Online programme sees jump in reading levels

Issue: Volume 100, Number 3

Posted: 17 March 2021
Reference #: 1HAHxe

An online reading programme offered through a culturally responsive lens saw tamariki at a Golden Bay primary school improve by an average of five reading levels over a 20-week period last year.

At the end of 2019, teachers at Tākaka Primary School noticed a worrying slump in curriculum reading achievement, says principal Jenny Bennett.

“Aside from new entrants, in each of our classrooms we probably span two full curriculum levels. We found that teachers were really struggling to get through all of their reading groups with their varying needs and the size of the class,” she says.  

“We really worry when kids report that they don’t like reading and they’re not a good reader. Literacy is a gateway into experiencing the world around you – as soon as you learn to read, you’re reading to learn and your world opens up.” 

Jenny says she initially wondered if the problem was to do with teacher practice.

“But on the whole, the guided reading practice seemed to be good, but it didn’t explain what was happening with our reading.

Eyes off the ball

Jenny says they realised that with a strong focus on writing, they may have taken their eyes off the ‘reading ball’.

“We had been focusing for years on our writing. We had done a lot of inquiries and evaluations; our kids were loving writing and data was showing improvement, acceleration. Student feedback was showing that our kids saw themselves as writers. 

“But we were finding that, definitely boys, were struggling with reading and that was a disparity we were really focused on with all reading, writing and maths. We had particularly closed that gap with writing and we were really proud of ourselves,” she says.

Boys and bilingual learners improve

To address the issue, during the Level 4 lockdown the school trialled a number of online reading programmes with different classrooms and teachers. After lockdown, it was decided to trial the Australian programme PM eCollection readers with two classes – a Year 2-5 all-boys class and a bi-lingual class. 

“We found that boys just weren’t engaged in the reading activities in the classroom as much as girls were. We asked the question – is our curriculum meeting the needs of boys?”

The class, with a male teacher in charge, was run for a year and Jenny says behaviour issues dropped away with this group. As a small school, it was difficult to continue to staff the class in this way and in 2021 it was felt it was time to integrate the boys back into mixed classes. But many boys in the class had improved by up to six pilot reading levels.

“Their self-efficacy as learners is certainly something that has been switched on,” says Jenny.  

Improvement among tamariki in the bilingual class was even more impressive, with many students improving by 10 or more levels and three students reaching Levels 28 and 30. 

“While tamariki in the bilingual class were still doing guided reading in te reo Maori, they were also doing PM eCollection readers,” says Jenny.

“The books are only in English and that’s why we wanted our teachers to be focusing on the teaching of te reo with the kids in person. We didn’t just drop the guided reading, shared language approach. 

“There were still explicit teaching strategies and working with children on the joy of different texts. Those things were all still happening – in English or te reo in the bilingual unit.” 

Through a culturally responsive lens

PM eCollection readers offers students an online library of books – fiction and non-fiction – on a wide range of subjects from Levels 1 to 30.  

Jenny says the texts have good scaffolding and tamariki have autonomy over what they read, and to a certain extent, the level.  

With ex-reading recovery teacher and “literacy guru and matriarch of the school”, Margret Sullivan, at the helm as kaitiaki of the programme, says Jenny, there were many reasons why the trial was successful.

“We had a conversation with the kaiako about the ‘how’. We have a matrix for relationship-based learning in
Te Kotahitanga, the culturally responsive practice, which is the work of Russell Bishop. 

“So we looked at that matrix and aspects such as creating a family-like context, having high expectations and teacher roles being used to bring together well-managed learning environments,” she explains. 

She says the reading programme ticked a lot of boxes in terms of culturally responsive practice. 

“When we were looking at Te Kotahitanga, we agreed that part of creating that family-like context for students and positioning, which is that we believe students can achieve and will achieve, involved letting students decide when, how and where they did their reading,” she says.

Feedback and accountability

The online reading programme offered many features that ensured feedback and accountability for learners, says Jenny. 

“A student can record him or herself reading two pages of the text. The feedback that we thought was really effective was the kids recording and knowing it was going to the teacher and the teacher listening and then talking to the child about it – these amazingly powerful one-to-one conversations were had!” 

