Reading & Literacy

School-Picked Reading Programs Challenge Mobile Populations

By Rebecca Harris & Catalyst Chicago — June 28, 2011 13 min read
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In 2007, the Chicago Public Schools took a step aimed at bringing more consistency to reading instruction across the district by launching an initiative to get schools to adopt one of a number of selected reading curricula.

By the end of the 2009-10 school year, more than 300 schools had made the switch under the Supported Core Reading Materials Adoption program.

Although it’s unclear how many more schools have chosen one of the programs since then, one fact is important to note: In a district with high student mobility, like Chicago, allowing schools wide discretion to pick their own reading programs could cause problems down the road and leave some children struggling to reach the most important goal they need to accomplish by 3rd grade: learning to read at grade level or above.

New Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a former teacher and principal, is keenly aware of the dilemma. In an interview with Catalyst Chicago, Brizard talked about the need to have a coordinated literacy curriculum because of high student mobility in the district.

“When you have 15 approaches to literacy, that is when you get young people who don’t know how to read,” Brizard said.

It’s also unclear how much children’s literacy skills are improving during kindergarten. Schools primarily measure kindergarten students’ literacy skills with the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment, which is administered several times throughout the year. But aggregate scores are not made public by the district and at press time, CPS had not responded to a two-month-old Freedom of Information Act request for school-by-school scores.

Complicating the scenario is the yearly budget crisis in CPS, which leaves an ever-dwindling pool of cash to pay for coaching to help teachers learn best practices.

Tim Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an architect of the Chicago Reading Initiative, downplays the danger of too many reading programs. But Shanahan notes that in some instances, students could miss important content—for instance, learning all vowel sounds. The potential minefields could derail children at a key early transition: when a student moves from kindergarten to 1st grade.

Shanahan says students learn best when teachers use a variety of reading strategies, but those strategies must incorporate several critical elements: explicit phonics instruction; teaching comprehension and critical thinking skills; and reading out loud to develop fluency, putting pauses and punctuation in the right places.

In recent years, the decline in training for reading coaches has diminished the impact of their work. And the number of coaches is small compared to the need. District-wide, 75 reading coaches paid for by the district are in place: 44 in the area offices and 31 funded by a federal research grant. (Some schools may have used their own discretionary money to hire reading coaches, but the district could not provide a count of that number.)

“Clearly, it isn’t a system priority or emphasis in the way it was,” Shanahan says.

Meanwhile, the approach that CPS has embraced, called balanced literacy, requires training and ongoing coaching. Efforts to infuse the approach into every classroom have fallen short because of the lack of resources.

Elizabeth Cardenas-Lopez, the director of the CPS Office of Reading and Language Arts, says that educators interpret the term “balanced literacy” in different ways. That, combined with school autonomy, has made it more challenging to implement on a wide scale.

The Office of Reading works to teach best practices and strategies, such as interactive read-alouds, in which the teacher models critical thinking about a story and connects it to prior knowledge; shared reading, in which the teacher helps the class as a whole read poems or short stories; and guided reading, having a teacher guide students as they reading out loud in a small group, with a focus on developing vocabulary and comprehension skills.

But area offices and schools can decide on their own whether to implement the strategies, and with too little manpower, Cardenas-Lopez’s office can’t train teachers in a large number of schools. The office is working intensively with just 20 schools, and about 100 receive some kind of support.

“Most of us are on the same page, but it has not been a systemic approach to have that instruction going on across all schools in the district,” says Cardenas-Lopez. “We have different lenses of what best practices look like.”

She notes that the specific core reading materials used by a school are less important than incorporating the right strategies and lots of children’s literature.

“Coaching support is needed,” Cardenas-Lopez says. “But with all the changes that have happened in our district and all the budget cuts, many of those supports have disappeared.”

On a spring morning, students are seated on the carpet in Belding Elementary kindergarten teacher Leon Schrauben’s classroom. He leads the children in a shared reading session as they read a poem out loud:

The March wind roars like a lion in the sky
And makes us shiver when he passes by.

“Jacob, why do we say March is like a lion? Is there really a lion up there?” Schrauben asks.

“’Cause when it’s March, it gets really windy out,” Jacob replies.

Schrauben has extensive training in balanced literacy. Another practice he uses often is “guided reading,” which requires that students have books to read that are exactly at their instructional level. Texts up to an 8th-grade reading level are designated “A” to “Z,” 26 different stages along the way to proficient reading.

Proponents of guided reading hold that students learn fastest by reading books that are easy enough for them to understand but challenging enough to expand their vocabulary and reading comprehension little by little.

