Data Driven Decisions: Why We Chose Structured Literacy for Our District

By Stephen Keskes, Ed.S.
Assistant Superintendent, Clio Area Schools

As Assistant Superintendent of Clio Area Schools in Michigan, I am proud to reflect on our journey of addressing our goals in reading and understanding language. Partnering with Children’s Choice Initiative (CCI), we have seen great results getting our teachers and support staff trained in Structured Literacy instruction.

This was not an overnight decision to choose this program, but rather a drawn-out study of research-backed data in choosing how to enhance our curriculum and bring about real change in our classrooms and in the lives of all our students. 

I’d like to set the stage for you with a little bit of data and it’s been data that we’ve been looking at for a really long time in public education. First, let’s examine a ten-year snapshot of our reading data from the NAEP test which is the National Assessment for Educational Progress. The NAEP test looks at reading proficiency of all 4th graders.

Time for a wake up call

When you look at this data, it shows nationally where we are and how we’ve done as a state. One of the things that I really struggle with is that only 31.65% of our children in the entire state of Michigan were proficient in reading in 2019. That means that less than a third of our children are performing at a proficiency level by the time they are taking this assessment in the 4th grade.

There is also some data out there that I really struggle with, as well, that says if you are not reading at a proficient level by the end of the 3rd grade, and at least at a 3rd grade level, then you are 90% more likely to not graduate from high school. 

Reading is the gateway to opportunity

If a child can’t read or if a child is struggling with reading, we are limiting their opportunities by allowing these low percentages to continue. If we’re going to make a difference and really try to help change lives and improve conditions for our kids, they have to become proficient readers. They have to be able to access the world. And if they struggle with reading, or if they can’t read, then we’re really limiting their opportunities. I don’t think any of us want that to happen for our kids. 

So, when we started looking at what we might be able to do differently in Clio, we began by looking at John Hattie’s Visible Learning (Source: Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences and Effect Sizes Related to Student Achievement).

John Hattie wrote a book called, Visible Learning back in 2009. John took all these different studies and he did a “study of studies.” He wondered what the effect, or what the impact is on these particular strategies to improve student learning. He looked at thousands of studies and was able to come up with this idea of effect size. An effect size of 0.4 equals about one year’s worth of learning growth per strategy. 

We looked at all the different strategies for improving reading. 

We found that a Whole-Language Approach to Reading is about 0.06. Now, not every single reading program looks at these different components in isolation. Oftentimes, when you look at your reading curriculum, there are a combination of programs being used to support your goals.

When you look at Sentence-Combining programs, the learning growth is about 0.22, so it’s about half a year’s worth of growth. Comprehension programs are about 0.47, or a little over a year’s growth for those programs that are implemented with fidelity. Spelling programs bring 0.58 growth, nearly a year and a half worth of growth. Vocabulary programs register comparatively at 0.62. 

And then we get to phonics instruction, which had a really profound impact on my thinking around reading and where we really needed to focus some of our efforts and some of our resources. Phonics Instruction has a 0.7 effect size according to Hattie. His work has looked at all these different ways to try to improve reading, and Phonics Instruction came out to show almost two years’ worth of reading growth over one year’s worth of time, which is pretty incredible. 

One of the things we kept thinking about is: What can we do to get more phonics into our reading instruction? Or, if we are going to do some interventions, what can we do in our school district that has a greater emphasis on phonics?

We started looking for something different.

In terms of phonics programs, we started looking for something different, and I had a teacher in the 5th grade who was an amazing Title 1 teacher. I asked her to start looking for something different, something that we hadn’t done before. She landed on the Orton-Gillingham methodology, because if we were going to do a new intervention, we didn’t want to do the same thing that we’ve always done and expect a different result. 

She found some training on Orton-Gillingham downstate, and she came back on fire. She was excited! She had learned so much about how Orton-Gillingham positively impacts students with reading difficulties that she sent me about 10 videos that day of different pieces of research that somebody else had shared with her. It really started us to think differently about this whole picture of us having a giant reading problem that we are trying to improve. 

The challenge with reading ability in our state and our country is much more complex than whether or not we have the right programming. There are a lot of factors that come into play and access to the right kinds of educational programming that fit our children’s needs. That is probably one of the greatest difficulties that we have – trying to garner success for all our kids. 

The Orton-Gillingham Approach became our desired foundation

I want to share how something like the Orton-Gillingham approach, which started as a Title 1 intervention, has made its way into a whole classroom setting with phenomenal results for all learners. When we talk about a balanced literacy approach, usually we are talking about learning reading and writing within the same context. We’ll have really good models of books; we’ll be learning how to write; and we’ll be learning how to read, so we are combining those components. 

Balanced literacy demands attention in another light. Not only do we want children to learn what words mean by looking at them and remembering them, we want them to understand how the sounds of words fit together and what those meanings are. If we could make more shared meaning in this world, it would be a much better place. If that’s what it takes to get 20% of our children with learning disabilities to read at a proficient rate where they can have access opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, then that’s our goal.

