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 Article of Interest - Literacy

Schools seek early reading on low scorers
Literary efforts place emphasis on lower grades
by Gail Spector, Boston Globe, 12/1/2002
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Nobody is surprised when Newton students perform well on the MCAS exam. Average test scores are consistently high, the percentage of students who fail is low, and the school system ranks among the top in the state.

Still, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Newton students are not reading at a proficient level as defined by the MCAS. And, the nonproficiency rate for students of color and students receiving subsidized lunches is more than twice the rate of the general school population.

''For us, it seems unacceptable in a system such as Newton that we should have students not reading well with understanding,'' said Carolyn Wyatt, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

To address the problem, Wyatt has spearheaded a systemwide program for identifying pupils at risk. That literacy initiative received a boost this year when 71/2 instructional positions were created with funds from the Proposition 21/2 override that passed last April.

For the first time since 1973, each of Newton's 15 elementary schools now has a full-time literacy specialist.

''In Newton, when you talk about 17 percent, that's a lot of kids,'' said Gregory Hurray, English language arts coordinator for kindergarten through eighth grade, referring to the number of Newton third-graders ranked nonproficient readers in 2001.

MCAS results have shown that ''there was a whole pocket of kids who were truly needy who we had missed,'' Hurray said. ''The goal is to identify those kids as early as possible, not wait until the MCAS results come out.''

It is easy to presume that Newton children ''are reading with understanding from the beginning,'' Wyatt said. Because they are growing up in ''literature-rich environments,'' children can demonstrate superficial routines, such as holding a book properly or guessing meaning from pictures.

''The state requires a tracking system for every kid [whose score is in the warning range],'' said Hurray, who implements the literacy initiative with Lisa Robinson, his counterpart in early education. ''We require it for any child who is not proficient.''

The system defines nonproficient as anyone who scores below a specified level on the MCAS, which includes those who score in the ''needs improvement'' range. For younger children who have not yet taken the standardized test, benchmarks recommended by the Department of Education are used to measure grade-level performance.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young's budget for this year contained few program changes, but one that he stressed as a priority was improving the reading programs in the elementary schools.

''We had collected data that indicated some weaknesses in some groups of kids. Too many kids ... were not reading at a proficient level. It was real and we wanted to respond,'' said Young, adding that it was a big step because he was adding personnel.

''It's going to take a couple of years of study and data collection to see results,'' he said. ''The staff is really excited. What more can you ask for than having your teachers enthused about teaching reading and writing?''

Because the literacy specialists no longer divide their time among schools, they are better able to focus on training teachers to assess pupils' reading strengths and weaknesses, and supporting ''balanced literacy,'' an integrated approach that emphasizes reading real texts, comprehension, phonics, and skill and strategy instruction.

Wyatt said that, after a three-year curriculum review, ''we decided that following a balanced literacy approach was better than strictly following a whole language or phonics approach. Balanced literacy is about using the best practices we know.''

Literacy specialists take a ''train-the-trainer'' approach, Hurray said. Teachers are taught different diagnostic tools and, beginning in kindergarten, children's reading skills are assessed throughout the school year.

''Assessment drives instruction,'' Hurray said. ''It allows us to get to know each kid as an individual. Every literacy specialist is monitoring the progress of every single kid.''

''You don't want to take the entire class of kids and place them all in the blue- or black-diamond zone,'' said Hurray, drawing an analogy to levels of ski slope difficulty. ''You want to assess their skills and then meet them where they are comfortable.''

Donna MacDonald, who taught second grade at Burr Elementary last year, took the job of literacy specialist after it became available as a full-time position.

''I felt it was a much more doable job,'' she said. ''Working at two schools seemed like an overwhelming task.''

MacDonald knows every child in the school who is not proficient, she said. ''Our goal is to look at those kids who are not proficient and figure out what systems are in place [to help them].''

Hurray has, in his office, statistics on every child in kindergarten though fifth grade who is not reading at grade level. Some, in the younger grades, had already been identified and placed in the Primary Intervention Reading Program, but, Hurray said, some had not.

For example, he said, ''there are a number of kids who reach fourth or fifth grade with excellent decoding skills - the ability to translate symbols into recognizable words - but they don't seem to comprehend well.'' They could have difficulty evaluating, interpreting, or analyzing texts. Other children may not be able to make inferences or predictions about characters and motives, he said. Without these strategies, children may perform poorly on the MCAS.

In Deborah Sullivan's first-grade class at Zervas Elementary, a full-time specialist means children get more one-on-one attention from an adult. During independent reading, she said, ''normally, I can see about four or five children. With another adult in the classroom, we can double that.''

There is a wide range of reading skills in this class, Sullivan said. ''They range from not knowing the alphabet to children who are reading chapter books'' such as those from ''The Magic Tree House'' series, considered to be second- or third-grade level.

''The balanced literacy initiative does meet the needs of all the children,'' Sullivan said. Years ago, she said, ''everybody read out of the same anthology, no matter what their level, and if you couldn't read it, you were told to just try and keep up.'' At the same time, other more advanced readers were bored.

''It's really teaching to the student instead of to the program,'' said Anne Feyerabend, literacy specialist at Zervas. ''We try to incorporate everything. We do some phonics. We do some small group instruction. We do whole group instruction. It's the whole picture.''

A big difference, said Feyerabend, is that ''we're not really scratching the surface anymore. We really want the children to invest themselves in the book, to think, `This is how I felt when I went away to camp.'''

Hurray said the curriculum review also showed ''slippage in time'' spent reading and writing in class. ''Only five hours a week was happening,'' he said, adding that primary grades should spend 10 hours per week on literacy instruction, and grades 4 and 5 should spend eight hours per week.

''Our goal was to create a systemic way of identifying kids at risk of not reading well at grade 3 and making sure that we can fix that,'' Wyatt said. ''This is about student outcomes.''

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