By Patrick Daley

Find it hard to believe that a school district could raise the reading scores of struggling students by as much as two grade levels each year? Orange County, Florida, has – and the stunning achievement continues.

Every time we turn around, we seem to be facing a challenging new educational mandate. In recent years it has been "all children must read by third grade." In the past few months, we've been hearing "no more social promotions."

For those of us working with struggling older students, mandates like these beg the question: What happens to the students who are past third grade and still can't read; or at least can’t read anywhere near grade level?

Twenty years ago, as a new fourth-grade teacher, I was confident that my struggling readers would soon "unlock the code" to reading success. Years later, as a reading specialist at a junior high school, I realized that these older students were a lot less motivated than my fourth graders. The gulf between their reading abilities and those of their peers had widened dramatically, and their trust in the learning process had been deeply damaged. As many educators have come to realize, it takes extreme measures to change such students'lives.

The exhilarating news for all of us is that these kinds of measures are being developed all over the country and they are working. One of the most stunning examples of reading intervention is Florida's Orange County Literacy Project. Its incredible success has far-reaching implications for any educator concerned with promoting literacy.

The project combines two main features. The first is the Peabody Learning Lab, an interactive software system designed by Ted Hasselbring, Ed.D., professor of special education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, in Tennessee, and co-chair of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt. The second is the literacy-workshop model developed by Janet Allen, Ed.D., associate professor of education at the University of Central Florida, and described in her book There's Room for Me Here (Stenhouse Publishers, 1997). The results of this combined approach: phenomenal.

Closing the Reading Gap

The statistics from the Orange County Literacy Project show that participating students have begun to close the seemingly insurmountable gap between their reading skills and those of their peers. Vanderbilt researchers collected data for the first two years of the project, in 1994-95 and in 1995-96.

In 1995-96, a group of 376 students in grades six through eight were tested using the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Tests. The mean score of the students rose from a grade level of 4.0 to 4.5 on vocabulary and from a grade level of 2.6 to 3.6 on reading comprehension. Grade-point averages for the same group of students rose from a mean of .00 in 1994 to 2.3 in 1996. Discipline and attendance improved dramatically from 87.2 percent to 92.9 percent.

Starting in 1996-97, the program, previously used in 12 middle schools, was implemented in all middle schools districtwide. The Degrees of Reading Power, a standardized test, was administered to all 1,900 students in grades four to nine enrolled in the literacy project. The data from that year and 1997-98 show that these students have made almost twice as much progress as the national norm.

More than 10,000 students overall have participated in the Orange County program since its inception in 1994, gaining on average one to two years' growth in their reading grade level each year. For students who have never known success, this improvement is remarkable. How did it happen?

A Radical Solution

In 1993 Orange County administrators became alarmed by rising discipline and truancy problems. Rose Taylor, Ph.D., director of secondary education in the county, researched and reported: "We don't have a truancy problem. We don't have a discipline problem. What we have here in Orange County is a literacy problem." Illiteracy was identified as the root cause of failure in many subject areas, resulting in low self-esteem, discipline issues, and truancy.
Orange County set out to create an intervention program with the support of Drs. Hasselbring and Allen, and the literacy project was launched in 1994. The district's first initiative was to commit to 90 minutes of uninterrupted literacy work each day for participating sixth- to ninth-grade students, conducted in classes of 20 or fewer. Students combined their 45-minute language arts block with a 45-minute elective block. As Dr. Allen put it, "We can't go on 'business as usual.'These students have missed years of instruction. To close the gap, we need to give them more." Each classroom got five computers capable of running the Peabody Learning Lab software. Every teacher underwent three to five days of professional development, including software training.

The Program in Action

Typically, a 90-minute literacy-workshop block begins and ends with whole-group instruction for 20 and 10 minutes, respectively, including time for the teacher to read aloud to the students. In between the whole-group activities, groups of five students rotate through instructional reading with the software, modeled or independent reading with audiobooks or paperbacks, and small group instruction with the teacher, including reading and writing mini-lessons, guided reading sessions, and software and literature discussions.

