Reading & Literacy Opinion

Using Improvement Science to Think Deeply About Literacy

By Contributing Blogger — March 15, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Kristen MacConnell, a graduate student at High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and Stacey Lopaz, director of High Tech Elementary Chula Vista

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”

--Albert Einstein

Hurry up and tell me the problem so I can fix it. Does that sound familiar? As educators we are problem solvers. In our haste to solve problems we sometimes waste time on solutions that don’t work or don’t last. Maybe we aren’t taking enough time to really understand the problem?

At High Tech Elementary Chula Vista, a project-based charter school in San Diego, California, we have been using improvement science to help students become better readers. By engaging in short cycles of inquiry, action, and reflection to test different “change ideas” in the classroom, we’ve come to a better understanding of individual student’s needs.

As a faculty, we identified three problems: students struggled with reading in general, struggled to engage with books, and/or weren’t showing the type of growth we would expect over the course of the year. We set two aims for our work: (1) All students will love reading and have the skills to engage with their favorite books and (2) All students will make reading progress over the course of a school year. These aims are big. The path to get there felt overwhelming. Instead of jumping in and brainstorming solutions, we slowed down and took time to unpack our problem.

Identifying Root Causes: The Fishbone Diagram

Our first step in understanding our problem was to identify root causes. Why didn’t all of our students already love reading and have the skills to engage with their favorite books? Why weren’t all of our students making progress over the course of a school year? To answer these questions we worked in grade level teams and brainstormed potential causes, using a trick called the “five whys” to dig deeper into the problem. For every cause we identified--such as limited access to books, student beliefs about reading, teacher resources, instructional practices, lack of foundational reading skills, etc.--we asked why until we couldn’t answer the question any more. Here’s an example:

“Why don’t students believe they can read?”

“Because they haven’t felt successful as readers in the past.”

“Why might this be?” “Because they haven’t had much practice.”

“Why?” “This could be because they didn’t have much access to books at home.”

“Or it could be because the texts they were exposed to in school didn’t interest them.”

“Why?” “Maybe because most of the characters don’t represent them or their families.”


You get the idea. Asking “five whys” helped us dig deeper to uncover underlying causes, and identify multiple causes that could be contributing to the issue. Paradoxically, by going through this process and identifying the causes within our control, our “big” problem began to feel more manageable. One teacher shared, “The Fishbone was an awesome tool to hold all of our thoughts about struggling readers.”

The First Grade Team’s Fishbone Diagram.

Empathy Interviews

Once we had brainstormed our own ideas for what contributed to the problem, we tapped into students’ perspectives by conducting empathy interviews. The purpose of empathy interviews is to understand a person’s thoughts, emotions, and needs, so that you can determine how to innovate solutions to address those needs. Each teacher identified a student who was on their mind, either because they struggled with reading or because they were a confident reader, and interviewed them to understand what factors contributed to their feelings of success and struggle. We then reconvened in grade level teams to share insights from our interviews and make revisions to our fishbone diagrams. Now we were in a place to develop a theory of action to guide our work.

Moving to Action

As a school, we identified five drivers (or high leverage areas) we would need to focus on to impact the root causes of the problem: reading time/structures; resources/access to texts; family support; student mindsets; reading strategy instruction/assessment. We reflected on practices connected to each of these drivers--things we were already doing or wanted to do--like readers’ workshop, read-alouds, small group instruction, etc. With an aim for our work and clear areas of focus, we were then able to brainstorm “low effort/high impact” change ideas to try in the classroom. How could we tweak read-alouds to make them more impactful? How might we modify small group instruction to provide all students practice reading and unpacking texts? How could we provide more access to engaging texts, that were also level appropriate, in and out of school?

As an example, one grade level decided to focus their change ideas on impacting student mindsets. They reasoned that some students don’t believe they can become good readers because they don’t have enough practice engaging with texts. They identified small changes they could make to small group instruction and guided reading to increase engagement, such as helping students choose a favorite part of a book and explain to a partner why it was their favorite part.

The First Grade Team’s Change Idea

To test this idea, one teacher pulled together a small group of six students whose reading levels ranged from A to I, and tried it out using a PDSA (plan-do-study-act) cycle. She modeled choosing a favorite part in a read aloud and explained why it was her favorite part to the students. She then had students mark their favorite parts in books and explain why it was their favorite part to their reading partners.

Part of planning the PDSA requires making a prediction; the teachers had predicted that their struggling readers would be able to identify a favorite part but might not know how to articulate why it was their favorite part. By looking at students’ notes in the books and conferring with the six students afterward (i.e., collecting data to study), the teacher found that all of her students were able to mark a favorite part in a book. She also noticed that students reading at level A recalled a particular piece of text when explaining why it was their favorite part. Students at levels B and C made connections. The student reading at level I chose a favorite part because she learned something new.

Based on this initial test, the teacher decided she wanted to tweak this process to help her level A readers expand on their thinking about why a certain part is their favorite. For her next PDSA, she plans to model for students four different reasons why readers may choose parts as their favorite: 1) It made you feel something, 2) You made a connection, 3) You learned something new, 4) It had a beautiful illustration. The teacher has created a simple symbol that correlates to each reason, and students will draw the symbol on the stickie note when they mark their favorite part. And the PDSAs roll on, as we iterate and improve.

We are three months into this process, but we already see progress toward our aim. Spending the time to unpack the problem, drawing on our own expertise but also the lived experiences of our students, was essential to identifying change ideas that could make a real difference in the literacy learning of our students.

To check out some of the change ideas we are iterating on, visit our website, and try a few yourself. If you want to learn more about improvement science and the protocols that guided our process, visit //gse.hightechhigh.org/CREI/.

Photos by Matt Sheelan

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.