In an effort to get the big picture I am reading Richard Allington's What Really Matters in Response to Intervention. I actually heard Allington when he was President at IRA give a keynote - in fact he talked about some of the same issues he discusses in this book - and he is someone that I really respect. I picked this particular book because of that respect and the belief that he could cut through all the goobly gook and give me the nitty gritty. I am not disappointed.
Allington suggests, for instance, that Kindergarten is the perfect place to start with interventions and that it is the kindergarten teacher that is the first line of defense. She should have daily small group focused lessons in her plan for those two or three lowest-performing children in her class. It is our job to provide our teachers with the professional development that they need to identify and teach these students to close the gap right there. This small group of students will be seen every day while students who have better developed skills and need less teacher-directed time will be seen less often. Research shows no negative impacts on assigning those student with better skills more student-directed work.
Up until this point I am jumping up and down because this is exactly the situation at Chets Creek. We do expect the kindergarten teacher to provide the interventions in a small group daily. However, it is the next part that frustrates me. In the best situation this very small group of students will be getting a second literacy period each day, which means after and before school interventions. Most of our struggling readers do get a second period of reading instruction in a small group BUT - and it is a big but - this is done by a paraprofessional and sometimes is during the literacy block to make the best use of the para's time. We don't have money for before and after school unless the child's parents are able to pay for Extended Day. Even though - in our very large school of 1200 students, we have almost 300 students considered at-risk - a small school of students within our large school - we don't qualify for that type of help. That will be my challenge for the new year...
Allington discusses the research on intervention and identifies principles that accelerate reading development:
- Make sure that struggling readers have books that they can read all day long. Sounds so simple but Allington makes a very convincing argument for text books - one size fits all - being inaccessible to most struggling readers. He suggests that students need to spend most of their time reading books that they can read with 99% accuracy! He calls this high-success reading.
- Practice makes perfect. Allington explains quite eloquently why students need to practice reading and going back to the first point, reminds us that students can't practice if they can't read the text. He calls this reading volume. In a 30-minute researched intervention design he explains that 20 minutes should be reading appropriate text, 5 minutes of word work and 5 minutes of comprehension and skills. He discusses how to design appropriate interventions which really goes back to having the quantity and quality books that students enjoy including a non-fiction library that matches the standards in Science and Social Studies. We have worked so hard on this at Chets Creek, but it's still not enough. We have a long way to go to make this a reality!
- Group size for interventions should be no larger than 3! Yikes! He even suggest that if a child in a group of 3 is not developing satisfactorily that he be moved to a 1-on-1. Yikes!
- Intervention must be coordinated with core classroom instruction. I have always felt that if a child was not learning in the core program then the intervention should be a different approach, but Allington says that this is confusing to the child and the intervention must instead reinforce the core - be coordinated with the core. This is one I will have to think about some more... Getting the type of coordination that he is talking about is difficult. It is difficult for the general education teacher and the interventionist to find the time to plan that type of intervention with real daily coordination, especially when he does not believe that standard protocol design -a specified box program - is the best. Instead he would suggest a responsive intervention design that is designed specifically for the child and reinforces what the child needs from the core classroom instruction each day. While this sounds ideal, the reality is most difficult.
- Intervention should be delivered by an expert teacher. This seems so obvious. The best teachers have the largest toolboxes and when a lesson isn't producing the targeted results, they simply reach back into their toolbox and know how to present it in a different way. These teachers have flexibility because they are able to adapt their lessons to the needs of their students on the fly. At Chets Creek we have turned our teachers away from commercial programs and asked them to look instead at their students and their data and a pacing guide of the scope and sequence of the grade level expectations to teach tomorrow's lesson. I think we are preparing them to teach with this type of flexibility. It's so much harder and so much more time consuming than just teaching the next page of the teacher's manual, but Allington's research certainly confirms what we are seeing in our teachers. The effort does create teachers with a larger toolbox. Effective teachers improve their performance every year while less effective teachers achieve their best results after 5 years and nothing after that!
- Focus instruction on meta-cognition and meaning. As I was reading this chapter and Allington was identifying sub-groups of children, I am jumping up and saying, "Yes, I have that group and that group and that group!" In one study of 4th graders 20% of the strugglers could word call but with no understanding. Another 20% had problems with decoding but could comprehend. Other clusters were slow steady readers who comprehended but read so slowly. Another cluster were deliberate, slow decoders who maintained comprehension, and a very small cluster who were low on everything. All of these describe MY kids!! According to Allington only a very few of these need intervention with an emphasis in decoding but instead could use lessons focused around getting the meaning (summarization, graphic organizers, question generating/ answering, prior knowledge/ predicting, and visualization) and lessons around mega-cognition which basically is knowing if the text you are reading is making sense as you read it (slowing down, pausing, looking back, reading aloud, strategies for figuring out unknown words, skipping a word and rereading).
- Use text that are interesting to students. If we want struggling readers to accelerate their reading then they have to read. What better way to get them to read than to surround them with books about topics that they have an interest in or even an expertise. Seems so obvious but how often do teachers ask struggling readers what they would like to read about and then go out and find appropriate texts?