“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.