Teach Your Children Well

Photo courtesy Center on Teaching and Learning Reading Clinic

An enormous exterior clock four stories up its brick façade tends to draw peoples’ attention to the top of the new HEDCO Education Building that now anchors the southwest corner of campus. But Carrie Thomas Beck, PhD ’98, and her staff of reading tutors and graduate teaching fellows are doing some pretty amazing work in a far-off corner of the ground floor. That’s where Thomas Beck directs the Reading Clinic of the Center on Teaching and Learning (CTL), now in its third year of operation as a division within the UO’s College of Education.

Each term, the Reading Clinic serves thirty grade K–6 students with low reading scores from Lane County schools. The children all come from low-income families, and the service is free. In private rooms, tutors lead them through one-on-one phonics drills and oral reading exercises, while parents watch and listen from an adjoining room. Thomas Beck herself might pop in on a session to guide the student or tutor as needed. The tutors use reading programs that are classroom-tested and recognized as being among the best for intensive intervention. Some of them, with names like Read Naturally, Horizons, and Corrective Reading, were developed right here by researchers in the College of Education, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Innovation and leadership in reading instruction are nothing new to the College of Education. When President George W. Bush launched the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, CTL served as one of the nation’s three technical assistance centers for Reading First, NCLB’s $1 billion-per-year initiative to bring struggling children up to or above grade level in reading by the end of third grade. The need for such an initiative was underscored by the National Report Card for 2003 (the first year of Reading First funding), which revealed that 37 percent of America’s fourth graders were underperforming in this crucial subject.

CTL also directly administered Oregon Reading First, the state’s piece of the national program, which reached into fifty schools around Oregon to serve 15,000 grade K–3 students. Over the course of a seven-year funding cycle that ended in September, CTL staff members trained classroom teachers to implement reading interventions tailored to meet students’ varying levels of need. The results? Performance improved in every element of reading. More and more students came up to benchmark achievement level with each year of funding, and their performance kept getting better the longer the interventions continued. Oregon Reading First upheld a core belief that has guided the work of the College of Education all along: give teachers adequate resources and the right tools for the job, and there’s no child they can’t inspire to succeed.

“We know the odds,” says the College of Education’s Roland Good, associate professor of school psychology, “If you’re on track [in reading] at the end of first grade, there’s a 90 to 95 percent chance you’ll be on track at the end of second grade. If you’re well below benchmark at the end of first grade, the odds drop to 10 to 15 percent.” But, he emphasizes, these figures are only predictions and not guarantees. The odds can be beaten. “The role of intervention is to ruin the prediction,” he says.

The College of Education was trailblazing a path to more effective ways to teach reading as early as the 1960s, when Siegfried Engelmann and UO colleagues pioneered the concept of “direct instruction.” This tightly scripted approach, with its emphasis on repetitious sound and word recognition drills, stirred up a good deal of controversy but also won many followers. And when put to the test against other leading interventions of the day in Project Follow Through (an early follow-up to Head Start), Engelmann says, “We whumped ‘em.”

Engelmann still develops programs through his own Eugene-based firm, Engelmann-Becker Corporation, and asserts that “Education is all about identifying what you want kids to know, determining what they don’t know, then designing programs to fill the gap.”

Stan Paine, PhD ’78, heads professional development for CTL and credits the direct instructional approach with helping educators move away from an outdated notion. “The old paradigm for the teaching of reading can be described as ‘constant input-variable outcomes,’ the idea being that schools taught every child the same thing, the same way, and accepted that there would be different results from child to child,” explains Paine. Today’s best interventions take the approach that every child should receive a basic level of instruction, then “kids who need more get more.” So schools, he says, must educate kids to meet benchmarks.

And what are benchmarks? Think of them as expected levels of competence to be reached incrementally over time. Measuring where kids are and how well they’re progressing in relation to benchmarks has long defined the work of Roland Good and Ruth Kaminski, MS ’84, PhD ’92. The data system they developed as College of Education researchers in the 1990s, called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS, rhymes with dribbles), is used in more than 15,000 schools nationwide, serving more than four million children in grades K–6.

To administer DIBELS in the classroom, teachers lead students through a series of minute-long exercises in identifying sounds, putting them together into words, supplying missing words for sentences, and other basic language-related tasks. They are brief enough that teachers can work with one student at a time. The data obtained reveal students’ skill levels in key components of reading, such as phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. Armed with this information, teachers know how much extra support certain kids may need, and in what particular areas, and can focus their instruction accordingly.

In Eugene’s Bethel School District, where DIBELS and direct instruction-style interventions have long been in use together, Reading Coordinator Rhonda Wolter ’76, ME ’83, says, “we’ve made huge gains.” Each year, Bethel’s incoming kindergartners consistently read at a level well below the national average. Yet, by the end of third grade, 90 percent read at or above grade level. Drew Braun, PhD ’92, the district’s director of instruction, affirms that kids have consistently been brought up to benchmark levels in reading within two years, regardless of what grade they started in the district.

With the expiration of Reading First funding, CTL’s next big project is developing an online version of Oregon Reading First, allowing schools to provide the same high level of intervention on their own. It won’t be “just a PowerPoint presentation,” Paine insists, but will include voiceovers, step-by-step instructions, and links to relevant resources, and will even accommodate remote coaching. To prepare for this, CTL spent the last of its Reading First funding to train a network of instructional coaches, so that districts can nurture and develop their own in-house expertise to train teachers and evaluate the effectiveness of classroom instruction.

Paine is excited by the possibilities this offers. “If I were a school principal today—and I was one for twenty-two years—I would say, ‘This is a great opportunity for us to continue to apply the lessons we’ve learned. We don’t have the money to hire instructors or trainers, but I can use this as an instructional design plan.’”

He might also have said it’s the next step in affirming the College of Education’s century-old belief that success for every child is within reach.

—By Dana Magliari, MA ’98