The Chicago Reading Initiative

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In summary

What’s the problem?

Only one-third of CPS elementary students read at or above national norms.

What’s the CPS strategy?

Starting with the 114 lowest-scoring schools, change teaching by having specialists work with teachers in four areas. Known as the CPS Reading Framework, these areas are word knowledge, comprehension, writing and fluency, which is the ability to read smoothly and easily.

The School Board also has provided an additional teacher to these schools to reduce class size in the primary grades.

All schools received money to create classroom libraries in the primary grades.

The high school plan is on the drawing board.

What challenges does this strategy face?

In many schools, disorganized or uninformed principals.

Few of the new reading specialists have experience working with adults; to remedy this, CPS plans to field coaches next school year.

Some classrooms are overcrowded.

What’s the forecast?

It will be slow going. “It’s not a short-term effort,” warns Catherine Snow, who chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee on preventing reading difficulties in young children. “That’s one of the difficulties. People are often not willing to wait for the changes to happen.”

Questions to ask

Parents to teachers:

What are you doing to help my child read more quickly and easily? (Possible answers include: rereading text to build speed and practice reading aloud with a classmate)

Can you tell me about how many words per minute my child should be reading and whether he is doing that?

What are my children reading? (The answer should include nonfiction, such as newspaper articles and nature books.)

LSCs to principals:

What materials do you need for next year to promote reading?

How are teachers getting time to learn new reading strategies?

Resources

“Good-Bye Round Robin: Twenty-Five Effective Oral Reading Strategies,” by Michael F. Opitz, Timothy V. Rasinski and Lois Bridges Bird. Heinemann, 1998.

“Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding,” by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. Stenhouse Publishers, 2000.

Recommendations of the National Reading Panel.

Pulling the levers

The Chicago reading initiative is keeping it simple:

Teach reading for two hours daily.

Divide that time among four areas: word knowledge, comprehension, writing and fluency.

Use strategies supported by research.

“The key is to hit every lever,” says Tim Shanahan, reading initiative director. For him, the key levers are teacher training, principal training and materials. “Never rely on one thing,” he says. “I want to rely on as many as we can touch.”

Teacher training

Reading specialists in 114 schools, more next year ($9 million)

Saturday workshops for all interested teachers

Training for school-funded literacy and curriculum coordinators

Workshops for primary teachers on the use of classroom libraries

Principal training

Principals trying out new observation forms

Videotapes of exemplary teaching to be shown this summer

Presentations at conferences arranged by the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

Materials

Classroom libraries in primary grades ($3.5 million)

Schools choose their own instructional materials

Educating others

Presentations to special education, bilingual, ESL administrators

Meetings with community groups, including clergy and Local School Councils

Monitoring

Reading specialists submit weekly summary reports on their work

Observers from regions and Office of Accountability asked to check time spent on reading framework

Note: High school reading programs are on the drawing board and scheduled to start next fall.

Source: Chicago Public Schools officials

Survey shows need to teach fluency

In January, the reading initiative surveyed its specialists. Initiative director Tim Shanahan is using the results to make some minor mid-course corrections. Here are key findings from the survey, and his responses:

About 80 percent of the more than 2,000 teachers observed by specialists are spending at least two hours each day on reading.

“Given the brief time the specialists have been in the schools, it seems fair to say [that] much progress is being made,” Shanahan observes.

The way teachers spend that time still needs work. No part of the framework is consistently receiving enough time or quality instruction. The areas receiving the least attention and quality instruction are understanding explanatory text, writing and fluency, which is the ability to read smoothly and easily.

Shanahan recommends that CEO Arne Duncan and Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins deliver the message to principals that teachers must teach all areas of the framework, not just assign reading materials.

Of the areas getting the shortest shrift, Shanahan wants to push fluency first because it can quickly boost comprehension. “Fluency is often not taught at all, and when it is, it is often in the form of round-robin reading,” he observes. Shanahan says reading specialists should model techniques such as pairing students to practice fluent reading, and principals should make it a priority. For starters, he is recommending that specialists get instructional materials on fluency to share with teachers.