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June 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 9

Catching Readers Up Before They Fail

Here's how schools can double students' reading growth in the early grades.

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On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, one-third of U.S. 4th graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading. That's the good news. But what about the two-thirds of students whodidn't read proficiently in 4th grade?
For students who enter school with below-average language development, a one-year gain in reading achievement for each year in school is simply not enough to catch up. For students to reach the proficient level by 4th grade, we must double or triple rates of reading growth in kindergarten and 1st grade; by the end of 3rd grade, students must have made six years of growth in a four-year span.

It Can Be Done

So how can we ensure this acceleration in reading achievement? By organizing trained teams to provide intensive small-group literacy instruction that is built into a school's master schedule.
Beverley Manor Elementary School in Staunton, Virginia, adopted such an approach. After four years of using early literacy teams in kindergarten and 1st grade, with follow-up intervention and enrichment periods in grades 2–5, the school made sizable gains. In 2008, phonological awareness literacy (PALS) screening revealed that 24 percent of 3rd graders at the school needed literacy intervention; by 2011, only 7 percent of 3rd graders needed such intervention. Moreover, students' scores on Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL) tests substantially improved during this time period. In 2008, 79 percent of 3rd graders scored proficient in reading; by 2011, 93 percent scored proficient—a 14 percentile-point gain. Of note, approximately 45 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (Virginia Department of Education, n.d.).
Building on this success, additional programs using early literacy teams are currently being piloted in other schools in Virginia as well as in six schools in Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee. We were involved in creating schedules to accommodate literacy teams and providing materials to support follow-up training.

Where to Start

Identify a Literacy Coach

Schools begin by identifying a literacy coach whose primary role is threefold: (1) to create and develop an early literacy team, a group of teachers who go into classrooms to provide small-group literacy instruction (Hartnett-Edwards, 2011); (2) to help teachers assemble students into groups that target specific literacy skills; and (3) to work with principals in scheduling intervention and enrichment periods.
The literacy coach reviews and demonstrates sample lesson plans, coteaches with team members, and observes in the classroom to ensure that team members are delivering the instruction students need. He or she also coordinates the organization of a literacy center, which offers materials sorted by title, reading level, theme, and instructional strategy.

Create an Early Literacy Team

Creating a dedicated early literacy team is a more feasible approach to delivering quality literacy instruction than trying to ensure that all teachers schoolwide have such expertise. Team members may be literacy coaches themselves, classroom teachers, teachers of English as a second language, teachers of talented and gifted students, retired teachers who are hired on a contractual basis, and so on.
During given periods of the day, the early literacy team visits a classroom and works with small groups of students on such skills as fluency, basic comprehension, and word study. For emergent readers, we strive to provide a teacher-student ratio of 1 to 5; for beginning and more advanced readers, we look for a teacher-student ratio of 1to 7 or 1 to 8. The number of team members needed in a classroom will depend on the number of student groups.
Working with one group of students at a time, each team member rotates among groups so that all students are exposed to a variety of instructional styles. Such rotation enables team members to specialize in certain areas, such as teaching rhyming and alliteration to emergent readers or teaching inference to higher-level readers. In addition, the early literacy team provides an embedded staff development program that models good instructional practices in literacy daily.

Group Students in Early Literacy Groups

In conjunction with the literacy coach, the classroom teacher assigns three to seven students to each of several groups on the basis of reading assessment results. For example, an informal reading inventory or running record can help designate which students might benefit from instruction that focuses on developing fluency or primary-level comprehension skills. A teacher might use a brief group-administered spelling assessment to regroup students when word study is the focus. Both team members and the classroom teacher work with these homogeneous, skills-based groups.
Initially, early literacy groups are formed within a single classroom, but as students progress from emergent to beginning readers and beyond, groupings can cross grade levels, a configuration made possible by the design of the master schedule. As students progress and master various skills, they move fluidly into different groups.

Schedule Literacy Instruction

For students to achieve literacy at accelerated rates, administrators and teachers must adjust their daily and weekly schedules to significantly increase the amount of time for small-group literacy instruction. In the model we propose, early literacy team members "flood" classrooms to deliver two 30-minute blocks of small-group reading instruction daily to all kindergartners and 1st graders, with 2nd graders receiving similar instruction as needed.
Intervention, however, doesn't end after grade 2. As a follow-up, schools should schedule one intervention/enrichment period daily in grades 3–5. During these periods, students who still require intervention—at this point, in either basic reading or math skills—will continue to receive those lessons, whereas those who have attained proficiency in those subjects will receive enrichment. The goal of enrichment is to move students from proficiency to advanced proficiency in both literacy and math.

How It Works

Figure 1 shows a sample master schedule for grades K–5 that provides for intensive small-group literacy instruction.
Figure 1. Sample Elementary School Schedule That Provides for Early Literacy Groups
el201206 Canady Figure1
Note: Core classes Encore Elementary school scheduling: Enhancing instruction for student achievement
Kindergarten teachers begin their day with their assigned homeroom groups, devoting 75–90 minutes to morning activities, including whole-group work in literacy and mathematics. Starting in period three, several early literacy team members come into the classroom to work for 30 minutes with various student groups; after lunch, the same team members return to deliver another 30 minutes of small-group instruction.
Figure 2 shows how a school might schedule its early literacy team members so that each of three classes at a given grade level receives two 30-minute blocks of small-group literacy instruction daily.
Figure 2. Sample Grade-Level Schedule That Provides for Early Literacy Groups
el201206 Canady Figure2
Note: Elementary school scheduling: Enhancing instruction for student achievement
Typically, the morning sessions emphasize teacher-directed instruction, whereas the afternoon sessions emphasize active student participation. For example, morning groups might focus on fluency by modeling reading or with partner reading, target word study by looking at difficult-to-sound-out words or important vocabulary from a given book, or work on comprehension by introducing new books and engaging in guided reading.
Afternoon groups might focus on fluency through repeated reading of familiar instructional-level books or wide reading of new independent-level books to build speed, accuracy, and expression. They might focus on word study by reviewing the words they studied in the morning and doing dictated sentence writing. Finally, they might target comprehension by using pictures to retell a story or working in pairs to write responses to higher-level comprehension questions. Each classroom teacher becomes part of the literacy team when the team is in his or her classroom. The teacher also conducts follow-up work on the basis of students' assessed needs.
The same process continues in 1st grade and, on a more limited basis, in 2nd grade. The double blocks of small-group instruction result in fewer reading difficulties for students, with fewer students requiring intervention after 1st grade. At that point, team members primarily work with transfer students who have gaps in their skills. However, to maintain grade-level skills as students progress through grades 3–5, additional small-group literacy instruction during intervention/enrichment periods provides a safeguard for continued achievement.

Literacy for All

This accelerated approach provides all students with adequate time and explicit instruction in literacy in both kindergarten and 1st grade. It results in dramatic increases in student reading proficiency, lower dropout rates—and, ultimately, improved lives.

Hartnett-Edwards, K. (2011). Helping the adults learn. Educational Leadership, 69(2), 60–63.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2009). Executive Summary: Reading scores up since 2007 at grade 8 and unchanged at grade 4. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education. (n.d.). School report card [Online database]. Retrieved from

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