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Published in Print: May 24, 2006, as The Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter

With an unusual systemwide approach, the Jefferson County, Ky., school district is tackling poor reading skills among high school students.

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Some curious problems have cropped up here recently at Iroquois High School, known more for its tough student population than academic achievement. Books go missing from classroom libraries packed with classic texts and popular paperbacks. Students tussle for a turn to read the latest selection from a favorite book series. In mathematics class and science lab, teachers find themselves chiding students to put away teenage novels and poetry collections and focus on the lessons at hand.

Members of the staff at Iroquois High School pick up surveys prepared by a research group looking at the results of the district's Ramp-Up to Literacy instructional system before an all-faculty meeting after school in the cafeteria.
Members of the staff at Iroquois High School pick up surveys prepared by a research group looking at the results of the district's Ramp-Up to Literacy instructional system before an all-faculty meeting after school in the cafeteria.
—Photo by Sevans

Educators at Iroquois High have never before had to wrestle books out of students’ hands. With most incoming freshmen in any given year identified as struggling readers, getting students to read anything, even for pleasure, has been hard enough. But since Iroquois set out a few years ago to tackle students’ literacy needs more directly and systematically, their reading skills—and motivation to read—have grown, teachers and administrators say.

“If you do the math—we have 1,200 kids, 75 percent on free and reduced lunch, 16 percent in special education, and 60 percent of freshmen read on a 4th to 6th grade level—we have a huge reading problem,” said Principal Brian T. Shumate.

The school’s promising focus on literacy, which has produced rising test scores and fewer discipline problems from struggling students, has spread throughout the district. Inspired by the progress at Iroquois, Kentucky’s 97,000-student Jefferson County school system, which includes Louisville, has formulated a districtwide plan on high school literacy.

Now, teachers in 18 of the district’s 21 high schools—all but its elite magnet schools—are being provided with extensive professional development in using a commercial reading-intervention curriculum, money for books and magazines for adolescents, and other support services.

Tambra Synder, center, Dontez Gaffney, left, and Alex Walton read and discuss letters of advice from seniors who wrote to the 9th grade class at Waggener Traditional High School about how to be good students.
Tambra Synder, center, Dontez Gaffney, left, and Alex Walton read and discuss letters of advice from seniors who wrote to the 9th grade class at Waggener Traditional High School about how to be good students.
—Photo by Sevans

“We have a growing number of kids who are two to three grade levels behind in reading,” said Joseph Burks, the assistant superintendent for high schools. “We have always thought in high school that you read to learn, you don’t learn to read.”

That assumption, he said, has been changed by the realities of the state accountability system, which has laid out in stark detail the inadequate performance of Jefferson County’s 10th graders on the state reading test. “We have looked all over the place to find some way to give English teachers a curriculum that is more than just a book of best practices, or [a tool] to sort kids and send those who struggle to someone else,” Mr. Burks added. “Now we’re saying, ‘We want you to develop readers.’ ”


Educators in Jefferson County are among a rising number of teachers, administrators, and policymakers around the country who recognize that adolescents’ reading skills—or lack thereof—are a critical link in their overall academic performance. After a decade of state- and federal-level attention to improving reading instruction in the early grades, the challenge of strengthening adolescents’ literacy skills has shifted the discussion to older students.

Only about a third of 8th and 12th graders demonstrated proficiency on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading.

A 9th grade student spends part of the period reading a novel in Lori Pfeifer's English class at Iroquois High. The Ramp-Up program helps boost comprehension for middle and high school students who read two years or more below grade level.
A 9th grade student spends part of the period reading a novel in Lori Pfeifer's English class at Iroquois High. The Ramp-Up program helps boost comprehension for middle and high school students who read two years or more below grade level.
—Photo by Sevans

And several reports over the past year from prominent researchers and groups have highlighted the difficulties in helping students meet high standards in math, English, social studies, and science when they have trouble comprehending the complex content they must read in those subjects.

Organizations such as the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Governors Association, and the National Association of State Boards of Education have all issued recommendations for equipping students, in 4th through 12th grades, with the sophisticated reading skills necessary for grasping the increasingly difficult texts they encounter.

The U.S. Department of Education this spring issued $30 million in grants to districts under a pilot project, called Striving Readers, for improving literacy instruction in middle and high schools. The topic was foremost on the agenda of the annual convention of the 80,000-member International Reading Association this month in Chicago.

