“As a scientist, I’ve learned to not touch the animals.” — Third-grade student
“I’m a reader because I understand the words.” — Second-grade student
Students in the Bentley Summer Program — a partnership of Bentley Elementary School in Salem and Salem State University serving children whose English language was below grade level — made huge gains in their literacy skills and in their attitudes toward reading and writing. Forty-nine first-through-fifth graders increased their reading scores an average of four months in last summer’s four-week program.
The educational gains produced by the Bentley Program rested on a formula for literacy intervention for English learners that included several elements essential to its success. Had one element been eliminated, the program’s positive outcomes would have been compromised.
What was the formula for Bentley’s success?
No. 1 — Children need to read, write and speak about something interesting (engaging content). Last summer’s Bentley program tapped into children’s natural curiosity about science. Our interdisciplinary theme of “water” engaged their interest and provided them with a rich vocabulary and a purpose for learning. The children conducted experiments, took field trips to the nearby ocean and read extensively. They researched and talked about salt marshes and tide pools, bubbles and beaches, and presented their findings in writing and art projects. Walking by a classroom, one could hear the children discussing a starfish’s food chain or the difference between brackish and salt water. One second-grader wrote that she liked “being a scientist. I liked to make experiments.”
No. 2 — Teachers must teach to students’ needs (diagnostic teaching). The Bentley Summer Program’s mantra was, “Every child reads something well every day.” To accomplish this goal, teachers evaluated the children every day and used the results to plan the next day’s instruction. Meanwhile, in small groups of four or fewer students, the children read books at a level that was comfortable for them. Every day for two weeks, third-grader Maira (not her real name) read books written at a second-grade level, where she could be confident and successful and need little assistance from her teacher. After some help with decoding longer words and checking her understanding of the text, she could move to more difficult levels and by program’s end was reading books at a beginning third-grade level. Maira made nine months of progress in our four-week program because she received instruction tailored to her needs.
No. 3 — Children at academic risk need individual attention from expert teachers in small settings (low student-to-teacher ratio). At each grade level, we paired literacy specialists with classroom teachers and/or ESL teachers. The teaching partners could give children up to 30 to 60 minutes per day of individualized or small group instruction and authentically evaluate their particular instructional needs.
No. 4 — Collaboration, across disciplines and across town (university-school partnership). The Bentley program brought together professionals who typically work in the isolation of a university campus or a district school, and within the world of one educational field. Last summer’s program was planned and carried out by university faculty in literacy education, science education and English language learning working together with teachers from Salem Public Schools. These partners pooled knowledge and resources in English learning, literacy development, science and art all focused on the children. The program allowed Salem State to exercise its commitment to civic engagement and to contribute responsibly and respectfully to the Salem community.
Bentley teachers used the Benchmark Assessment System to compare children’s pre- and post-program reading and writing skills. BAS asks students to read short passages, answer questions and write about what they read, and calculates that, for most grade levels, students grow an average of one reading level every three months. Students in the Bentley program far surpassed that expectation: Fifth-grader Alesar (not his real name) grew four levels or made 12 months of progress over the four-week program; he began at a late-third-grade reading level and ended at beginning-fifth-grade. Fourteen children (29 percent) who began the program reading below grade level reached or exceeded grade-level proficiency.
The children advanced in other important aspects of literacy. Thirty percent increased their level of English writing proficiency as measured by a state test for English learners. Fifty-two percent improved in their ability to express what they learned in writing exercises. Forty-five percent increased their use of the science vocabulary that was part of this project. Finally, and perhaps most important, more than 50 percent of the children reported that they liked reading more than before they began this program. That’s success!
The Summer 2012 Bentley Program partnership confirmed that when children are motivated to read and write in order to learn about interesting subjects, and when their teachers are free to devote time, attention and expertise to give them the help they need, they can make great strides toward English language literacy. When children who are learning English or who are deemed “at risk” can use literacy skills to research, report and answer their own questions, they build the confidence and enjoyment in learning that will sustain them in school and in life.
The Bentley model is replicable. With our partners in the district, we will extend it to children in other Salem schools. We hope to work with other school systems to adapt the model for use in school-year classrooms, after-school programs and summer intervention programs. Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from this model is that it isn’t a particular curriculum that leads to success but a model that allows teachers to use their knowledge and expertise to fit what they teach to what children need to learn, in the context of meaningful, motivating, subject matter. The elements essential to the model — engaging content, diagnostic teaching, low teacher-student ratio and collaboration — should be there in any school setting. As one teacher wrote, “It was a wonderful opportunity to stretch and grow as a teacher in a positive, supportive environment dedicated to educational best practices.”
Mary-Lou Breitborde is associate dean and Camie Condie is visiting instructor at the Salem State University School of Education. This is one in a regular series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.