Tylertown High School is located Walthall County–Mississippi’s primary dairy county. In Tylertown, the county seat, approximately one-third of adults over the age of 25 do not have a high school diploma. Many kids are not encouraged to read at home. There are too many other distractions.
But in high school, students are expected to read, analyze, and use higher order thinking skills. If their comprehension and fluency are not where they should be, they have difficulty in their classes–whether it is in English, biology, U.S. history, or math–and do not do well on state subject area testing. Reading is, indeed, the key to achieving success in all these areas.
When I arrived here at the high school in 2009, I noticed my students had very low self-esteem when they had to read aloud. To help students strengthen their reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, we thought they might feel more comfortable and less intimidated working with technology. So we used Title I funds to purchase a software program called Reading Assistant and began using it in fall 2009.
All seventh and eighth grade students, except those receiving special education services, worked on the software 50 minutes a day, twice a week in the computer lab. The software, which uses advanced speech recognition technology, acts as a personal interactive tutor and allows us to provide individualized, guided oral reading practice for every student.
To improve content-area reading and learning, many of the guided reading selections include content from science, social studies, or literature standards. Students can preview vocabulary, listen to a modeled fluent reading of a passage, and read the passage orally. As students read aloud, they receive real-time corrective feedback, allowing them to recover and learn from their errors. Teachers can also receive assessment reports and listen to audio samples of students.
By listening to the recordings of students as they read, and by reviewing the reports, I can pinpoint the students I need to watch more closely. Even though I have 300 students throughout the day, the reports make it easy to see how much time students spend reading, listening, and working on the quizzes, so I can intervene as needed. I particularly like the fluency report, which measures fluency in words correct per minute for individual readings, because it clearly demonstrates how students are improving. I had one eighth grader who went from 28 to 75 words correct per minute–a dramatic improvement.
I can also program the software to be more or less strict when monitoring for signs of difficulty. For example, I can make the program more strict so it intervenes with assistance when a student is challenged by a word, or less strict to give students time to build their confidence a bit. I had one student, an eighth grader, who had very low self-esteem when he read. When he started using the software, I changed the settings to be more lenient. Then, once he began to develop confidence in his reading ability, I slowly moved the settings to be stricter as time progressed. His progress was remarkable. All his life he felt he could not read, but that completely changed though his work in the computer lab. I remember when he told me, “Ms. Magee I can read! I can read!”
Before we began this technology-based approach, students rarely had to read line for line, word for word. They might scan over material in the classroom and say they read it. Or, with homework, they might read just enough to pick out the answers. Now, students have to read every word and if they skip a word, they have to go back and read it over again.
Over the last two years, we have seen positive changes in students’ attitudes. At the beginning of fall 2009, students dreaded coming to the computer lab because their motivation levels were low. Students now look forward to coming to the lab, and arrive motivated and ready to start reading. They come to my room and say, ‘When are we going to start? We’re ready to start reading!’ That is so exciting to see.
As a result of our efforts, students have raised their reading levels and achieved gains on the Mississippi Curriculum Test–2nd Edition (MCT2). For example, from 2008-09 to 2009-10, seventh and eighth grade students’ language arts scores increased 20 percentage points. Our eighth graders showed the most progress in the whole school. Teachers also say they have noticed a big difference in students’ confidence when they read.
By focusing on reading, comprehension, and fluency, we are supporting students in all other classroom work and are helping them improve their grades and state assessment scores. We are very proud of our students’ achievements and growth.
Amelia Magee is the reading lab coach at Tylertown High School in Mississippi.
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