In Schrauben’s classroom, each student has a selection of “just right” books that fit the criteria, placed in a plastic Ziploc bag. A data wall in the staff lounge, which tracks the reading level of every kindergarten student, is testimony to Schrauben’s effectiveness.

“Over half his kids are above where we need them to be,” says Belding Principal Heather Yutzy, who recruited Schrauben because of his training and experience. Students who are lagging behind get individual or small-group instruction every day in Schrauben’s full-day class.

Yutzy, a former reading coach, says one of the biggest barriers to using balanced literacy on a broad scale is training: It’s harder to train a teacher in the proper techniques than to just give them a teacher’s manual and student workbooks.

“You can’t just learn to do what Leon does in a couple of days,” says Yutzy.

In Schrauben’s class, intensive reading sessions help children to develop fluency.

“He’ll listen for errors the kid is making,” Yutzy says. “Maybe all of them need to work on stopping at the punctuation mark. He’ll say, ‘I need to teach this little lesson.’ The skill will change from day to day, and from kid to kid.” The strategy is especially effective for English as a Second Language students—16 percent of Belding’s enrollment.

Schrauben’s collection of books—which he collected, Yutzy says, by “being friends with the sales reps” and going to training sessions—is shared with the school’s other primary-grade teachers.

Schrauben, who switched careers to become a teacher, learned to use balanced literacy and guided reading in a Golden Apple alternative certification program offered through Northwestern University.The first school where he taught relied on basal readers and Schrauben got little support in using the teaching method he knew best. The next year, the school transitioned to using balanced literacy and gave teachers professional development. Eventually, Schrauben was sent to Lesley University for summer training to become a literacy coordinator.

Now he incorporates a wide range of whole-class, small group and individual activities. During one day’s reading workshop, some children are doing literacy activities on their own at different centers in the classroom. Schrauben picks out other groups of students for specific instruction on letter sounds and reading books at carefully chosen levels.

As students read, Schrauben uses a complex array of symbols to keep a running record of their progress. He marks down every mispronounced word that children stumble on, as well as words that they read correctly—a strategy that helps him understand if they are ready to move up to the next level.

For phonics instruction, Schrauben relies largely on call-and-response word games, known as “word study,” that are carefully designed to increase children’s awareness of letter sounds.

During one such session, Schrauben prompts students by saying, “It’s not my nears, it’s my…”

“Ears!” the students call out.

“It’s not my bankle, it’s my…”


“It’s not my zoes, it’s my…”


Then Schrauben has the children identify the parts of word pairs that make them rhyme; put together words he has split apart into two syllables; and subtract syllables to make new words.

“Pencil. Take away ‘cil,’” he says.

“Pen,” the students respond.

To work on punctuation, Schrauben repeats sentences, varying his tone of voice, and has children identify whether the sentence uses a period, an exclamation point or a question mark.

For writing instruction, the focus is on giving children practice writing real words. To develop their understanding of phonics, students are encouraged to spell words the way they think is correct.

One fall day, the writing topic is “How do you turn a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern?” The responses range from “I no hwo to crv a pumpkin!” to “Pick up pumpkin take seeds out make shapes and put candles” and “you cut off the top anb take the stuf out then you cut a fas.”

Another afternoon, some students get worksheets that prompt them to write down as many words as possible from that morning’s story, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Others get worksheets where they can practice repeatedly writing out number words, one through five.

Several of those in the first group, Schrauben finds, have written “ing” down. “Is ing a word?” he asks. “Ing is a sound. What can we put in front of ing to make it a word?”

The children work independently during a short break. Then Schrauben calls the class together to discuss the story.

“What was the name of Little Red Riding Hood, before she was called Little Red Riding Hood?” he asks. “Elizabeth,” a girl recalls.

Students fill in other details: There was a wolf. A man cut Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother out of the wolf’s stomach. Schrauben notes the details on a large chart with markers.

He points out that the story is a fairy tale and can be re-told in different ways. He reads a different version, and as it unfolds, the class fills in similarities and differences that are noted on the chart. The second version does not give Little Red Riding Hood’s real name. One version describes the contents of her basket—bread, fresh butter, and a bottle of wine—while the other story just noted she was carrying “something good to eat.”

As the story continues, the students lean forward in suspense. At a key point, Schrauben takes a poll on the grandmother’s fate. “Who thinks the wolf ate her? Who thinks she ran away? Who thinks she was locked in the closet? Who thinks she’s under the bed?”

