Improving English Learner Reading Scores: Here’s to You, Ms. Robinson!

by John Seidlitz

We all know reading is critical for our students’ success — there’s no arguing that. But when it comes to helping our students, particularly our ELs, improve their academic literacy and develop a passion for reading, it’s tough to find just the right formula. So when I found out from Anita Robinson, the principal at Frisco ISD’s Staley Middle School, that they’d seen a huge gain in English learner STAAR reading scores at the eighth grade level — from 16 percent to 61 percent ‘Approaching Grade Level’ — within one year, I knew they were doing something right.

I had to know what happened, so Anna Matis and I scheduled some time to sit down in Frisco with some of Staley’s teachers, hoping to find out how they were driving such incredible results. We met with several teachers to find out what they were doing with the kids to inspire this kind of growth, but it wasn’t until we sat down with one of the social studies teachers, Paul Somodevilla, that we were finally able to suss out exactly what Staley Middle School was doing differently.

What it came down to was that the principal, Ms. Robinson, was doing two major things to increase the actual amount of reading students were doing inside and outside of class — thus making a massive difference in their test scores. Principal Robinson took the initiative to do two things within the school:

Two things leaders can do to improve English Learner Reading Scores: Infographic

1.  Make Reading in Content Areas a Non-negotiable

When I asked Paul what he thought had helped dramatically improve the eighth-grade EL reading scores, he said, “I think it was the fact that all students were reading in class every day.” He stressed that while reading in class every day to improve reading is, theoretically, a no-brainer, it’s so easy to let that time slide to make way for other, more immediate tasks. But Principal Robinson found ways to help teachers get past this.

Paul explained to me that she had told him daily reading was expected in every content-area classroom. She made sure he included it as one of his goals for his teacher evaluation process. She made sure he integrated daily reading into his curricula, and when she’d do walkthroughs, she’d ask him what the students were reading that day.

Paul and his fellow eighth-grade teachers found resources, such as articles from NewsELA, that aligned to the standards, and they created activities to help ensure students were learning from what they read. For example, students would read passages, process what they’d read by drawing what the passages contained, and then explain their drawings to their neighbors while teachers walked around listening to the conversations.

By setting a clear, non-negotiable expectation, Principal Robinson made sure that daily reading time became a priority in every classroom. But she didn’t stop there.

2.  Establish Systems to Support Free Voluntary Reading

Here at Seidlitz, we’ve always been big proponents of Free Voluntary Reading — where students independently read self-selected texts — and followers of two of its chief advocates, Stephen Krashen and Donalyn Miller. And we’re not alone. Countless administrators and teachers are fans of Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), but they don’t all see the kinds of gains we saw at Staley MS. The difference here was that Principal Robinson didn’t just advocate for FVR; she put systems in place to make sure it happened.

All the teachers at Staley Middle School had been trained on the importance of free voluntary reading, but there was more to it than that. Every single eighth-grade student was required to have three books checked out from the library at all times, and Principal Robinson collaborated with the librarian to set up activities and procedures to ensure the students always had access to books that would captivate them. They conducted student surveys to identify interesting books, and they tracked down high/low titles (high interest, low reading level) to be sure there were plenty available for struggling readers. They also held activities and events in the library, such as speed dating with a book, to promote the students’ interest in books. (We found this great blog that explains the speed dating with a book process in detail.)

Then, they took the books outside the library: advisory (home room) teachers were required to set aside thirty minutes, three to five days a week, for their students to engage in free voluntary reading — supervised, of course, by their teachers, who’d been trained to maximize success with the FVR approach outlined in Robert Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement.

Just like daily content-area reading, Principal Robinson’s dedication to turning Free Voluntary Reading from a “nice to have” to a “must have” ensured the students spent significant time at school browsing the library and reading the books they found there. The result: dramatically improved STAAR scores and, along with them, more students who’d developed a passion for reading.

With Principal Robinson and her team at Staley Middle School.

Every school has a handful of teachers who are dedicated to getting their students reading widely and frequently, and when even just one teacher makes this commitment, you’ll see a big impact on his or her students’ reading scores. But when school leaders get involved, making content-area and free voluntary reading a priority for an entire grade level, the results will be incredible.

These two strategies — making content-area reading nonnegotiable and systematizing FVR — helped Staley Middle School’s eighth grade STAAR reading scores skyrocket from 16 percent to 61 percent ‘Approaching Grade Level.’ If you’re looking to achieve similar results on your campus, we recommend you rally your administration to follow Principal Robinson’s lead.


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