for further research-based instruction and/or intervention in general education, in special education, or both.

At Homestead Elementary, Successful Reader works in tandem with Accelerated Reader, which has been in place at the school since 1992. In October 2008, the school launched its Successful Reader pilot program. "We used the program in a fourth-grade inclusion classroom," said Ritzko, "with special education students and students identified through the RTI process as struggling readers or those students not meeting necessary language arts benchmarks."

Ritzko said the pilot came about after the school learned that Successful Reader was geared toward helping with the new RTI. "We were already using several Renaissance products, so when they offered to do the Successful Reader pilot, we went for it."

Successful Reader is composed of two parts: a "book club," during which students listen to iPod-based audio recordings of high-interest titles and spend time thinking about and discussing the texts as a group accompanied by explicit instruction on strategic comprehension and vocabulary; and 30 to 60 minutes of class time spent on guided independent reading practice. Student progress is monitored via Accelerated Reading quizzes.

Homestead Elementary, which has 747 K-8 students, took several measures to ensure student success within the program, according to Ritzko. Through personalized goal setting, for example, all students had goals matched for reading levels and time spent reading. Teachers conducted frequent conferences with individual students in order to closely monitor progress (and intervene if issues arose), and students received guided independent reading practice time within the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).

"Students read books within individualized reading ranges to ensure that they were challenged, but not frustrated," said Ritzko, who encouraged students to read within their recommended reading ranges. However, if they expressed interest in books outside of their ZPDs, she would "foster this newfound enthusiasm for reading by providing support that ensured a positive experience, including buddy reading and reading with parents."

The tech-based system creates a hands-on approach to reading instruction that goes beyond simply reading words on a page. "The students read a novel with an accompanying journal," said Ritzko. "Before they start reading each day, they go over vocabulary and we discuss the story and make predictions about what's coming up." Then the students listen to the day's chapters on the iPod in order to "get them to hear the text fluently, and with feeling," said Ritzko. Participants then open up their journals and ask questions specific to the story.

"We share our answers as a group, or they partner up with their neighbors to discuss the chapters," said Ritzko. Students also complete vocabulary activities, read magazine articles and participate in other "tie-in" activities, all in the name of getting them involved with the reading experience on multiple levels.

During the first seven months that its new reading intervention program was in use, Homestead Elementary saw impressive gains in its students' reading ability. Participants in the program made a nine-month improvement in reading achievement--from 2.3 to 3.2 grade equivalents. The students' normal curve equivalent (NCE) scores grew from 20.7 to 31.1, for an increase of 10.4 NCEs (this translates into a jump from the eighth to the 19th percentile).

Looking beyond test scores, Ritzko said at least two students who wouldn't normally select novels are now getting excited about reading the longer, more involved formats.

"I'm also finding that students who used to shy away from books get more interested in them after hearing the chapters on the iPod first," said Ritzko. "The iPod definitely gets a lot of students hooked into the story."

One student who was previously struggling with both reading and writing, for example, would follow along in the book while listening to the story on the iPod. The student then completed the accelerated reading and vocabulary quizzes at the end of the story. "That reader walked away with a new sense of accomplishment of finishing a longer book," said Ritzko.

For the coming school year, Ritzko said, the county's nine elementary schools will roll out the reading intervention program for its inclusion classes, including her own fifth-grade classroom.

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