Literacy program finds footing in archdiocese

Nathan Wilch plans to get to the final level this year.

But the fourth-grader at Holy Cross School in Omaha isn’t playing a video game. He’s reading.

"Last year, I stopped at level V," said Wilch, who said he’s always loved to read. "This year, I want to get to Z."

The levels give students ownership in the process, said Chris Nelson, Nathan’s principal. "They know where they are today and where they want to get."

Wilch is participating in the archdiocese’s balanced literacy program – now being used in 24 schools after last school year’s pilot program in the five-school Omaha consortium that includes Holy Cross, as well as Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Thomas More, Ss. Peter and Paul, all in Omaha, and St. Bernadette in Bellevue.

Teachers have been pleased with the "amazing growth" in reading skills among the pilot schools’ students, said Donna Bishop, assistant superintendent of schools.

Parents tell her they’ve gone from forcing their children to read to having to take books from their hands, she said.

And teachers and administrators praise the program’s ability to monitor students, help those who might be struggling and meet the needs of those who are advancing, Bishop said.

A major reason the archdiocese turned to the program was a desire to have information about students’ needs drive instruction, Bishop said.

"The components that we put in place through our balanced literacy program provided us the data that we needed to meet the needs of each child," she said.

Jennifer Larson, reading teacher/coach at Holy Cross, also said the program stresses individual attention to each student.

"We’re moving away from that whole-group teaching," she said. "Teachers are learning more about their students because they’re working with them in small groups and individually. You’re working on the skills that that particular child needs."

The program – for students in kindergarten through eighth grade – is designed to strike a balance between whole language and phonics-based teaching. Guided reading is one element, as well as writing, vocabulary and grammar.

Students are assessed at least three times during the school year to track progress. They advance in levels labeled A to Z, with different levels considered appropriate for different grades. Students at Z level in any grade have moved beyond learning to read and are reading to learn, and assignments can be progressively difficult to meet their needs, Bishop said.

The concept of guided reading and balanced literacy programs began in the mid-1990s with Irene Fountas’ and Gay Su Pinnell’s 1996 "Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children."

Megan Fiedler, principal at Our Lady of Lourdes School, said the program begins with a placement test to pinpoint a student’s abilities – such as needing guidance, being an independent reader or having an ability to work outside their comfort zone.

"Then we develop a lesson plan to grow that reader," she said.

Mary Davis, reading teacher at Ss. Peter and Paul School, also emphasized the individual attention and variety of teaching strategies the program encourages.

"When we were the teacher at the front of the room and we just read stories and had the students read, we didn’t really know what they were getting and what they weren’t," Davis said. "In smaller groups, you can have that communication with the students."


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