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At the District 65 School Board’s meeting on Feb. 1, Ellen Fogelberg, literacy director of School District 65, presented a report summarizing how the District is addressing the literacy needs of students at the middle school level at School District 65. She told the Board about several new programs designed to increase student interest in reading, to improve reading comprehension, and to improve instruction in the classrooms.

Nine middle school teachers and literacy coaches joined in the presentation.

Challenges at the Middle School Level

“In the past, many people believed that if students learned the foundational skills of decoding and possessed a good listening vocabulary, they would be ready for the more demanding reading of the upper grades and high school,” Ms. Fogelberg said in her report. “Getting third-graders to read on grade level is important, but insufficient for students to meet the demand of comprehending and learning from challenging texts.”

“Reading is more demanding at the middle school level because the texts are longer and more complex, the expectations for prior knowledge are so high, and because the concepts become more abstract and complex,” Ms. Fogelberg said.

Students enter middle school with a wide variety of skills and knowledge, Ms. Fogelberg said, including those who can read and comprehend most texts, those who can read fluently but have difficulty comprehending, those who lack sufficient background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they read, and those with serious decoding issues. “Because of this variability, teachers must differentiate instruction and supports offered to students,” she said.

While reading becomes more complex, research shows that students’ interest in reading diminishes as students move into the middle grades and on through high school, said Ms. Fogelberg. For some students this “lack of motivation” reflects the many competing demands for time, including more homework, an increase in extracurricular activities, responsibility to care for younger siblings, texting with peers, multi-user computer games and other activities, she said.

Middle School Reading Programs

To address the challenges faced at the middle school level, the District has adopted some new programs that give students a choice in the books and other texts they read to increase their interest in reading, that provide “differentiated” novels for students to read at their level of reading, that create blocks of time during the school day for students to read, that enlist social studies teachers to instruct reading comprehension strategies while teaching their social studies classes, and that teach students how to comprehend what they are reading.

The District has been using a program called “wide reading” at the middle schools for several years. Under this program, students read on an individual basis for 30 minutes at least three times a week in the classroom. They are allowed to choose a book, appropriate for their level, that “increases interest and motivation,” said Ms. Fogelberg. Many teachers encourage students to process what they are reading by making comments in their journals or notebooks. Teachers use the reading time to work one-on-one with students and to gather assessment data.

Starting last year, grade-level teachers worked with a literacy coach to develop “differentiated novel units.” The teams selected four different novels, with different levels of difficulty, relating to multicultural at the sixth-grade level, the civil war at the seventh-grade level and the holocaust at the eighth-grade level. Each student reads one novel appropriate for his reading level, and the teams, together with social studies teachers, developed sample lessons plans for the three-week units. They time the lessons to coincide with lessons on the same topic in the social studies classes.

The District is also implementing a program to improve reading comprehension. The program, called “Every Day Every Student,” was recommended by Dr. Jennifer Berne, a literacy teacher from National Louis University. The model uses a “think aloud” process where teachers put a text on a screen and tell students what they are thinking when they read the text and provide strategies to use in reading a text. Students then practice the same strategy when reading a text they can read fluently.

A pilot project, “Partner Reading and Content Too,” developed by Dr. Donna Ogle of National Louis University, is currently being implemented at Dawes Elementary School and Chute Middle School. In that project, a literacy coach works with science and social science studies teachers to increase student reading and comprehension of texts in their subject areas. The students spend 20 minutes twice a week reading a short text with a partner, crafting questions about the material, and participating in a discussion of the material. Several social studies teachers said they were in a sense providing “a non-fiction literacy course.”

The District has a number of strategies to address the needs of students who are reading below grade level. The additional support, which is tailored to address the specific reason a student is having difficulty reading, may be provided through differentiated instruction, targeted small group instruction with a reading specialist, or in-class support from a special education, bilingual or reading teacher. Students who are reading one to two years below grade level may participate in the “Read 180” program; those further behind participate in the “Ramp up to Literacy Program.”

Professional Development

The effectiveness of the literacy program depends on high quality and ongoing professional development, said Ms. Fogelberg. All seventh- and eighth-grade teachers have participated in a two-day workshop on differentiated instruction, followed up with a lesson study. In addition, the District is providing teaching workshops on early release days during the school year. One teacher said the workshops were “fantastic” this year.

In addition to the workshops the District has increased the number of literacy coaches at the middle school level. The coaches work with teachers to plan instruction, provide demonstration lessons, co-teach with the teachers and learn together. Teachers at the Board meeting gave high marks to the coaches, saying they helped them improve classroom instruction. The only drawback appears to be, “We don’t have enough coaches to do this as effectively as possible,” said Ms. Fogelberg.

On a more limited basis, the District has used grant funds to assist 22 teachers to take an eight-course literacy program offered by National Louis University. One teacher said the courses have been “phenomenal.”

The professional development program is also directed to principals. For example, Dr. Berne conducted walk-throughs of classrooms with principals so they could discuss the lessons observed, and help identify exemplary practices and areas for improvement.