Education Week - May 13, 2015 - Special Report - (Page S4)
EDUCATION WEEK MAY 13, 2015
Building Literacy Skills > www.edweek.org/go/buildingliteracy
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,
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'
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.
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
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
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,"
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
"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