Improved instruction is at the heart of literacy push

At KIPP Philadelphia, a focused team effort aims to provide classroom, small-group, and one-to-one supports to early readers.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The kindergartners are sitting cross-legged on a carpet doing their best to draw the letter F, the letter of the day at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy (KPEA), a charter school in Strawberry Mansion. Each day, the children practice saying and writing a different letter.

“Okay, friends, hold your fa-fa-fabulous Fs up to me,” says their teacher, Lauren Holifield. “Oh, my goodness, fa-fa-fa-fantastic. … Now make your best lowercase f. Have fu-fu-fun with it.”

Across the hall, other youngsters are seated four to a table, working independently, doing what the teachers call “rainbow writing” – using a different color for each letter as they learn to write their names. Then they switch from markers to brightly colored sticky dough, shaping it into letter forms.

In a third classroom, teacher Samantha Freeman is conducting a lesson in how to read a book. She holds up The Family Book by Todd Parr.

“Remember,” she says, running her finger across the title, “we read from left to right, and the big words at the top of the cover are the title.” Then, detail by detail, she introduces each element of the book to her class. The students repeat all this back to her several times.

“Title,” she says. “Say title.”

“Title,” they say in unison.

“That’s what you do in kindergarten,” school leader Ben Speicher said later. “How do you know the title of the book? How do you know to read left to right? You don’t know unless you’ve been taught. We have kids who know these things, but we can’t assume everybody does.”

This is basic, one-step-at-a-time literacy instruction. Time spent teaching reading adds up to 3½ to 4½ hours in a school day that runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Progress and challenges

KIPP boasts that 90 percent of KPEA students leave kindergarten reading on grade level, though just 5 percent exhibited age-appropriate skills the previous August. As they entered school, most knew only half their letters and few letter sounds.

On last spring’s more rigorous PSSAs, the KPEA 3rd and 4th graders had proficiency rates above the District average, with 50 percent of 3rd graders and 44 percent of 4th graders scoring proficient or advanced.

The Wilson Fundations reading and spelling program that the school has used since it opened helps students through 2nd grade to master the building blocks of reading, Speicher said. To promote deeper understanding beyond that, the school’s reading curriculum emphasizes science and history as well as vocabulary development.

“What we find gets harder for kids is having the vocabulary, content knowledge, and depth of reading comprehension to stay on grade level as they get older,” he said.

Meeting that challenge across the city is the goal of READ! by 4th, a multi-organizational campaign to have almost all Philadelphia 4th graders reading on grade level by 2020. Only about half, historically, have reached that benchmark.

As part of this effort, 700 kindergarten-through-3rd-grade District teachers from 40 schools spent a July week in special training on literacy instruction, learning a strategy much like KIPP’s that focuses on teaching letter and combination sounds – known as phonemic awareness – as well as effective use of reading aloud and independent reading. Their classrooms received classroom libraries with books sorted by reading level.

“The most important resource you need to improve literacy instruction is a highly skilled, well-resourced teacher,” said Diane Castelbuono, the District’s deputy chief for early childhood education.

This is true even when a school can’t afford to have extra bodies in the classroom, she said. The system is designed to help teachers manage larger classes in an extended literacy block that features whole-group, small-group, and independent reading, in which students can easily find books at their level.

A structured approach

Its formula amounts to a lot of time on various reading, writing, and listening tasks, frequent screenings and assessments, and a research-based, highly structured approach. Students having trouble receive small-group instruction or even one-on-one time with a teacher.

The school employs two teachers per classroom in kindergarten and 1st grade, and a special education teacher along with the regular teacher in inclusion classrooms in grades 2, 3 and 4. Most of the year, the school also has four graduate students from the Urban Teacher Fellows program at St. Joseph’s University.

The fellows have been trained in Wilson Fundations, an approach that proponents tout as proven effective in building reading and spelling skills and as an intervention for struggling students.

Fundations is also being used by Ziegler and Andrew Jackson Elementary Schools in the District and the AIM Academy in Conshohocken, a private school for students with learning differences.

On a morning in September, teaching fellow Vanessa Serrano was assisting four 4th-grade students while the teacher worked with the rest of the class.

“The more adults we have, the more individualized instruction we can do,” the principal said.

Students are assessed early and often. Teachers visit each child’s home in May – long before the start of classes – to assess the child’s skills.

“I liked the fact there was a visit,” said Tanya Brown, whose daughter Taytiannah, 5, is in kindergarten. “I like the teacher knowing what my daughter can and cannot do.”

Observations and testing are ongoing, and teachers assign children to smaller guided-reading groups accordingly. With four lead teachers, special education teachers, and teaching fellows, there might be eight groups of 2nd graders tackling a lesson, for instance.

Teachers and the fellows trained in the Wilson approach develop expertise in identifying reading problems, said Cathleen Spinelli, professor of special education at St. Joseph’s and program adviser.

They can “identify the child’s reading problem and how to modify instruction … to help that child,” she said.

First thing on a bright September morning, 4th graders embarking on “word study” started with a rousing song, standing and pumping their arms in the air. “Good morning. Wah wah. G-O-O-D M-O-R-N-I-N-G. GOOD morning. Wah wah. Pump that KIPPster spirit up.”

“Thank you, Aziz. Excellent job, Eriyonna. Good morning, readers,” said teacher Mariel Ziegler.

It was time to study the word of the day: setting.

“I’ll say the word, you’ll say the word, then we’ll clap it out together,” Ziegler said. This would be the routine for every word they would study through the school year, she reminded them.

“Set … ting.” Clap. Clap.

This was an easy one. How many syllables? she asked. Hands went up all around.

“Do we know this word?” she asked.

For a half-hour, the class discussed possible definitions, first as a whole group, then with a partner, then again with the entire class. They spoke up to agree or disagree. Each wrote down a definition. Then they illustrated what a setting might look like. It wasn’t the most exciting of words, but necessary for future discussions of books.

From one classroom to the next, teachers orchestrated movements of students from whole group, to small group, to independent reading, to one-on-one time with a specialist. But even students with reading issues are assigned grade-level material.

“All groups are reading the same thing,” Speicher noted. Struggling students get extra support.

The pace was quick: 30 seconds to write down their definitions.

“Pacing is important,” said Speicher. “The kids have time to share or do their work but not so long that they get off-task. We try to walk that fine line.”

Amanda Keyes, with sons Oscar, 9, a 4th grader, and Frederick, 7, in 2nd grade, endorsed the emphasis on literacy.

“I like how they do word study – they divide them into small groups and they work on their own set of words, and they do small groups for reading, too,” said Keyes. “The school sends packets home encouraging you to read with your child and have them read to you.”

For her sons, the effort at school and at home has paid off.

“Neither child could read when they started kindergarten. They liked being read to, but they had no idea about reading,” Keyes recalled.

“By the end of kindergarten, they were reading to me. I was impressed. They have a love of reading – and that comes from the family and also from the school.”