Successful intervention for struggling middle-school students

iStock_000020536048XSmallThe Orange County Literacy Project, which began in Florida in 1993, demonstrated that middle-school students with poor literacy skills could make significant academic gains by the time they entered high school. Struggling students attended a 90-minute block focused on improving their reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills each day for two years.

At the beginning of the program, these students’ mean grade-point average for all classes was 0.13. It rose to 1.18 by the end of the first year and to 2.3 by the end of the second year in the program. This success in regular classes was attributed to the students’ participation in the literacy project. Follow-up with the first group of students to complete the project after attending regular ninth-grade classes revealed that their mean grade-point average at the end of ninth grade was 2.8 — higher that the mean average for ninth grades across the district.

Rosemarye Taylor, director of secondary education in the Orange County, Florida, Public Schools, worked with Janet Allen, University of Central Florida, and Ted Hasselbring, Vanderbilt University, to design the literacy program. For students with poor reading and writing skills, the 90-minute block replaced language arts and one elective class.

At the beginning and end of each class period participating students had whole-group instruction that included read-alouds, shared reading, and direct instruction in reading, writing, listening, speaking and grammar. In between, the class was divided into three smaller groups and rotated through a sequence of independent reading, instructional reading with the Peabody Learning Lab, and small-group work with the teacher. Students attended regular classes for the remainder of the day.

Staff development in literacy intervention

These researchers credited the staff development plan for the project’s success. The multi-year training plan they developed focused on the problems of literacy intervention specific to the students, teachers, technology support staff, and principal at the middle school. The researchers realized that middle-school teachers, while well trained in the needs of adolescents, generally lack the knowledge and experience to develop literacy skills.

Training began with a summer institute that stressed the steps teachers needed to begin the year’s program successfully. Nonacademic management issues can pose huge problems for teachers, so these also were addressed in the training. Experts worked with teachers and administrators to develop literacy content and skills as well as train staff members in the use of the project software.

As the school year got under way, trainers focused on the progress and behavior that students were expected to exhibit. These older, reluctant readers needed more mature ways of applying their developing skills. Therefore, trainers introduced Express!, a program that enables students to make presentations exhibiting their reading, writing, and speaking skills.

The software is engaging and easy for middle-school students to use. Project leaders strove to build a learning community among the school staff with networking, class visitations by colleagues, and the development of teacher leaders. The researchers provided continuous follow-up support and coaching sessions as needed. In these follow-up sessions, they addressed themes observed in visitations.

Each session included a time when teachers and administrators could ask colleagues for assistance or share something that was working well. This proved to be very helpful for teachers and staff. Since the entire literacy project was new, not all of the skills and content could be taught to teachers at one time. New material was presented as it was needed during the year, slowly building the skills and knowledge of teachers and administrators.

Significant gains for English-language learners

Significant grade gains were made by all the diverse groups involved in the program. Special-education students and second-language learners made particularly significant gains. The most rapid gains were demonstrated by the second-language learners who seemed to benefit from the literacy-enriched classroom and the Peabody language lab.

After five years, a complete reorganization of the school district eliminated the support system for curriculum, staff development and instruction. Teachers asked the local reading council to serve as the organizer for the learning community that began with the literacy project in the middle schools but now include elementary and high schools.

Currently, volunteer after-school sessions organized by the reading council attract about 100 teachers from across the district, who serve students in regular education, second-language classes and special education. Taylor believes that this project can serve as a model for creating systems to develop and implement other instructional innovations. She reports that the success of the staff development in this program was due in part to delivering training, as needed, for implementation in the classroom and to follow-up support.

The Literacy Project’s focus on results and a design that used principle of adult learning with collaboration and teacher leadership were also important components. She points out two other successful projects grounded in research and utilizing collaborative teacher support — Different Ways of Knowing: Middle-Grades Reform Project (Los Angeles) and Project Merit (West Virginia Department of Education).

“Creating a System That Gets Results for Older, Reluctant Readers” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 84, Number 1, September 2002 Pp. 84-89.

Published in ERN October 2002 Volume 15 Number 7

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