As Dr. Allen and many other researchers contend, by the time struggling readers reach middle school, they are so used to failure and to meaningless exercises that they no longer have any interest in print. The goal of both the software and the literacy workshop is to give students a taste of success and build self-esteem. Technology, according to Dr. Hasselbring, is powerfully motivating to students and the multimedia approach of the software provides the systematic, consistent, leveled, and most important – nonjudgmental instruction that these students so desperately need.

The software has students visit reading, word, and spelling labs. In the reading lab, students view a video that builds background knowledge and gives them a visual model for the reading passage that follows. An animated virtual tutor named Melvin leads them through a grade-leveled reading passage, which students can practice repeatedly, asking for help from Melvin as needed. After reading successfully, they visit the word and the spelling lab to work on phonics, structural analysis, word recognition, spelling, and vocabulary. Then it’s back to the reading lab to develop reading comprehension. The software instantly analyzes student responses and provides immediate, specific help. In addition, teachers can use the software for individual-assessment purposes. Most important, Melvin never gets bored or frustrated. As one student put it, “The computer doesn’t embarrass me.”

Overcoming the Stumbling Blocks
Throughout the program, students work on overcoming specific stumbling blocks that are known to trip up many nonreaders. The reasons middle-school students fail to read, accordng to Dr. Hasselbring, fall into two main categories:

  1. A lack of reading fluency. In the early grades, students use most of their finite “working memory" to decode words. As children get older, decoding should become more automatic, thereby freeing up a greater portion of their brain-power for comprehension. If they never achieve fluency, comprehension suffers. One reason fluency may get stalled is a lack of phonemic awareness, or the inability to segment words and syllables into constituent sound units, or phonemes.
  2. A lack of comprehenslon skills. Students can have a variety of other skill deficits, distinct from decoding difficulties, that make comprehending text nearly impossible. These include:

      Lack of prior knowledge and meaningfull context.

      Inadequate vocabulary.

      Poor listening comprehension.

      Lack of strategies to call upon when comprehension
      fails. For example, students may not see a need to go
      back and reread text they do not understand the first
      time, nor will they be able to identify an unfamiliar word
      as the culprit in their failure to comprehend.

      Inability to create mental pictures from text.

Changing Lives

We all know that the price of not learning to read is far too costly for children and for society as a whole. The fact that so many problems – across the curriculum as well as socially – stem from illiteracy is a testament to the real power of what literacy can accomplish. Not only is it practical to have our students become skilled readers, it is essentially life-affirming. Young adults who were once written off as failures now see themselves as confident readers and learners.

"I used to think I was going to be a bum or a junkie," says one young woman who started the literacy project as a seventh grader with a grade 2.5 reading level – and little hope of success in school and beyond. "Now being a bum or junkie no longer crosses my mind." Currently in 12th grade and earning As'and B's, she plays on the varsity basketball team and has been a powerful, positive role model for her friends.

Life turnarounds such as this, I believe, are the true power and promise of successful literacy intervention.

Getting Struggling Readers to Do a 180

Skateboarders and Roller-Bladers know what it means to “do a 180”—to change course in a flash and head in the opposite direction. The goal of Read 180, Scholastic Inc.’s new reading intervention program, is to turn struggling readers around in the same radical fashion. Developed for grades four through eight, the program is modeled on the highly successful Orange County Literacy Project.

Read 180, with former teachers and reading specialists among its creators, has four main components:

  1. State-of-the-art software, including interactive CD-ROMs for students and management software for teachers.
  2. Audiobooks that model the habits and strategies of good readers.
  3. Award-winning paperbacks for leveled, independent reading.
  4. Complete teacher resources, including a reading-strategies guide, reproducibles, and on-site teacher training.

Each Read 180 CD-ROM opens with an introduction by a VJ (video jockey) to a full-color video that supplies context to prepare the reader. Next, a host guides students through leveled reading passages and activities that continually adjust to each individual’s needs. The software instantly analyzes student responses and gives friendly, constructive feedback. When the student is ready, the VJ guides him or her into the next reading level.

Read 180 is available in May. To see a demonstration, ask your curriculum coordinator or superintendent to contact your Scholastic Inc. regional sales office or call 800-SCHOLASTIC (800-724-6527) to find the Scholastic office nearest you.