Every few weeks, elementary students in Wilkes County (N.C.) Schools were getting tested on what they read. But the questions weren't all that difficult and students' reading levels weren't as high as administrators hoped they would be.
Elementary reading and writing supervisor Susan Sidden felt the district could do better. Specifically, she wanted students to become independent readers who could challenge their comprehension skills and choose appropriate books on their own.
Making the difference: The district's previous program tested student comprehension, but the questions were literal, not interpretive. In 2003 it launched a new program in an effort to boost reading comprehension and promote independence. The program was part of an overall effort to focus on reading skills. The district had posted solid math testing scores on end-of-grade tests, but reading was sluggish.
Time to label: To help promote independent reading, the district switched to Lexiles, a reading-comprehension measurement system. The measurement is also used on the state's end-of-grade tests. The district purchased software that tested students based on these levels. Now, teachers keep track of what levels students are mastering, and so do students themselves.
Comparing books to shoes: Miller's Creek Elementary Principal Michele Shepherd says books are like shoes; you have to pick the ones that fit. "I love the program because it actually helps the children be accountable and understand how to pick books just right for them,'' she says. "It's kind of like going to the shoe store; you wouldn't buy a shoe that was too big or too small for you."
Rising levels: Shepherd says the program has helped comprehension levels rise. "Students are averaging 125 points growth in reading comprehension levels from last year,'' she says.
Revamping school media centers: It wasn't easy making the switch to the new reading program, say administrators. To get principals and teachers on board, the school system paid for the new program. To put it in place, each of the 13 elementary schools had to re-label every single book with proper Lexile labels in the library and in classrooms. "It's time consuming,'' says Sidden. "If we had it to do again, we'd put together a team to go into the media centers in each school and put the stickers on the books.''
Teachers rethink reading: Teachers also had to be trained on what the different Lexile levels meant and how to use the software to test students. But as they learned the program, they also started to approach reading differently within the classroom. Guided by software-based comprehension tests, teachers began to ask students what they thought the author was getting at, even if the answers weren't directly in the text itself. "We've seen a tremendous change in teacher instruction in reading. They understand there is guided reading, shared reading and independent reading," says Sidden. The program also allows teachers to send home individualized summer reading lists based on Lexile levels for each student.
End-of-grade surprises: Sidden says some students have made 250- to 350-point gains on comprehension. And if they are learning how to understand what they are reading, she says, their scores on the end-of-year tests will surely reflect that.
Fran Silverman is a contributing editor.