Literacy rescue

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Over the years the Nation has reported on the high drop-out rates in Eeyou Istchee, that its students have had substandard reading abilities and that many take more time to finish high school than the rest of the province. But, the scales might be on the verge of tipping.

According to Kim Quinn, an education consultant for the Cree School Board, a recent educational review drew the board’s attention back to the fact that their students were not succeeding when it came to reading. Research on literacy also shows that students who do not learn the basics in terms of reading and don’t have a moderate level of reading ability by the end of Grade 3 are more likely to drop out in high school.

“Grade 3 is where they should have their phonics skills in place, the fluency should be strong and they should be really able to read text. They need to know the basics of reading and after that they should be able to use this as a tool for learning. It’s a shift from learning to read to reading to learn,” said Quinn.

Though Quinn states there is nothing particularly wrong with the teachers within the CSB system, the problem is more likely to stem from the fact that they are not using one particular program when it comes to reading. Many of the teaching materials are outdated and, because it has been so long since the CSB purchased a new program, numerous teachers have either been going with what they feel works best or using parts of programs that the board purchased years ago since portions have gone missing from.

This is why Quinn, along with teacher Georgina Forward and vice-principal Bjorn Olsen, went to Baltimore in June to attend a conference and training session for Success For All, an elementary-school reading program with proven success.

The program was developed at John Hopkins University initially as a research project and it is now being used internationally to teach children how to read.

Part of why Quinn, Forward and Olsen, the program’s leader and facilitators for the CSB, decided to go with this program was because it has a high professional development component. Teachers at Voyageur Memorial, who are participating in the pilot project, will have to participant in 23 days of on-site training along with ongoing coaching and support visits from the program’s trainers.

Since those administering the program will all be armed with the same information on how to conduct it, the curriculum will be more consistent for the students.

Another reason why this program is ideal for CSB schools is that at the beginning of the year the children’s reading skills are assessed and they grouped accordingly to their skills. Every eight to ten weeks the children are tested again and regrouped if necessary.

There is one program for the kindergarten students called Kindercorner, a second program for students with a pre-Grade 2 reading level called Reading Roots and a third program for those with a Grade 2 reading program called Reading Wings. The latter two programs will be used for all of the students at Voyageur Memorial, Grades 1 to 6.

Though the students in the kindergarten class will remain in the Kindercorner program throughout the year and with their kindergarten teacher, they will be the only ones who will stay together when it comes to teaching reading. The others will move around subsequently according to their reading level so that they may either be challenged according to their level or receive extra help so that reading gains are made by all of the students.

The CSB will have a data management system that will be used for the program to group the students.

The program also comes with an extensive amount of class materials from reading books to work books to visual aids for the teachers, such as flash cards, phonics cards, DVDs and an engaging puppet known as Alphie for the younger grades.

“The Roots program is for students who have below Grade 2 reading level skills and so it is meant to build up all of their skills to a Grade 1 reading level. Once they get to a Grade 2 reading level, they then go to a Grade 2 reading program called Wings. Here they can concentrate more on developing their fluency with literature books you can buy from a bookstore, like Amelia Bedeila and Charlotte’s Web for older kids, and also expository texts focusing on vocabulary, spelling and a bit of writing,” said Quinn.

Another major advantage for both students and teachers is that the Success for All program is highly structured and everything is sequenced. The curriculum is laid out or scripted for the teachers, who can change the vocabulary so that it works for them as long as the sense is kept the same. The program also tells teachers how long a certain block should be. Generally, the program consists of one 90-minute block daily devoted to developing reading skills.

Quinn said that in this program a morning would usually start with listening comprehension. This means the morning might begin with a story so that the students are learning how to listen to a story and develop an understanding for a story structure. The teacher then asks the questions that the program tells them to ask. They then get into the sounds that they are focusing on and keep bringing the same sounds back in. With the Roots program, once the students get to a later phonics lesson and the five sounds that they are focusing on, they will then have to spell with those sounds as well as read them and listen to them so it is always reinforcing those same sounds in different ways.

The books created for the individual programs also serve to reinforce the sounds learned in the sessions. The sounds and sight words are alternated so that the message gets across. These books will also be ones that the children get to take home and keep.

According to Quinn, having all of these tools and such a structured program is going to make life easier for the teachers.

“The work is done for them in a sense because they don’t have to think about how they are going to get their points across. It is already there and it is structured in a way that it is easier for the students to learn sounds,” said Quinn.

Success for All does not only have support elements for the teachers and students but it uses a global approach that features support systems for the families. Since the program is geared towards prevention, there are support structures for everyone involved.

The teachers will not only do their initial training, months later the trainers will return to Mistissini to work with the teachers again and address any problems that they have been having throughout the course of teaching the program.

For the parents there will also be a “solutions network” implemented as a family support component. This network is meant to coordinate the family, along with the school and community resources, to help the students in the program. The primary areas of focus are on attendance, parental involvement, intervention, community connections and school-wide behaviour. These particular areas will be divided into sub-committees of a larger solutions team network that will meet regularly. This team will consist of parents, teachers, support-staff members, school leaders and community members.

For the students, tutoring will also be an essential element for those who have fallen significantly behind in their groups. Success for All recommends that the students who are at the lowest 30% in Grade 1 would get one-on-one tutoring for 20 minutes a day. Grade 2 students get it when they are in the lowest 20% and Grade 3 students in the lowest 10%.

“I don’t believe that will be enough because tutors really need to be full-time so it is going to have to be a mix to make sure that the kids get what they need and this gets off the ground. Ultimately there are going to be permanent jobs that are going to be created. This will happen in the next few weeks,” said Quinn.

Though Quinn admits that this may be a very ambitious undergoing right now, ultimately she, Forward and Olsen all share a tremendous excitement in bringing this program to Mistissini. Forward and Olsen will be returning to Baltimore to undergo further training for this program in January and Quinn will be developing reports throughout the year to track the school’s progress with the program.

“I sat in one of the classes that use Success for All in Montreal at Hampstead Elementary and the kids can read. I saw them at the end of the school year and a lot of the students there have learning difficulties and are coded by the MELS as students with special needs even though those students are reading,” said Quinn.

For more info on the program, visit

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