By Jason Lui (he/his), teacher, Langley
Some hard truths
In September 2021, between 45–80% of students at Nicomekl Elementary School (it varies among grade groupings) were not reading proficiently at grade level. At that time, 80% of our Grade 2 students were not reading at grade level. This is understandable given that these students had missed so much in-person school time because of the global pandemic. Coupled with the challenges and trauma some students consistently encounter (e.g., low income, language barriers, abuse, mental illness, etc.), reading was not a priority.
As a school staff, we set a goal to improve literacy among all grades throughout the school year. Our school administrators, English language learning (ELL) team, learning support team, and reading recovery teacher came together to brainstorm ideas on how to do this. The idea we settled on was a school-wide literacy blitz.
What is a literacy blitz?
First and foremost, we wanted to work alongside classroom teachers to effectively serve vulnerable learners. The intent was to work with small groups for eight-week cycles, Monday to Thursday, for approximately 30 minutes each session. As our school principal shared, it was an “all-hands-on-deck approach,” where non-enrolling staff and enrolling staff worked together to ensure all emergent readers were supported. This literacy blitz was in addition to the literacy lessons that were already happening in the classroom.
Like many other public schools, we use Fountas and Pinnell kits to gather data on each student’s reading level. We aim to collect this data by the end of each term and use it to better inform our teaching and move forward in assisting students who are not yet reading at grade level.
Using this specific student data, our principal, reading recovery teacher, learning support team, and the ELL teachers sat down together and split all the emergent readers into groups of one to three students, making sure we minimize distractions and at the same time maximize our time with the students. Each student group consisted of the same reading level within the same grade. When we met with these smaller groups, we conducted additional assessments to further investigate any lagging skills (e.g., phonological awareness).
We carved out a 30-minute time slot, four days each week, for guided reading. During this time, all small reading groups worked on guided reading with an assigned educator. Our multipurpose and ELL rooms, along with any vacant school spaces, were filled with multiple tables, all working on intentional reading support. Meanwhile, proficient readers stayed in their classrooms and enjoyed independent reading time.
The second part of the plan was finding more people to help out: we needed additional educators to ensure we could limit the small groups to a maximum of three students, so we are very grateful for our inaugural partnership with the School of Education from Trinity Western University (TWU). Thirty TWU pre-service teachers volunteered their time every day to assist with the literacy blitz. To be clear, these pre-service teachers took on more of a tutoring role than an intervention role, as they were not certified teachers yet. Most often, they would review a literacy lesson from class or sit with students and read grade-leveled books. This partnership between TWU and Nicomekl Elementary School was an important part of the success we experienced.
The pre-service teachers also volunteered in our after-school literacy program. I have had the wonderful opportunity to co-lead this after-school program for ELL students every Wednesday, along with two settlement workers in schools and two TWU pre-service teachers. We support students with reading and writing skills through word games, reading, and writing activities. We also implement some of the strategies from the literacy blitz in the after-school program.
The beauty of coming together to drive change
Our reading recovery teacher took the lead in creating specific reading interventions, lesson plans, and resources for each teacher involved in the literacy blitz. Two significant resources we used were: Tara West’s decodable books and the Reading Simplified’s Switch It program. We also created a daily schedule where students would re-read familiar books for fluency, review and practise writing skills, and play sight word games.
Each teacher involved in the literacy blitz adapted or modified the structure of the session to fit their skill set and to tailor it to the students’ needs. For example, through my own ELL lens, I know that speaking and listening skills are significant building blocks to language acquisition; therefore, I may introduce extra oral activities in addition to decoding skills and phonological awareness. Our reading recovery teacher has a strong understanding of balanced literacy, as well as specific training on phonemic awareness and the science of reading that she was able to incorporate into her group work. I also implemented my additional training in using six teaching strategies from the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol. I have found these six strategies to be very useful in working with both ELL students and emerging readers to support literacy development. The six strategies are as follows:
● preparation (e.g., adaptation of content, links to background knowledge)
● scaffolding (e.g., modelling, guided practice)
● group options (e.g., whole class, small groups, partners, independent)
● integration of processes (e.g., reading, writing, speaking, listening)
● application (e.g., hands-on, meaningful, linked to objectives, promotes engagement)
● assessment (e.g., formative, summative, written, oral).
From October to November, 2021, (term one), a group of three Grade 2 students I worked with jumped three reading levels. Similarly, in term two (January– February, 2022), I witnessed the three Grade 1 students jump at least two reading levels. During the final term (April–May, 2022), I worked with a few Grade 5 students, and they improved between two to six reading levels. And all of this improvement occurred despite inconsistent student attendance because of the ongoing pandemic and Omicron variant.
At the end of the school year, our data showed that 40% of our Grade 2 students were reading at grade level compared to 20% at the start of September. I’m glad to have seen an increase in literacy levels among all the classes, but the Grade 2 students’ improvement was the largest. Overall, our literacy blitz plan worked!
We have continued our literacy blitz this year with a few improvements. New TWU pre-service teachers have returned to assist once again. Instead of eight-week cycles, we decided to try a six-week program this year. Another change is that this year’s program also serves developing readers, instead of just emergent readers; in other words, those students who are close to being proficient.
Overall, the school-wide collaboration has had a tremendous impact on student literacy at Nicomekl Elementary. I am thankful to be working with such a talented teaching staff and appreciate the collaboration between us. This teamwork not only helped our students, it made me a better educator. Our literacy blitz will continue to evolve as we try to make this support the best possible for our school. I feel this specific support can be replicated, and I would not be surprised if there are similar practices already happening at other public schools. Let’s continue to work together to help our students be proficient and confident with their literacy skills.