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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

A Literacy Model That Beats the Odds

A Literacy Model That Beats the Odds- thumbnail
Central to student achievement is the ability to read at or above grade level. Even math word problems require strong decoding and comprehension skills. Schools with large percentages of at-risk students face enormous challenges when it comes to raising student achievement. Yet one Title I school achieved high levels of student success by implementing an innovative literacy model.
Jones Elementary is a K–5 Title I school in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1995, the school's pass rate for students on standardized end-of-grade tests was below 50 percent. By 2003, it had soared to 97.2 percent. In 2004, the pass rate for 3rd through 5th graders on the math and reading end-of-grade tests rose even higher, to 98.8 percent, with 100 percent of 5th graders passing and thus moving on to 6th grade. During the 2003–2004 school year, Jones Elementary was one of three elementary schools nationwide to receive the Education Trust's Dispelling the Myth Award for academic excellence and for closing the achievement gap. The school attributes much of its success to it's innovative literacy model.

All About Jones

Jones Elementary is located in an urban, largely African American community that serves two housing projects and a homeless shelter. The school houses a traditional program and a magnet program. Implemented in 1990 to foster greater racial balance in the school, the Jones magnet program is a K–5 Spanish immersion program in which all core classes are taught in Spanish to students who are native speakers of English.
To date, Jones Elementary remains a school-within-a-school. The traditional program serves the attendance zone community and is almost 100 percent African American; most students in the program are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The Spanish immersion program is more racially diverse, with 50 percent of its students minority (mainly African American and Hispanic). Fewer than 10 percent of magnet students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The two programs have the same curriculum; the only difference is that one is delivered in English and the other in Spanish.
As of June 2004, Jones's total school population was approximately 650 students, with roughly 400 students in the magnet program and 250 in the neighborhood program. Although the magnet program brings diversity to the school, Jones Elementary remains a Title I school with a minority population of approximately 70 percent.

The Jones Literacy Model

Achieving academic success for all learners, as measured by state-mandated end-of-grade tests, did not happen overnight for Jones Elementary School. In 1997, inspired by a workshop on the Four Blocks Literacy Model (Sigmon, 2004), the school developed the Jones literacy model, a comprehensive language arts model that balances skill-oriented and meaning-oriented instruction. The Jones Literacy Model differs from Four Blocks in its focus on small-group learning, which provides teachers with greater opportunities to assist and assess students. With a student-teacher ratio of 8 to 1 or less, students have maximal opportunities for producing and practicing language.
An initial student assessment uses a running record in combination with an oral retell for kindergartners and a writing assessment for 1st and 2nd graders. On the basis of this assessment, students are placed in one of three homogeneous ability groups. Under the guidance of their group leaders, who may or may not be licensed teachers, students complete tasks that are challenging but not frustrating. The groups are not static; students are reassigned to higher- or lower-ability groups as needed. Because all group lessons have similar formats—similar materials, the same teachers, and the same amount of time allotted for each rotation—students do not perceive changes in grouping as a demotion or promotion.
In the Jones Literacy Model, rotations consist of three 30-minute blocks: a guided reading block, a word study block, and a writing block. We affectionately compare the model to a three-ring circus in which three small groups actively engage in three corners of the room. The pace is fast, with each student having multiple opportunities to read, write, or answer questions in each of the three 30-minute rotations.
The hallmark of the groups is extended opportunities for focused discourse between facilitators and students. Because students rotate instead of teachers, teachers become experts in delivering instruction and assessing learners in a given area. Although the language and literacy objectives vary for the three ability groups, lessons within an ability group relate across rotations.For example, if 1st Grade Group A is studying long vowels, all three rotations focus on this topic. In the word study rotation, students might engage in a sorting competition in which they race through stacks of cards, sorting words according to whether the words have long or short vowels. In the writing rotation, they write sentences including words with long vowels. When these students move to the guided reading rotation, they read sentences or books that focus on these same words.
From kindergarten on, each group works with some kind of text. Jones Elementary School has a storage room full of leveled readers—from level one to level 32—published by a variety of companies. Group facilitators select the text that best fits the language and leveled needs of their homogeneous group and that focuses on a specific learning outcome. Students may read books to practice a particular letter or sound. At the concept level, they may be reading to develop comprehension strategies, such as summarizing, sequencing, comparing and contrasting, distinguishing fact from opinion, and inferencing. For example, a group working on sequencing might read a book on Abraham Lincoln and sequence the events in his life. As students work through the skill and grade levels, teachers integrate increasingly longer and more difficult narrative and expository texts.
The classroom teacher also provides 30 minutes of teacher-directed, grade-level instruction in a whole-group setting, which focuses on selected topics, such as reinforcing reading comprehension strategies with narrative and expository text studied in the small-group rotations. Students have up to 20 minutes during the school day for self-selected reading. Teachers provide time for independent reading as their schedules permit. Students are also expected to read at home for a minimum of 20 minutes each night.
To assist with monitoring student participation in self-selected reading, the school implemented the Accelerated Reader Program, which levels books and assigns them a point value, from one-half point for kindergarten-level books to 30-plus points for upper-level books. On finishing a book, students use computerized comprehension quizzes to self-test. Incentives range from candies and pencils for fulfilling weekly reading goals to trophies, prizes, and fieldtrips for meeting larger reading goals. The incentive program is so successful that monthly book circulation at the school's media center increased from 1,100 books in 1996 to 17,000 books in 2004, which means that for every student in the school, 26 books are checked out, on average, every month.
The Jones Literacy Model was initially developed for the school's attendance-zone students. Because of its success, the teachers in the magnet program also adopted it, and the model has now been implemented schoolwide. Small-group literacy rotations take place in grades K–2. Group facilitators include classroom teachers, teacher assistants, art and music teachers, the Title 1 teacher, and the media specialist. In 3rd grade, where variability in literacy skills is not as great, students continue receiving teacher-directed instruction in combination with a modified block, which usually includes guided reading and word study. Writing is not done as a rotation because in the upper elementary years, students need more than 30 minutes to write. Struggling upper elementary students in grades 4 and 5 receive small-group tutorials during and after school as needed.

