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Raising readers

FD schools use multi-faceted approach to help elementary students improve reading skills

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Feelhaver Title I Reading teacher Jen Cordle works with a small group of kindergartners on reading skills. Feelhaver students have been making major growth in reading this school year.

Feelhaver Elementary students have been seeing “tremendous growth” in their reading scores this school year, according to the Fort Dodge Community School District.

The elementary school students in the district are assessed using what’s called the Formative Assessment System for Teachers, or FAST tests, to help monitor reading skills progress throughout the school year.

“What happens is they take this test three times a year,” said Jen Cordle, a Title I reading teacher at Feelhaver Elementary School. “After taking the test, we can see if the students are making what’s considered flat growth, modest growth, typical growth or aggressive growth.”

After the first two FAST tests of the year, nearly all Feelhaver students are making at least modest growth in their reading skills.

For kindergartners, 79% are making typical or aggressive growth in reading. For first-graders, that number is 70%, second-graders are at 67%, third-graders at 38% and fourth-graders are at 71% making typical or aggressive growth this year.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Butler kindergartners Mikah Jordan and Zakira Windham practice saying and writing the “shhh” sound during a small-group work session with teacher Shawn Russell.

The key to tracking students’ progress are the “data meetings” the classroom teachers, Title I Reading teachers and support staff have been having every six weeks, Cordle said. Having everyone at the same table keeps everyone on the same page when discussing the individual needs of the students and how to best help take them from “striving readers” to “thriving readers.”

“We all sit down together and say, ‘What can we do to help these students who aren’t making the growth we’d like to see them make?'” Cordle said. “Then we do some diagnostic testing where we really dig in and say, ‘What is preventing this student from making that growth? Are they struggling in the area of phonics? Are they just struggling to be a fluent reader? What’s their challenge at this point?'”

From there, the educators are able to adjust the reading interventions and lessons for the students to target their specific needs. For some of those students, their intervention might be meeting with Cordle and four or five other students who need help and focusing on mastering a certain vowel sound.

“I really feel like at Feelhaver, we are doing everything we need to do to meet the needs of every single reader,” Cordle said.

For the younger students, Cordle said, the school’s focus is on making sure they have a strong foundation in the phonics in kindergarten through second grade.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Butler Title I teacher Brenda McDowell works with a third-grade student to focus on some reading skills during small-group time recently.

“So when we get to third and fourth, we can build on what we call our automaticity, which is they’re able to read at a faster rate,” she said. “District-wide, our goal is to get them to read the way they talk, which means to be a fluent reader. Being able to read is just going to open so many doors for them.”

Over at Butler Elementary School, the kindergarten classes are also seeing significant reading growth, thanks to the implementation of a new foundational skills curriculum.

“Mrs. Banwart, our principal, last year really wanted us to look at a phonemic awareness of phonics program,” said Shawn Russell, a Butler kindergarten teacher.

Since the fall, the school’s kindergartners have seen 87 to 91% improvement in reading skills, she said.

“I like to tell my parents, phonemic awareness is something you can do in the closet; phonics is something you need the lights on for writing,” Russell said. “Phonemic awareness is everything you hear — you don’t have to write anything, see anything. It’s hearing it.”

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Feelhaver kindergarten teacher Jill Gaul goes over phonics during a recent lesson with her class.

“It’s the foundation of reading,” said Brenda McDowell, Butler Title I reading teacher. “Before they can read, they need to know all of that.”

Through this curriculum, the teachers are able to help students learn with educational games and practice books called “decodeables.”

“We’re always looking at these research-based pieces that we need to give kids what they need,” Russell said. “We can play all those education games and fun learning. It’s not just sitting there with a paper and pencil and a worksheet.”

And just like at Feelhaver, as well as the other buildings in the district, the teachers and support staff are there, identifying what each student struggles with and what they need to improve their reading skills.

“We figure out what they’re lacking and get them grouped together by what they’re lacking, so that group can focus on whatever skill it is they need,” McDowell said.

Russell said she and other teachers appreciate district leadership like Superintendent Dr. Jesse Ulrich and Dr. Steph Anderson, district director of elementary education, listening to them when they talk about what their students need and what curriculum and tools are most successful with their students.

“They just give us that flexibility,” McDowell added. “We are with the kids day in and day out. We have them, we know them, we’re taking our notes on what they’ve got and what they need.”

Cordle said the biggest assets to helping the district’s students be successful are the people that are involved.

“It takes a village,” she said. “And I think at Feelhaver, we really, really are working together to meet the needs of every single one of our students, so every single one of them can eventually become a thriving reader.”

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