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Finding the right ‘balance’ for literacy

Educators, school administrators talk about new approach to teaching reading being used at West Side Elementary

Submitted photo Reading specialist Sheri Schneider and third grade teacher Caroline Grube work with a guided reading group at West Side Elementary on Wednesday. Guided reading is one part of a teaching approach that’s being used to help students strengthen their reading skills.

MARSHALL — It’s one of the key skills children learn when they come to school — and over the past three years, teachers at West Side Elementary have been using a new approach to help their students master reading.

Teachers are using an approach called balanced literacy and guided reading, said reading specialist Sheri Schneider and West Side principal Eric Hjelden. The focus of the program is on finding out what individual students need to learn to be better readers, designing their instruction to meet those needs, and keeping track of how students progress. Schneider and Hjelden explained the process Tuesday evening, at the Marshall School Board’s regular meeting.

The balanced literacy and guided reading approach is meant to help meet the goal of having West Side students read well by third grade, and to help close the achievement gap, Hjelden said.

“It’s really been exciting to see the work going on, because I feel very confident for those students moving into fifth grade,” both in terms of their academic and emotional skills, he said.

The balanced literacy program was introduced at West Side three years ago, and was fully implemented this year, Schneider said.

A balanced literacy program uses both group learning, and guided reading in small groups, Schneider said. The program works on building students’ skills in phonics, sight reading, vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency. The approach follows best practices — for example, using phonics — for teaching children to read well, Hjelden said.

Last year, a little over 51% of West Side students were meeting or exceeding reading standards on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, and another 20% saw their reading skills improve, he said.

“When you look at data on what we’re doing, it’s promising,” Hjelden said.

In addition to West Side teachers using balanced literacy and guided reading in the classroom, Schneider said she does training for teachers. She works with first-year teachers, and Title I program and English Language teachers.

“I also work with the fifth grade staff over in the Middle School too, on guided reading practices,” Schneider said.

Each school year, the program starts with figuring out what students’ needs are, and what they need to work on. “Along with last year’s MCA scores and NWEA scores, we put together a data folder,” geared toward helping teachers track students’ progress, Schneider said.

The data folders can help identify when students need to be in a Title I or English Learner program, as well as when they have made enough progress to be back in the classroom.

West Side teachers also use a benchmark assessment system (BAS) to check students’ reading skills and track their progress. Schneider said the BAS assessment is done one-on-one with each student.

“We try to do that at least three times a year,” usually in the fall, in the middle of the school year, and in the spring, she said.

Schneider said the balanced literacy program has had training benefits for teachers as well.

“We found out in that whole process that our teachers weren’t comfortable teaching phonics, because they didn’t know themselves what that meant,” Schneider said. “We spent two weeks studying phonics, and how to go about teaching it. So with this whole process we’re finding the gaps not only in our students, but we’re also finding the gaps that our teachers have, and what they need.”

Schneider said MPS educators are talking about the possibility of expanding the balanced literacy approach beyond West Side.

“I’m hoping that we can get a system going K-12, looking at those gaps,” Schneider said. It might be helpful to start the balanced literacy and guided reading approach earlier, before Marshall students enter third grade.

Hjelden said he felt teachers at West Side were “buying in” to the new approach more fully this year. “Teachers are really seeing their students progress, and I don’t think there’s anything better that a teacher can see than their students actually improving academically,” he said.

“I am impressed that you are going to look at the earlier grades too,” said school board member Jeff Chapman. “Reading is the foundation of being a lifelong learner.”

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