With high school improvement at the top of the agenda for policymakers and educators, many experts say that reading proficiency is starting to capture widespread interest as an area in need of more resources and research.

Building Literacy

Several recent reports have recommended the following steps for strengthening the reading skills of adolescents:

• Teaching explicit vocabulary and reading-comprehension strategies and skills, and embedding reading instruction within content areas

• Providing professional development for content-area teachers on how to foster and strengthen reading skills needed for various subjects

• Creating school and district literacy plans, and state standards around adolescent literacy

• Addressing students’ motivation to read by making diverse texts and high-interest reading materials available and allowing time for reading in school

• Assessing student reading skills and using data to guide instruction

• Building the background knowledge needed to understand complex principles in texts

• Offering writing instruction and practice

“There are a whole lot of other things besides decoding of words that affect kids’ literacy [at the high school level],” said Donald D. Deshler, an influential researcher on adolescent literacy at the University of Kansas. “There are some critical things teachers can do, unique to their subject area, whether it be science or social studies, relative to building vocabulary and background knowledge and other things so that all kids can get it.”

Mr. Deshler and others in the field say that research strongly supports teaching students explicit strategies for finding the meaning of text, as well as offering a variety of high-interest books and other reading materials.

The NGA and NASBE reports, issued last fall, recommend state- and district-level policies and approaches to addressing literacy skills across the curriculum. The governors’ association, based in Washington, awarded grants to eight states earlier this year that are developing literacy goals and standards for high schools.

But while more and more secondary teachers and schools are starting to attend to the problem, few districts have adopted a systemwide approach to building adolescent literacy.

“Are we seeing success [at tackling the literacy problem] districtwide? By and large, no,” said Mr. Deshler, who as the director of the Center for Research on Learning at the university, in Lawrence, Kan., has helped design the Strategic Instruction Model, or SIM, which targets students’ reading, writing, listening, and memory skills.

“Changing schools is tough, and changing secondary schools is particularly difficult,” he said. “Then when you talk about changing multiple secondary schools in a district, that is a big mountain to climb.”


Here in Jefferson County, district officials have at least started the trek. After adopting the intervention program Ramp-Up to Literacy, created by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, they have trained dozens of teachers in using the intensive curriculum, purchased thousands of fiction and nonfiction books for classrooms, and deployed instructional coaches to assist teachers in helping struggling readers.

Alex Walton, Engaged Reader

Louisville, Ky.
It’s barely 8 a.m. at Waggener Traditional High School, and Alex Walton is reluctant to put down A Child Called ‘‘It,’’ even after the teacher signals the end of independent-reading time.

The book is the latest in a long list he’s chosen to read this school year. With summer break just a dozen days away, the freshman has chalked up 27 books on a classroom reading chart. By the official count, he’s read 3,300 pages in all.

Throughout his academic career and in middle school, Mr. Walton was never much of a reader, he admits. And what he did read in his classes he quickly forgot, he says.

But this year, a double class period in reading and language arts, using the Ramp-Up to Literacy intervention program developed by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based research and policy group, has helped boost Mr. Walton’s reading fluency and comprehension.

Those skills have helped him breeze through books and other reading selections of his choosing, as well as tackle the complex content in his science, social studies, and mathematics textbooks.

His Partial Reading List for This School Year

Book cover: A Child Called

Current Reading Selection:
A Child Called "It,"
Dave Pelzer, 195 pages.

Anthem, Ayn Rand
Monster,Walter Dean Myers
Maus, Art Spiegelman
Loser, Jerry Spinelli
Blackwater, Eve Bunting
Scorpions, Walter Dean Myers
Water Buffalo Days, Quang Nhuong Huynh
Living Up the Street, Gary Soto
Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli
Lost and Found, Anne Schraff
Mama’s Girl, Veronica Chambers

This school year, the plan has expanded beyond the remedial program for low-skilled readers to a more comprehensive approach for boosting reading comprehension and motivation for all students in all subjects. In fact, social studies teachers throughout the district will participate in the Ramp-Up training this summer.

Iroquois High is in Louisville’s south end, a few miles down the road from Churchill Downs, the famed home of the Kentucky Derby. Here, selected social studies, math, and science teachers have begun incorporating the Ramp-Up strategies in their classes.

Students assigned to the Ramp-Up program in 9th grade—based on their middle school test scores and other data—find consistency in the instruction throughout the curriculum, becoming well versed by year’s end in the “rituals and routines” of the program.

