The Payson Unified School District (PUSD) has rearranged its budget to boost spending on K-3 reading by 425 percent, a decision research supports.
Children who get personalized, consistent instruction in reading can make big gains, according to a three-year study by Arizona State University professor Carol Conner, whose results were published in Psychological Science. Without the individualized instruction, 22 percent of the students fell below grade level — which means they might have to be held back a year under the new state requirements. By contrast, every single student scored at or above grade level when given the extra, targeted help.
“Reading at grade level by third grade
is so important,” said Conner.
From kindergarten to second grade, students learn to read. After that, they read to learn, she said.
“That’s an important distinction,” Conner said.
If a student does not have strong reading skills by third grade, they fall farther and farther behind, which has enormous social and education consequences, she noted.
Conner’s study focused on giving children what educators call “differentiated instruction” and included a diverse group of students from all backgrounds.
The hot topic in education, “differentiated instruction,” suggests teachers approach each student based on their needs and learning styles.
“Differentiated learning is more of a hybrid of Tier 1 and 2 of RTI (response to intervention),” said Conner, “Our algorithms provide grouping algorithms to place the students in different groups.”
PUSD Student Achievement Director Brenda Case said the elementary schools in Payson will use a three-tiered RTI approach, starting with a broad explanation of the content.
“RTI is a framework on how to deliver information,” said Case. “It can be used for behavior or instruction.”
Case said in Tier 1 RTI instruction, children receive “best instruction” at their grade level.
“That would include small group instruction and whole group,” she said.
Then teachers use various methods to assess if a student understands what they have just taught. If they don’t, the teacher moves on to Tier 2 instruction.
“The teacher will scaffold the instruction to help the students grasp the concept at a different reading level,” Case said.
For example, if a first-grade student does not understand action verbs, the teacher will take a text from a kindergarten level reader to explain action verbs.
If the student still does not grasp the concept, Case said Tier 3 intervention pulls the student out of the classroom for intensive intervention.
Case said RTI aims to have 80 percent of students understand the concept in the classroom so only 20 percent need help out of the classroom.
Meanwhile, students with strong reading skills can build on their strengths on a self-motivated basis.
Conner said her approach involves more individualized instruction than the RTI approach, backed by computer software that produces individualized assignments. Her program also helps teachers translate the assessment tests.
“This sets high expectations for every child,” she said. “If the child is in second grade and reading above level, we use the gap between the target and reading level to challenge the child. The farther behind they are, the more time they spend in small groups. This way the upper end is pushed too.”
Conner started her study six years ago in Florida when Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through education reforms. Besides a big reduction in class sizes, the Florida approach held students back in third grade if they did not read well enough. Florida commissioned Conner’s study to boost and then assess the results.
Conner and her team set up the study with eight random trials that tracked students from first through third grade.
Conner and her team developed software they called Assessment-to-instruction (A2i), which helped teachers dial in to the reading instruction individual students needed. The program took into consideration a student’s current reading level and targeted progress. The researchers aimed to give teachers tools to tailor lessons to personal needs.
Comparison groups used the typical mass instruction method rather than the computer-tailored individualized lessons.
Conner randomly assigned students to the two methods in first through third grades.
Conner said some students ended up having three years of the computer-assisted individualized instruction while some had only conventional classes.
“The children that had ISI all three years did better than any of the others,” said Conner.
In her article in Psychological Science, Conner discussed her results. She said that all the students that had three years of the ISI instruction scored above the grade expectations.
In comparison, 22 percent of the students who did not have ISI instruction at all had scores below grade expectations.
Conner did say she extended her research for six years to make sure her results were repeatable. “The effects (of this program) accumulated and we’ve replicated the effects,” she said.
Conner said the teachers credited the detailed assessment results coupled with proposed lesson plans with the success. “It’s because we could tell them what to do with the assessment results,” said Conner.
Conner’s positive results turned into two $1.6 million, four-year grants from the Institute of Education Sciences to make the A2i software available in the classroom and the instruction more hands-on for students and teachers.
For the last month, Conner has been traveling to set up research areas. Currently, she has implemented her program at the ASU Prep School to help improve the product.
She hopes to get in touch with the Arizona Department of Education to see if it will consider her program.
When she heard about PUSD’s commitment to K-3 reading, she offered to include the district in her research.