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Reading, Writing, and Reform

A look at four literacy reform models in the Boston Public Schools
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Schools in Boston, Massachusetts, serve many families living in poverty and have put into place various literacy reform models aimed at getting more children reading at grade level. Leaders in the Boston Public School system raised a question about different approaches to teaching reading: Were the four literacy reform models used in their elementary schools helping first-grade children in high-poverty schools learn to read?

Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Terrence Tivnan and colleague Lowry Hemphill from Wheelock College carried out a research study to answer this question. Their report received the International Reading Association’s 2007 Dina Feitelson Research Award, honoring the memory of Dina Feitelson by recognizing an outstanding empirical study published in English in a refereed journal.

At each of the 16 elementary schools that took part in the study, most of the students (80-90 percent) were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. This means that the schools were primarily serving children from households with few material resources to support learning at home. Literacy reform was one strategy being used to help turn around a disheartening national trend: about 55-60 percent of children from high-poverty households score below even a “basic” level of reading at the end of fourth grade. Each school was already implementing one of four literacy models:

  • Building Essential Literacy
  • Developing Literacy First
  • Literacy Collaborative
  • Success for All

While the programs differed in their teaching techniques and materials, they all aimed to help young students become fluent readers. Using any of these programs meant spending more time than usual on reading instruction (1.5 to 2 hours per day), getting new literacy materials for classrooms (e.g., simplified texts that grew more challenging across the year), grouping children with similar needs into small groups as well as leading whole-class instruction, and training teachers in new instructional strategies. Each program included phonics practice and discussion of text meaning.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on particular skills varied across the programs. Importantly, the researchers had no personal or professional ties to the programs, allowing them to carry out an unbiased comparison.

School leaders recognize that no two school years are exactly alike. A school’s student population changes from year to year, and teachers become more comfortable using a literacy program’s materials and lessons over time. Tivnan and Hemphill were careful to select schools that had at least a few years’ experience using one of the four programs.

At the beginning and end of the school year, the researchers tested first graders’ basic letter and word reading skills, and their vocabulary and comprehension skills, using existing grade-normed tests. Here is what they found:

  • At the beginning of the year, overall school performance on the basic skills of identifying letters and words and sounding out nonsense words ranged from the 31st to 66th percentile — close to average, overall, for first graders.* Vocabulary scores were lower, ranging from the 12th to 23rd percentile across schools. This means that on average, the students’ vocabulary knowledge was equivalent to that of typical 5-year-olds.
  • By the end of first grade, performance on identifying letters and words and sounding out nonsense words had improved, with schools scoring between the 50th and 68th percentile (at grade level or above). Vocabulary scores were still low, ranging from the 14th to 26rd percentile across models, meaning that scores were still averaging about a year below age expectations.
  • Reading comprehension was assessed only at the end of the year, once children had learned some basic reading skills. Schools’ scores ranged from the 35th to 48th percentile — on average, the students were still a few months below grade-level expectations in understanding the meaning of text. Nonetheless, the score range was very wide; some classrooms had only 20 percent of students reading at grade-level by the end of the year, while others had 80 percent of students doing so. No one literacy model, however, was clearly associated with higher reading comprehension scores.

The take-home message here is that all four of these standardized programs were similarly effective in promoting some aspects of basic word-reading (or decoding) skills, while they produced less strong results in other areas, depending on the program’s area of emphasis. None of the four models was particularly effective in getting children up to grade level in understanding the meaning of words.

It is possible, though, that teachers could have used their school’s program more effectively, by adapting it to the needs and interests of their students each year. However, these comprehensive programs do not always allow for flexibility in the sequence and content of reading lessons.

As students continue through primary school, they need to go beyond single-word reading, to make sense of increasingly difficult texts. Given the importance of early vocabulary for later reading success, literacy programs like the ones tested in this study might consider developing ways to support young children’s word-reading skills and their skills understanding the meaning of what they read.

*All results collapse together schools using the same literacy models. Note that the 50th percentile is average performance for first-graders.

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