At Ashe Elementary, Monica Hamilton takes a different approach that emphasizes direct instruction, a strategy that has its share of critics but also ardent proponents, especially in some schools that serve lower-income children.

(Among the curricula that the district promotes in its reading materials adoption initiative is the direct-instruction program Open Court.)

Hamilton has two boys copy the “Good Morning Story” from a whiteboard. First, she has them sound out the word “make” and read it aloud.

“Today is Monday, February 28, 2011. I can read. I am good. I am smart. I can make all the shapes,” the story reads.

The letter “e” in the word “make” is tiny on the board because Hamilton uses SRA Reading Mastery, another direct-instruction program. The emphasis is on learning letter sounds as the building block for sounding out words. Silent letters are extra small so that students know not to pronounce them; long vowels often have lines over them.

Hamilton says Reading Mastery has consistently helped her students learn to read above grade level. She balances direct instruction with the district-promoted StoryTown curriculum, which emphasizes the use of language in its natural context.

Hamilton began using Reading Mastery at Lavizzo Elementary in Roseland. Lavizzo’s students often lagged behind in literacy skills, she says; they couldn’t catch up because of constantly switching schools.

“It just worked,” Hamilton recalls. “It got them reading faster and they seemed to enjoy it better. They didn’t have the same language [skills] as someone coming from an affluent background, with parents who were more involved.”

Hamilton’s mother, a retired veteran teacher and counselor, spent the whole year in Hamilton’s classroom, coaching her on how to teach Reading Mastery. Hamilton contrasts that intensive help with the scattershot professional development that CPS has offered.

“You can’t just spend a couple of days and go off somewhere,” she says. Instead, coaches should be “sitting with somebody, organizing the room, jumping in when you’re making mistakes, taking over the class.”

Jerome Ferrell, Ashe’s assistant principal, says Hamilton’s students have posted strong reading results on the school’s weekly assessments. Hamilton also works with special education students who are struggling with reading comprehension, he says, comparing her to a pitcher who knows how to throw a special curveball.

“Our curriculum throughout the U.S. has moved away from this traditional style of learning, but we have noted this has been successful,” he says. “The main thing is that students are engaged and are learning, even though it may not be the method that is [handed] down to us. It’s working in the building. We say, use it.”

Ferrell notes that teachers at Ashe do follow CPS guidelines to make sure children are exposed to a wealth of reading materials. Students read articles on current events, and teachers are required to incorporate reading into science and social studies.

“You need to know your students and know your standards,” Ferrell says.

On a sunny Monday at the end of February, Hamilton leads her class in repeating the whole alphabet and its sounds in order—everything from “A says aaah” to “Z says zzz.”

Then it’s time to work on the letter “E.”

“Leave your hoodies alone and look at me,” she says. “This is very important. Fold your hands and look at me.”

Popcorn-style, she asks different students to make the sound. Then, she drills them on the difference between “eeh” and “aah”.

“How do you know you’re making ‘ehhh?’” Hamilton asks. “Because your chin will go down. Your bottom chin is going down.”

Direct instruction includes specific, on-the-spot correction for struggling students, and emphasizes having them follow directions as closely as possible.

“I want to know why you keep saying ‘a,’” Hamilton says to a boy who reads “fat” as “fate”. “Sound it out,” she says. The boy starts to do so. Hamilton interrupts.

“I didn’t touch anything,” she says, stopping him. As she touches the line under the word as a cue, he sounds it out again. He’s still having trouble, so Hamilton urges him to pay closer attention and participate more in the group practice. The class is then instructed to help him by repeating the word.

After that lesson, Hamilton gives out a take-home worksheet, which contains practice for the sound ‘aaah’ and the sentence, “The rat ate.” Once students know enough sounds, they move into readers that start with stories of four or five sentences in length.

“When you get home, you’re going to read it to whoever takes care of you—your mom, your dad, your grandma, your aunt—ten times,” she says.

Another group of children comes to the reading circle, and Hamilton has them practice letter sounds. She lets a girl lead the circle. Like Hamilton, the girl holds the oversized book and tells the students “Get ready” before placing her hand on each letter.

Hamilton talks about her approach. “The ultimate goal is to get the children to read. And once you get them ready, you can use anything you want to,” she says.

“What you do as an educator is what works for your situation. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing StoryTown and you’re doing Reading Mastery, as long as we get to the same goal at the end.”

Republished with permission from Catalyst Chicago. Copyright © 2011 Community Renewal Society. For more information, visit
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as School-Picked Reading Programs Challenge Mobile Populations


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