Teaching Literacy Matters, Improving Reading in a 1:1 District

Teacher working with students in Library.
In the fast-paced digital world our children live in, the practice of reading is often overshadowed by a media-rich environment dominated by television, YouTube, and video games. The ironic twist in this new reality is that our children will increasingly need to rely on their literacy skills to have access to careers that demand a post-secondary education. The distractions of our tech-infused world make it ever more enticing for our children to stay glued to a screen rather than delve into a good book, yet this world cannot be sustained without a healthy supply of literate, educated young adults.

The statistics are alarming. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 43% of adults read at or below an 8th grade level while 44 million adults, (23% of the population), are considered functionally illiterate. The same study found that 75% of state prison inmates can be classified as low literate, illustrating the vital importance literacy plays in our society. Perhaps most heartbreaking is the long term effect low-literacy has on children of these adults – children who never hear a bedtime story or receive help with homework because their parent can’t read. Low literacy becomes intergenerational. The strongest indicator of a child’s success in school is the mother’s level of education.

In light of these statistics, it is imperative that our teachers combat this dilemma. These battles are being fought and won by teachers like Ms. Julia Peacock, one of our English teachers at Perris High School. As a technology coach, I have had the good fortune of working with Ms. Peacock and hearing of the small victories taking place in her English and Reading Intervention classes. After helping her set up an online reading assessment that the students take on their Chromebooks, she relayed to me that most of her students read at least three years below grade level. “They didn’t understand vocabulary, and they couldn’t analyze literature. No matter how I tried to teach them, they gave me back blank stares,” lamented Peacock.

Ms. Peacock explains her plan of action: “I couldn’t actually teach students how to read. That was supposed to have been done all the years prior to them arriving at my classroom door. So, what to do? Monday through Thursday nights, students were required to read for twenty minutes. However, they could read anything they wanted. Anything. Graphic novels, fantasy, romance, science fiction, biography, memoir, realistic fiction, historical fiction, whatever they wanted was on the table as long as it read like fiction because, no matter how interesting, reading how-to manuals isn’t conducive to doing literary analysis! I helped them find books they liked by doing a book pass: Place a different book on each desk, ask them to read part of it in about 1 ½ minutes, then rate the book on a scale of 1-10 as to whether or not they would want to read it. This way, each student had a list of at least six books they were interested in reading.”

Teacher working with students
For the first fifteen minutes of class the morning after they read, students had to go on their Chromebooks and complete a reading log. The premise was simple: analyze what you had read the night before. Peacock explains, “It was complicated getting the students to do the reading log correctly, but I refused to “dumb down” the lesson so they could get better grades. Mastery was the point. Improving their reading levels so they could succeed in high school was the key. Making it easier did them no good. Eventually, they got the pattern and the classroom was silent as soon as they sat down and tapped away on their keyboards.”

Ms. Peacock had ten reading strategies with at least eight sentence-starters per strategy. For example, under “prediction reading strategies,” students would respond to sentence starters such as:
  • “I think _______ is going to happen next because…,”
  • “Since _______ happened, I think _______ will happen because… .”
For the first three days, her students would analyze three different strategies by writing three sentences for each strategy. “Fridays, when there was only one strategy left, I gave them the last strategy then an element of fiction to blog about (setting, plot, characterization, etc.) in Haiku,” (the learning management system we use at PUHSD).

After going through this process for a few months and administering the assessment again, the results were so very clear: reading improves reading. “As a bonus,” says Peacock, “the writing portion through the reading logs also improved writing, as I would edit them and give them guidance as to how to improve sentence structure, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Overall, it was an amazing experience for my students and for me.”

Ms. Peacock talks about one student’s experience that stuck out the most. “Kathie” had a hard time getting to school first period, so her first semester report card was riddled with Fs. Her first assessment result was a lexile of only 840 Which is an approximate 6th grade reading level -- 3 grade levels below 9th grade. However, after just a couple of months of diligent reading at home and completing reading logs in class, her second assessment showed an improvement to a Lexile of 1020 -- a 7.5 grade reading level. “Certainly, that could have been a fluke,” states Peacock. “Sometimes the second test is a big drop or gain from the first one, which is why I always give at least one more assessment so the numbers can even themselves out over the course of three test sessions.” Yet the results were undeniable. Kathie’s end of the year assessment showed an amazing improvement: 1145 Lexile -- a 10th grade reading level!

Teacher smiling while working with students in library
Ms. Peacock’s joy is evident as she talks about several other students who had similar success. Through classroom blogging and daily journals, she gained valuable insights into her student’s learning process as evidenced by these student responses:
“I actually enjoy reading now and the reading logs.” - “Robert”
“I’m finding that this assignment is getting easier because we get to read whatever we want to read.” - “Rosetta”
“I start to read better within every chapter or page.” - “Omar”
Ms. Peacock’s passion is evident as she describes Kathie’s reaction to her improved scores. “There is no reward greater to a teacher than seeing the look in her eyes and the tears on her face when she realized how far she’d come in such a short time.”

Literacy matters. It has to.