A Context for Success

In 2004, North Carolina awarded Jones Elementary School a rating of Honor School of Excellence for achieving high growth and showing a passing rate at or above 90 percent on state standardized tests. The school also met its federal adequate yearly progress goals. In a district with 62 K–5 elementary schools showing proficiency rates ranging from 57.5 to 98.8 percent, Jones had the highest score, outperforming even wealthy, suburban schools. Of all 2,232 North Carolina elementary, middle, and secondary public schools, only 14 had performance composites above 98.8 percent—and only three of these were Title I schools (B. Black, personal communication, August 27, 2004).

Why It Works

The Jones Literacy Model is effective for several reasons. First, the structure of the rotations scaffolds best teaching practices in an optimum learning environment. Three teachers get to know every student well. The small ability groups not only enable teachers to more easily maintain order and respond to the diverse needs of each learner, but they also equalize education opportunity. Each student receives effective literacy instruction at his or her own reading level and benefits from the same contact time with the instructor during each rotation. Because students are ability-grouped, the homogeneity of the literacy experience contributes to the uniform success of the reading model across the school's population.
Central to successfully delivering instruction to the small, homogeneous groups is having sufficient staffing to implement the rotations. The model currently works because Jones Elementary School has many teaching assistants and other staff members who share responsibility for raising all students' reading and writing skills to grade level and beyond.
Equally successful is the quality of instruction within the three rotations. Teachers are continuously asking questions that both assess and assist the students: Which words are synonyms? What is the main idea of the story? Learning takes on a game-like quality that transports students into a world where learning is fun: Let's see who can get Word Bingo first! Students who may not have many opportunities to produce academic language outside the classroom learn that they can build narratives, elaborate on a topic, and write well-constructed essays. The high level of student engagement minimizes disruptive behaviors and maximizes time on task.
The school also attributes its impressive academic achievement to students' extensive independent reading. The more than 17,000 books circulating monthly in the Jones Elementary School media center show that students are reading voraciously. Consider the case of one avid reader. This Jones Elementary student earned, on average, 225.6 points each year in 3rd through 5th grade. In his middle school, the incentive program was not as strong—there were no trophies or off-campus outings. In 6th grade, he earned only 135 points. Meanwhile, back at Jones Elementary, more than half of 5th grade students earned 100 points or more, with one student earning more than 800 points.
Effective leadership is also important in the success of the Jones Literacy Model. The model is only as strong as the administrator who oversees it, hires teachers, ensures adequate training, procures resources, and develops an incentive system to motivate learners to read. At Jones Elementary, in addition to the principal, a site-based curriculum facilitator plays a key role. The curriculum facilitator models exemplary instruction for each block and helps teachers set goals for students. She trains teachers in the model and assists in classrooms as needed. She also helps develop games, materials, and lesson plans for teachers to use during their rotations. With the same principal and same curriculum facilitator developing the school's literacy model for the last seven years, Jones has had the luxury of consistent leadership.
The literacy program has its challenges, such as the initial capital outlay required for materials. A bookroom filled with multiple sets of leveled books is a must. Ideally, every student should have a copy of the book their group is reading. During guided reading, kindergartners may read up to 80 mini-books a year.
Staffing is also a key consideration. The program requires that three group leaders work with the rotations for 90 minutes daily. Group leaders need initial and ongoing training as well as common planning time to prepare the lessons. Finally, the school must secure a 90-minute block of uninterrupted time for students to advance through all three rotations.

Doing Double Duty

The Jones Literacy Model balances the expectations of federal legislation while reaching out to the individual needs of a diverse group of learners. Marshak (2003) asserts that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “reverts to the outmoded practices of the Industrial Age—a narrow curriculum and sorting of students through standardized testing” (p. 229). He asserts that a postindustrial model of education “integrates personalization, academic and personal success for every child, and both common academic standards for all students and individualized standards for each student” (p. 230). The Jones Literacy Model structures the education experience in a postindustrial way that accommodates the unique learning needs of each student as it meets the expectations of federal legislation. Once established, it is also an effective, cost-efficient way to structure the literacy learning of all students regardless of their socioeconomic status.
NCLB, the four-letter acronym that has educators quaking, does not have insurmountable expectations. Jones Elementary School's 98.8 percent proficiency rating is proof positive that schools can function at or near 100 percent proficiency by 2014 if they prioritize literacy, use best teaching practices, motivate learners to read outside the classroom, and foster effective leadership. If 98.8 percent of students can pass end-of-grade tests in a school that serves two public housing projects and a homeless shelter, schools everywhere should be able to replicate that success.

Marshak, D. (2003). No Child Left Behind: A foolish race into the past. Phi Delta Kappan, 85, 229–231.

Sigmon, C. (2004). About Four Blocks: A brief overview [Online]. Available:

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