Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report - (Page S4)

S4 | EDUCATION WEEK MAY 13, 2015 n Building Literacy Skills > Selma, Ala. D DIANE DANIEL'S CLASSROOM here at Southside Primary School is a steady hum of productive activity. Some of her kindergartners are playing word games on computers; others are chatting as they complete an exercise on the reading rug, and a handful are busily writing, some already using full sentences that incorporate words about trains-"engine," "passenger"-that Ms. Daniel has hung up on one of her corkboards. The teacher herself is in a small group, reading a short book out loud with her pupils. As they take turns reading, she intervenes occasionally, helping them sound out a word here and there, at other points pushing her young charges to think beyond the page-to make inferences based on context and to reason out what might happen next in the story. "I will take that little book and have a thousand questions for them before they finish," Ms. Daniel said. Ms. Daniel's evident skill in reading instruction, which enables her to cater to pupils' varied learning needs, speaks directly to the central aim of the Alabama Reading Initiative. The program, launched 17 years ago in response to poor literacy scores, aspires to give all the state's students an equal opportunity to learn the fundamentals of reading and writing. In particular, the ari aims to help students of color from disadvantaged families, like most at this K-2 school in Dallas County. As if to remind visitors of the state's history of inequality, Southside Primary sits minutes from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of a brutal 1965 attack on civil rights marchers. Unlike many early-reading efforts, Alabama Coaches Up Literacy Lessons Multiyear professionaldevelopment effort is tied to reading gains the ari is not a prescribed curriculum package or pedagogical framework. At heart, it is a statewide professionaldevelopment initiative that uses specially selected and trained teachers, deemed building coaches, to imbue research-based reading instruction in classrooms across the state. Alabama officials credit the initiative with dramatically boosting state scores in 4th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card." From 2002 to 2011, Alabama's 4th graders' scores went from well below par to statistically indistinguishable from the national average on the naep reading scale, where they have stayed since. Racial achievement gaps in the scores have also narrowed. (See box, Page S6.) "Alabama has made a huge commitment to literacy, and we feel that we've gotten a return on our investment," said Judy Stone, an Alabama education department official who serves as the state's ari coordinator. From a research perspective, it's difficult to link increases in naep scores to any one policy or instructional change. But anecdotally, the ari's supporters say the initiative has systematically reshaped teacher practice in the early grades in a way that has had a clear impact on pupils' reading development. Today, the ari continues to offer lessons on literacy instruction, even as it faces its biggest challenges yet: heavier demands on the coaches, who are now also working in the upper grades, coupled with a period of financial belt-tightening. Coaching Teachers Teachers are the engine of the Alabama Reading Initiative. More than 95 percent of the program's current $48 million annual budget is spent to pay for some 750 coaches, all former classroom educators, who work in schools and have day-today contact with reading teachers. They're charged with observing teachers and modeling lessons, providing feedback, and devising plans to improve each teacher's instructional effectiveness. In addition to the building-level coaches are the 68 regional coaches, who debrief the building coaches and craft larger-scale intervention plans as necessary. On a day-to-day basis, the ari is best described as a collaborative exercise in solving instructional problems in reading classrooms. When they observe, the coaches aren't principally focused on how teachers deliver their content. Instead, they track how the students are faring, including by monitoring their levels of engagement in class activities, their verbal interactions with peers, and their work products. One day after spring break last school year, for example, Southside's building coach, Christy Mathiews, determined after a morning's walkthrough that she'd like to see better student engagement in the 1st grade classes. In a debriefing session, the regional coach for the district, Allison Kelley, gave her some advice on addressing the problem. "Pick a small number of classes to visit the rest of the week and collect data about how many are in whole group versus small group," Ms. Kelley said. Small groups are an important part of early literacy in Alabama, since they help facilitate techniques such as conversations, "turn and talk," and paired reading, all ways of ensuring all students remain engaged with language and on task. Ms. Kelley then shared her own observation. Perusing pupils' notebooks in one 1st grade classroom, she saw evidence of student writing, but not a lot of feedback on that writing from the teacher. "I think you may want to have that conversation with all of [the teachers]," she told Ms. Mathiews. Ms. Mathiews will use the evidence they've discussed when meeting with each teacher -a technique that makes what can be delicate conversations about instruction more objective and, therefore, supportive rather than punitive. As the coaches visit classrooms, they will sometimes briefly step in alongside the classroom teacher to provide a pedagogical refresher. During a separate walk-through at Reeltown High School, a K-12 school in rural Tallapoosa County, Vickie Chappelle, one of 11 ari regional directors, watched as one 1st grade teacher conducted a read-aloud with the children in her small group. A page or two in, Ms. Chappelle asked the pupils: "Can you change your voices a little more when you read?" She demonstrated, the timbre of her voice rising at the end of an interrogative sentence. Soon, five little voices eagerly chirped along with her. (Reading with expression, experts say, is an important aspect of fluency instruction that builds children's awareness of syntax.) Even small issues warrant coaches' attention. During its walkthough, the ari team visiting Reeltown noted that several teachers reviewing initial sound-letter correspondence inserted an "uh" sound known as a "schwa" in sounding out words beginning with a hard consonant-an artifact of the Southern drawl. It's a seemingly nitpicky detail, but for a struggling reader, that extra sound can get in the way of later language development, causing him or her to spell "cat" as "cu-at," for instance. The ari team conferred briefly, and ultimately, decided that it's a topic for the school's building coach, Regina Porter, to address at the school's next grade-level meeting. Borrowing From Football The ari started in 1998 partly out of the sheer force of will of Katherine Mitchell, a former Alabama education department official who is still spoken of in glowing terms by ari staff. With state officials from the governor on down desperate to improve the state's reading scores, Ms. Mitchell cobbled together $1.5 million in initial support for a new instructional initiative from both conservative philanthropies and the Alabama Education Association, among others-enough to finance implementation in 16 initial schools. Possessed with a politician's knack for generating appeal, Ms. Mitchell carefully avoided the term "literacy" in favor of the more approachable "reading" in naming the program. And to describe the role of the teacher trainers, she selected a term dear to Alabamans' hearts-one that has since become nearly ubiquitous in K-12 education. "Frankly, I chose 'coach' because PAGE S6 > By Stephen Sawchuk

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report

Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report
Teachers Turn to New Read-Aloud Strategies For Common-Core Era
Alabama Coaches Up Literacy Lessons
Broadening the Push for Grade-Level Reading
Forget Word Lists: Vocabulary Lessons Start With Context
Should 3rd Grade Be Pivot Point for Early Reading?
Fluency Still Seen as Neglected Skill

Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report