Within weeks, students at Queneesh Elementary went from thinking “I’m not reading” to seeing themselves as readers and becoming smarter.
The reason for this is a school intervention to improve the literacy skills of elementary school children, as the teachers themselves were learning new ways of teaching reading.
“It’s not an art, it’s a science,” says director Kyle Timms.
Along the way, the school received counseling, bringing in Heather Wilms, the district’s reading intervention teacher.
“She’s worked with a lot of different schools,” he says.
With the support of the school district, they also brought in a program support teacher to assess where the students were in terms of reading, especially since the staff had noticed that something was wrong in terms of reading skills of some students at the school level.
“We noticed last year that the kids were really struggling,” Timms says.
One of the challenges is getting families to spend more time reading and less on screens, while the shutdowns during the pandemic have only added to this challenge.
“We spend less time reading and talking,” he says.
The school conducted assessments in September. Vice-Principal Debra Fullerton, who has a background in reading, played a key role in this effort, as the school worked with staff to help them learn ways to improve their reading skills. She, Wilms, Bernadine Courage, Karen Szkwarek and Robin VanHolderbeke formed a support team for the project.
Much of the work centers on phonemic awareness, or the ability to work with individual sounds in spoken words and examine how the sounds fit together.
“It’s not just talking, it’s moving letters around, it’s playing games,” Timms says.
On a recent morning in Queneesh, Fullerton worked with a small group of students in a room, going over the words of how the sounds blend together, with the students working at their own level.
“It’s just one of the strategies,” she says. “These are all evidence-based literacy strategies.”
In one exercise, children work with tile boards made up of letters. In another, they make word letters, changing a letter in a word to make it a new word. At one point, Fullerton writes the word “trunk” on a whiteboard and asks the children to break down the sounds they see in the word.
“It’s a lot of manipulation of sounds and letters,” she says.
The program is not just focused on literacy or even general academic achievement, but is also tied to students’ feelings about their classroom presence and their ability to self-regulate their behavior.
“They’re happier and calmer in class,” Timms says.
Final assessments will take place in May, but the school is already seeing the difference the program has made in just a few weeks for so many young students in terms of ability and self-esteem.
“Now they are engaged and trying to learn,” adds the manager.
School district 71