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Expert Tips for Creating a Schoolwide Reading Improvement Model

Since earning her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst in 2002, Judy Loughlin has made a career as a consultant to districts and schools seeking to improve students’ literacy outcomes. Her resume includes working with IDEAL Consulting, the Hill Institute, the Connecticut and Massachusetts Departments of Education, and countless schools and districts across New England. She also has served as an adjunct instructor in the UMass Amherst College of Education and worked as a teacher and school psychologist.

It was during her time practicing school psychology and visiting schools seeking to address their high rates of special education referrals that something became strikingly clear to her. The degree to which educators needed to focus on prevention and early intervention for students struggling with reading was critical to everything else that needed to take place to improve their schools. And so launched a career-long interest in schoolwide reading improvement.

In this blog post, we sit down with Loughlin to discuss schoolwide reading improvement: What it is, why it’s important, and things to know when building and implementing a schoolwide reading improvement model.

Q: What is schoolwide reading improvement?

A: A schoolwide reading improvement model is effectively what we have come to refer to as a tiered model of instruction, but specifically for reading.

States have different names for their Response to Intervention (RtI) models. Massachusetts, where I live, is now using Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). But what’s really important to understand is that, no matter what it’s called, the idea is the same. It may have a new name, but it’s not new.

Rreading improvement shouldn’t be seen as one more thing that teachers have to add to their plates. This is likely something teachers have always been expected to do, and may have wanted to do, but may not have known how to do it. At its core, it is a continuous improvement model based on a structure which supports active problem solving. It’s data-driven, collaborative, comprehensive, and prevention-oriented. In the end, it’s about ensuring all students get the reading support they need to succeed.

Q: Why is a schoolwide reading improvement effort important?

A: A strong schoolwide reading improvement model will bring teachers and leadership along together as they study best practices and make decisions about where their district or school should head.

So many schools today do not provide effective leadership in literacy for a variety of reasons. Teachers have vast differences in their background and training. Many districts may have been left out of the loop for keeping abreast of current research. They may be left to create their own curriculum and teaching methods,  and may or may not have appropriate support in terms of good materials and assessment. District leaders very often are not literacy-trained themselves and have a hard time knowing how to lead.

Teachers can make a much bigger impact on students and their families if everyone is pulling in the same direction, toward the same goals. It’s critical that everyone — from the central office to paraprofessionals — speaks the same language so that from year to year students start in a new grade with great preparation, and that great preparation is followed up by consistent expectations and instruction. When schools don’t have a shared sense of mission when it comes to essential, foundational skills like reading, they aren’t going to accomplish what they could.

Q: What is the most important first step toward schoolwide reading improvement?

A: First and foremost, you must have involvement from district leadership. Schoolwide reading improvement models are best implemented at the school level because schools all have their own cultures and different resources available to them.

This requires that each staff somewhat customize the route they are going to take. However, those models must be approved, supported, and coordinated by the central office. To customize their model, the school staff needs to create a roadmap and timeline for implementation that carefully plots each step in the process. You can start thinking about this roadmap and timeline by answering some basic questions:

  1. Is a schoolwide reading improvement plan needed at this time?
  2. What evidence do we have that it’s needed?
  3. What do we hope to accomplish by implementing it?
  4. Is this the right time to take this work on?

Developing and implementing a schoolwide reading improvement model takes time. There are a lot of moving parts and pieces that must be put into place one at a time, or a couple of steps at a time. If you’ve just purchased a new science curriculum, say, or you’re in the middle of launching a positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) program, for instance, you may need to delineate the different model components and determine which ones you can realistically get in place in a specific timeframe. Maybe you will need to acknowledge that you can create a schoolwide reading improvement plan, but only complete steps X, Y and Z in your first year.

Q: What components are needed to build a successful schoolwide reading improvement model?

A: Our early efforts harkened back to a six-component model based on the work of Kame’enui, Simmons and others. It is a heuristic that still works for me.

