Blended Learning

3 Keys to a One-Year Literacy Turnaround

In a district where students are divided by enormous distances and language barriers, a vice principal found a way to quadruple the number of students reading at grade level.

Nestled in the heart of Central Canada, the Northern Lights School Division spans half the entire Saskatchewan province. Of our 4,300-plus students, 87 percent are of Indigenous descent. Due to their geographic and cultural setting, many of these students are in a unique position: Not only are they spread out across a significant physical distance, but they also find themselves spanning multiple cultural and linguistic divides.

When I started with the division more than 20 years ago as a resource teacher in special education, the students I worked with all spoke Cree as their first language. They typically only used English when speaking with their teachers or to communicate their basic needs.  Now, 20 years later, the students no longer speak Cree, they speak English. However, I realized that many of the students were caught in between the languages — not really being proficient in either language.

With some students unable to write or speak fluently in either English or Cree, not long ago Northern Lights found itself with the lowest reading levels in the province. So, we rolled up our sleeves and decided it was time for us to explore new options to best support our students’ needs.

My husband, who was the superintendent at the time, told me about an opportunity we had at a Response to Intervention (RTI) and reading workshop. I learned a lot about RTI profiles and the importance of using curriculum that works within the three-tiered model for intervention and instruction.

The three tiers that the RTI Action Network recommends are:

  • Core instruction;
  • Group interventions; and
  • Intensive intervention.

One of the programs they presented at the time was Discover Intensive Phonics, now known as Reading Horizons Discovery. The multi-sensory literacy system resonated so strongly with me that I brought Discover Intensive Phonics to the attention of our director and said, “Look at our results. We’re low. Let’s give this a shot.” When we initially implemented the program, we tried it with a bunch of students and saw immediate growth. Upon sharing the program with our staff, reactions were mixed. Some loved it; some did not. I knew the program had potential and could see how much it was helping our students. In the end I was inspired, and went back to school to get my masters, became vice principal at Gordon Denny Elementary and implemented the literacy program that I knew our kids deserved.

Last year, we trained our staff and implemented the multi-sensory literacy curriculum school-wide. We had such phenomenal results in one year — improving from 19 percent of our students reading at grade level to 80 percent — that our director took notice. Now, on top of being vice principal, I’m also working as a half-time literacy consultant and visiting the other schools in our district to help them boost their reading proficiency, too. Here are three of my most effective methods.

1) Explicit Vocabulary Coaching

Most of our students come to school with limited knowledge of the English Language.  Weak oral language skills often cause them to start their educational career a little behind, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn or that they aren’t intelligent. We as teachers have to be more proficient with our instruction during the day, utilizing explicit vocabulary coaching whenever possible. This means creating a new dimension of word ownership for our students through incremental, repeated exposure to the words they are trying to learn.

2) Balanced Literacy

It’s important to incorporate modeled reading, guided reading and shared reading alongside students’ writing instruction. Making sure all three strategies are unified daily into a designated English language arts (ELA) block helps immensely. Incorporating every aspect of the language into the lesson, vocabulary included, makes it so our kids receive a complete understanding of what they are expected to know.

3) Teaching Reading in Every Subject

When we began, 32 percent of our kids still had a “frustration” ranking — meaning they were testing below grade level. And that was just in reading. But, as is the case in so many places, our educators were never really equipped with the skills they needed to teach reading in the first place, let alone how to do so within the guidelines of our new model. In order to provide our students with the all-encompassing reading and writing support they required, we taught our teachers first, so they would be armed with the knowledge they needed to provide continued reading instruction for all grades and classes.  

With online professional development webinars to guide them, our teachers come back saying, “I had no idea. No wonder our students weren’t reading, because we didn’t even have the foundations necessary.” It’s like a light bulb was turned on.  

When your school experiences the shift in success that we have in the span of a year, that’s when you know you’ve done something right! We want our students to have the tools they need to graduate and from there go out into the world feeling they can do and pursue whatever they want. By providing quality literacy instruction and support to all the kids in the north, we are providing them with an opportunity and giving them the hope they deserve for a brighter future.

About the Author

Cindy Young is the ELA consultant and vice principal at the Gordon Denny Community School in Air Ronge, Saskatchewan Canada. She can be reached at [email protected].