Yet, the amazing thing is that when you teach kids to learn the way their brains were designed to function, all kids grow in their reading skills and their understanding of language. This evidence-based fact is really what won us over with the professional training through Children’s Choice Initiative. 

Eagerly ready to begin

Our stakeholders at Clio Area Schools were thrilled about the full program that CCI had to offer, so we started out training our teachers in how to use this methodology in the general education classroom. 

Our teachers sort of figured out how to balance the structured literacy techniques with the multi-sensory part of teaching students how to read this way, all while using our regular reading curriculum. While CCI offers a full Scope and Sequence of their lessons, objectives, supported by their large material resources, their programs are individualized for what each school or teacher needs. 

One of the options that CCI offers is how to blend their methodology and materials with what you are already doing as a school or district. We didn’t have to change a whole lot of what we were already doing; we just made sure that we added the structured language phonics component into what we were already doing. We were already talking about letters, sounds, and words; we had our word walls and all our other successful strategies in place. 

The CCI intervention piece was just an additional approach that gave children an outlet with the multi-sensory part of this work being a critical component. We know that children learn in all kinds of ways, but to give our students an opportunity to use all of their senses to access reading, this is huge. 

Some of our kids, who are really in all our districts, just have so much energy that sometimes just sitting still on a carpet without a weighted vest or some other sensory type of intervention, is too much for them. They need to be able to move but without distracting the rest of the class.

What we love about the CCI process is that it’s really intentional about teaching children how to read, but also giving them some different gestures, kinesthetic movements, and tactile ways to learn how our language works and how the sounds of our language function together.

All materials included

One of the greatest things about the CCI program, which separates it from most other professional development offerings, is that all the materials are included with the initial training. On the first day of our training, CCI staff came with all the materials that our teachers needed, so there wasn’t an additional purchase. From the financial side of the work that we do, the beauty of Children’s Choice’s sustainability is already built into it. 

Not only did we train teachers, but then we trained teachers how to be trainers. In Clio, we had three teachers trained to be able to now train other staff as they come into the district, because everybody has teachers that are retiring, moving away, or taking time off to raise children. 

One of the things that we wanted to make sure was that we had people internally who continued to move this work forward, because we really believe this is an important part of what our kids get when they come to Clio Area Schools.

Training our teachers to not only learn how to use the system but also to train their peers in the future was another great benefit in working with Children’s Choice Initiative. 

K-3 Literacy Essentials

Looking at what the General Education Leadership Network has done in creating the K-3 Literacy Essentials and combining all of these different components together, it is clear that Children’s Choice is a natural fit with this mission, as they are one of the Michigan Department of Education’s approved providers of professional development. 

When you think of activities that build along phonological awareness, especially in kindergarten and first grade, and as they’re needed thereafter, this methodology explicitly instructs children in letter-sound relationships, and it fits exactly within what’s expected in the K-3 Literacy Essentials

Another dimension of CCI’s training model, that really connected with us, is their intentional model of using district literacy coaches and/or peer trainers, along with CCI supervisors. This professional collaboration serves as a very encouraging mentorship to come alongside our teachers throughout an entire school year assisting them with all their needs, questions, and concerns. This synergistic model was also one of our greatest priorities in finding the most effective instruction for our teaching staff.

The Value of Synergistic Practices

The Synergistic Application of Best Practices is a data-backed concept that we look for in all new professional development opportunities. When we present theory to teachers, the chances of it actually reaching children is about 5-10%. However, when you present some new learning, and it’s modeled, you get another 5-10% of implementation in the classroom. 

When you practice and you’ve modeled, and you’ve presented that theory, you get about 10-15% of that practice actually making it into classrooms. But when you present it, and you model it, and you practice it, and then you get coaches, and then you have peers visiting one another, and it becomes a system, you have 80-90% of that learning making it into the classrooms and achieving your desired outcomes. This is research that’s been adapted by Nancy Colflesh that goes back to Bruce Joyce’s work in 1988.

We really love how the Children’s Choice teaching model works synergistically as it applies all the best practices that we know are going to influence teaching and learning in a positive way. 

While our time researching the best program for our students was quite comprehensive, we were excited to find a high-quality reading and language intervention to address our needs. However, the most amazing thing is that our educational atmosphere changed in so many ways once we put these methods into daily practice with fidelity. Our teachers and support staff grew in their enthusiasm using these creative methods which brought dramatic results in all our students! 

Transformative Data to Keep our Momentum Going Strong

When you look at other districts that compare to our district in terms of poverty levels, free and reduced lunch, and the size of our district, we lead all of our colleagues across the state. 

I am sharing this because I want to share how we got there as an encouragement that your school and/or district can do the same. I believe that this work is bigger than the work that we are doing in Clio. I think that this work done through Children’s Choice Initiative can really positively impact every child across the state if afforded the opportunity. Together we are making an incredible difference in our children’s ability to read. We are also giving our teachers confidence in themselves because they are able to add more tools to their repertoire in order to teach all students how to access the world through reading and understanding language. 

At the end of the day, we’re changing lives through reading. That’s what this work is all about. Children’s Choice Initiative desires to:

“Unlock children’s unlimited potential through reading!”™

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