The reading activity was done at least four times a week for 20-30 minutes each time. Kaiako set the reading level for each child, offering four or five levels below and one level above where they believed each student was reading. 

“That was about creating that ‘culture of stretch’ for the kids; those high expectations and also giving them the opportunity if they want to try something easier, or if they wanted to try something harder. They could try it but if it’s tricky, go back to some of their other reading so they can get there.”

Healthy competition

Jenny says she has always been interested in how children compete against each other. What may be healthy competition for some children might be detrimental for other children. But she noticed that while the reading programme hadn’t been set up as a competition, the children showed a healthy interest in each other’s progress.

“What was interesting is the kids all knew what everybody else’s level in the class was. I noticed they weren’t competing so much as celebrating and cheering each other on.  

“I think it’s because there was no whakamā, no shame, for them – they were able to try a book a level higher and realise it was too hard and then go and try something easier. I think it made the learning safer for the kids and that they weren’t being forced to read in big groups. For a child that struggles with reading, I imagine that reading in a group could create huge anxiety,” she explains.

Limitations of programme

A review of the trial was done at the end of 2020 when an additional soft trial, with no data collection was done with a Year 1 and 2 class.

“After we had finished the first evaluation, we thought we needed to drill in more about making sure that the delivery of the programme is maintaining the culturally responsive lens. That was really interesting because we got a really important finding: that these Year 1 and 2 learners really need explicit teaching of phonics and word attack strategies. They’ve got to integrate them and have that knowledge before they can proceed.”

Jenny says the evaluation also showed that the programme doesn’t extend children enough.

“This particular tool is really good for kids who have got the early literacy skills embedded and are on their way with reading. But once they hit that fluency stage, it doesn’t provide the breadth and depth that is needed to extend the children. 

“The students who made the most progress were the ones who were six months to a year outside where they needed to be and they were the ones who accelerated. And the students who were at where they needed to be absolutely flew,” she says.

Bridge to Harry Potter

Year 2 learner Archie accelerated from Level 15 to Level 28 and spent his summer reading every book in the Harry Potter series.

He says he liked everything about PM readers. It helped him read because there were lots of books to choose from – some simple, some hard. He liked that he could choose his own books and then record himself. He also liked that if he didn’t know a word, he could listen to it, learn it – and it helped him read.

Student kōrero

  • I love choosing my own books.

  • Margret  helps me if I get stuck.

  • There’s heaps of made-up stories, but we like the non-fiction ones too.

  • I like getting better and better on them.

  • You can choose when you want to do your reading and you can do it fast or slow.

  • You can get help from it if you can’t read a word, but then you can know that word. 

Report on computers and reading

In October 2020, the Ministry of Education released a report called Spotlight on PIRLS: Using computers for reading activities and students’ attitudes to reading

Report authors Jessica Forkert and Megan Chamberlain found that access to devices does not increase the amount people read. They also wrote that there was no direct relationship between how often teachers engage students in digital reading instruction and activities and their engagement and self-confidence in reading. 

However, they found that students who engaged in online reading activities weekly or more liked reading less.

The authors cited a 2018 report from McNaughton and Gluckman, who argued that the benefits of a digital environment happen when tasks are sufficiently complex and developmentally appropriate, when self-regulation and engagement are high, and when there is substantial teacher guidance.

Jenny Bennett thinks the report may not focus on how online reading activities are delivered in a classroom context.

“It was a very interesting finding that children liked reading less: it doesn’t dissuade me from our own findings, but it does create more curiosity for me about pedagogy.

“The thing I would like to know more about in relation to this report was, how were these strategies taught? If these kids are Year 5, we can assume that most of them are reading with a relative level of fluency and comprehension, so were they being taught digital reading strategies? What were they and how were they being delivered? Maybe the reading wasn’t challenging them? Were they given a choice about what they were reading? What was the context around that digital reading activity?

“What we found was that once a child is up and reading and they are flying, their world has opened to them, they are able to choose what they read,” she says.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:40 pm, 17 March 2021

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