  1. The first is a set of clearly defined and communicated goals.
  2. Once you’ve defined your goals, you’re going to need to put effective evidence-based reading assessments in place so you can determine where you are now and begin to plot where you are going to head.
  3. Then, every schoolwide reading improvement model needs a high-quality, comprehensive core literacy curriculum.
  4. You must plan for providing ongoing professional development around using the curriculum and administering assessments and interpreting the data. (One and done will not work here!)
  5. You’ll use that data to establish a strong, tiered model of instructional delivery and facilitate instruction and intervention planning in collaborative team meetings/professional learning communities. (We threw this component into the model with the permission of the researchers.) These teams are the essential lynchpin to the changes you want to tackle. They should meet regularly to review relevant assessment data, plan appropriate instruction and supports, evaluate the effectiveness of those supports while they’re in place, and develop adjustments as needed.
  6. Leaders must be as well-versed as every other member of the endeavor and be actively engaged in order to make everything come together. If we hear principals or superintendents tells us “We are doing everything you told us to do and we are not making the gains we want”, we know we need to ask, “Has anyone been in the classrooms to look at the level of implementation?”  I could go on forever about how to make this a vibrant part of your model, but it starts with having each administrator commit to the adage, “If I expect, I INSPECT!”  We provide principals training in what to look for in their classrooms and give them tools to support their observations. Then we observe alongside the principals.

Q: How do you measure students’ reading skills before, during and after implementing a schoolwide reading improvement plan?

A: It’s critical to have a formative assessment system and a summative assessment system, and these systems must work together.

With your formative assessment system, you need to be able to conduct an overall literacy screening and gather baseline on all foundational early literacy skills such as phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, as well as oral language development, vocabulary and comprehension. Your formative assessment system should tell you exactly where students are in terms of specific skill levels and allow you to create a profile for every single child regarding their specific areas of strength and of need. These profiles will help inform your tiered model of instructional delivery and provide feedback on the results of supplemental or intensive interventions to students in each tier.

Your system should include progress monitoring so you can measure student progress toward learning goals within Tiers 2 and 3. When looking at progress monitoring measures, consider ones that are brief, valid and reliable, easy to administer, and highly sensitive to growth so you can make timely modifications to your supports if needed.

Q: What impact can schools expect to see with a plan like this in place?

A: It all depends on where you have decided to focus your efforts, and the efforts you focus on will be different at various stages of implementation. However, you should see a steady impact over time.

Let’s say that you decide to devote five years to implementing your schoolwide reading improvement model. One of your first steps will likely be introducing formative assessment, and as time goes on, you are all going to become more and more adept at interpreting and understanding the data. Pretty quickly you’ll be able to identify your areas of need and begin to learn how to determine solutions. As part of that phase, you may bring in different materials and train educators in using those. You need to make sure that teachers are using the materials and resources you put in place, and using them correctly. Or you may examine the efficiency with which instruction is being provided. What’s happening in the first year or two is a lot of things are falling into place. Subsequent years will be spent deepening understanding and improving implementation.

You may not be surprised that teachers may embrace the changes at different paces. You’ll find that you have a few early adopters who embrace the model and do a good job with it. When the grade level shares their assessment data, it is those early adopters who will start seeing results — often as early as the first winter, especially in the earliest grades. And when they’re still doing well by spring, a remarkable thing happens. More and more teachers will become increasingly more engaged. The language spreads. People share success stories. Buy-in builds as people see their own success and the success of others, and that success itself spreads. But you must support collaborative data analysis, problem solving and intervention planning to get the full effect.

Q: What else should educators who are interested in schoolwide reading improvement know?

A: The answer is all about improving the instructional delivery of every person working with your students.

  • To make schoolwide reading improvement successful, you must have a strong vision and strong leaders who are out and about within the school making sure teachers are supported and teaching in a highly effective way. As mentioned earlier, an enormous part of successfully implementing a schoolwide reading improvement model is ensuring building leaders know what the key “look-fors” are in the effective literacy classroom.
  • Your school must have a dedicated literacy block. Be serious about this time. Find the people to staff it and put a schedule and plan in place for deploying all possible instructors to provide the necessary reading instruction to children at each tier.
  • Deep modeling and coaching is often overlooked until the third or fourth year of schoolwide reading improvement, when it should be addressed right away.
  • You can get game-changing results that help every one of your students beat the odds stacked against them when everyone is providing excellent instruction.

For more information about how Fastbridge can improve student outcomes contact us for information.

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