On a recent spring morning, 9th grader Jasmine Miles was engrossed in a mystery novel during the first 20 minutes of the 90-minute Ramp-Up period—time devoted daily to independent reading. Then, she jumped into a classroom discussion of the novel Romiette and Julio, Sharon M. Draper’s modern-day version of the Shakespeare classic, set in Cincinnati without the tragic ending.

Teacher Lori Pfeifer asked Ms. Miles and her classmates to explain connections they could make between the details in the novel and their own lives or to other texts they’ve read. Ms. Pfeifer also reminded the students to use other habits of effective readers: to visualize details as they read, make inferences, summarize what they’ve read, reread sections that confuse them, use content clues to determine the meaning of words and phrases, and then continue reading.

The habits are reinforced in class lessons and exercises, and through the use of diagrams and other graphic organizers that help students map out, in visual form, the themes and details of a text.

Teachers here have added a rigorous writing section to the program to help students meet Kentucky’s mandates for completing a portfolio of their written work in each core subject, and prepare them for the 12th grade writing assessment.

Lori Pfeifer, an English teacher at Iroquois High, center, helps Debbie Elmore, left, and Veronica Antonio organize their thoughts for a writing assignment.
Lori Pfeifer, an English teacher at Iroquois High, center, helps Debbie Elmore, left, and Veronica Antonio organize their thoughts for a writing assignment.
—Photo by Sevans

Ms. Miles, the 9th grader, rattled off a list of books and genres she has read throughout the school year, and said the program has changed her attitude about reading.

“This class inspires me to read,” she said. “The strategies I learn in this class you can use in every [subject] and apply them to everything you read.”

Those strategies have helped sophomore Just Madjani, a native French-speaker, go beyond learning grammar and punctuation to become more proficient at reading and writing in English.

“This class helps me analyze and read between the lines. I get better at it by doing reading, writing, speaking, and listening,” he said. “I know when to stop and think about [what I’m reading], and make a connection and use other literary devices to help me understand it better.”

Changing teachers’ attitudes also has been part of the plan, said Dee Hawkins, a longtime teacher in the district and an instructional coach at Iroquois before taking over as Jefferson County’s high school reading specialist in January.

Before the recent literacy effort, “we had no structure, no clue how to teach students who couldn’t read,” she said. “When I was teaching English, when you came to my classroom, if you couldn’t read you were out of luck.”

Ms. Hawkins and Jama Vogt, an instructional coach at Iroquois, are now working to train colleagues throughout the district to use the Ramp-Up framework. Ms. Vogt is also helping a team of educators rewrite the district’s high school curriculum to incorporate literacy components in all subjects.

Even with the added effort, however, some students still can’t or won’t buy into the importance of reading. In a scene typical in high schools everywhere, sleepy students here nap during the independent reading time, or get distracted by classmates. The reading logs of some students have few entries for the year, while other well-used journals abruptly end early in the spring—a sign that the students dropped out of class, or school entirely, or moved without notice.

Breanka Wadlington, left, a 10th grader, receives help from fellow student Angelique Draper in answering grammar questions.
Breanka Wadlington, left, a 10th grader, receives help from fellow student Angelique Draper in answering grammar questions.
—Photo by Sevans

At 62 percent, Iroquois High’s graduation rate—although much improved in recent years—is still below the state average.

But the efforts of the past few years have ushered in a culture change at the school, Ms. Vogt said, particularly among students.

“The kids want to come to this [Ramp-Up] class,” she said. “They are carrying books with them. There is a culture around reading.”

Even late in the school year, most students in the school’s six Ramp-Up classes appeared engaged in their reading and class discussions. That wasn’t the case at the beginning of the school year, according to Ms. Pfeifer, an English teacher who also teaches a 9th grade Ramp-Up class.

Her students, she said, knew they didn’t read well, but had generally given up trying. After they began the Ramp-Up classes, she said, they learned why their reading comprehension breaks down and could use various strategies to figure out the meaning in the text.

Once students become more active readers, Ms. Pfeifer said, the fluency rate for many of them, and their interest in reading, takes off.

“At the beginning of the year, these kids wouldn’t even admit they read a book. Now they enjoy reading,” said Ms. Pfeifer, who says she knows the class is working when students start to talk to each other about what they’ve read, or ask friends to recommend a book.

“Now we have a different problem,” she added. “Books disappear all the time. It’s hard to be too mad about that.”

Vol. 25, Issue 38, Page 30-33

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