A Path to 92% Literacy Improvement through Personalized Learning

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While going over my school’s entrance test data, I was shocked by the number of incoming freshman who’s reading scores suggested they were functionally illiterate. Based on STAR reading tests taken the previous spring, these kids were in trouble. I could see that while they may be able to perform very basic reading and writing, they were not currently doing so at the level required for many societal activities and jobs, let alone post-secondary educational opportunities. More imminently, their scores did not predict success as they entered high school. Recognizing that we could not change their educational history, I started exploring options for addressing their needs moving forward.

Closing Proficiency Gaps Early

I worked with my administration to develop a reading skills class that would supplement their freshman English classes. My aim was to support the students in making significant reading gains as early in their high school career as possible. Prior experience with middle and secondary students had taught me that striving for literacy growth well after elementary school was challenge. Shining a light on reading gaps could be embarrassing for many secondary learners who frequently spent more time hiding their challenges than they did addressing them.

Even with this knowledge I was shocked and discouraged when the semester started with significant challenges addressing classroom management. It was apparent that many of the students did not want to be in the class and were actively working to derail any progress in becoming stronger readers. In order to manage, I found myself doing more and more to control the group.  I demanded complete silence and their full attention as I bulldozed my way through lectures on the difference between explicit and implicit text evidence. What I received in exchange was students sneaking onto their social media or napping through the class. It was evident that something had to change.

I knew four weeks in it that this power struggle would produce few results. Instead, I wanted to find a way to help them take a lead role in becoming better readers. I had to take a leap of faith and move in the opposite direction. A few years ago, I met author James Rickabaugh at an Innovative Schools Network Conference.  His book Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders helped me create a framework that change the culture of my classroom.

Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders

A Framework to Change My Classroom’s Culture

By shifting to a personalized learning model, I found that my students were better able to make connections and put what they are learning into context. While there is certainly a focus on the test scores, the real success would come when they could retain and generalize what they are doing in my class and apply it to their other curricular areas. To do that, it was clear that they needed to understand what they need to learn and why it was important to them. Additionally, as the engagement increased so did the student’s ability to trust the process and each other which helped me to worry less about what everyone else was doing and instead focus on their own goals and progress.

The data since we made the shift has in fact accelerated their progress. In the first semester alone 92% of the students in the class showed growth that exceeded the expectation for the time between tests. 12 students went up over 1 grade level, 6 students went up 2 grade levels and 1 student exceeded 3 grade levels.

Learner Profiles

We started by creating learner profiles. I was able to print a report from the testing company that listed each student’s results and next steps. I conferenced with each student and went over their personal lists. Additionally, I had them reflect on who they were as readers and how they learned best. Finally, we talked about their  long term goals and explored why literacy skills were important to them. This helped change the tone of our conversations from what I was making them do toward learning something that would help them be successful in their work beyond our classroom.

Set Goals

An important outcome of the learner profiles was goal setting. I gave the students a framework of expectations, but asked them to help identify how they would prove they mastered a concept or skill. Depending on the standard, students choose to assess through discussion, a project, or a traditional multiple-choice test.

It was clear early on that most of the students had to work on building up their reading stamina along with growing their skills. We used reader’s notebooks and short stories to build reading muscles. Most of these students admitted they had fake read the novels assigned to them in the past. Knowing that, it was clear we needed real reading, at their reading level, with multiple opportunities if they were going to be successful. Therefore, along with setting a goal for the reading skills they would address, we set goals for how many pages of real reading they would do each week and we worked with paragraphs and short stories so they could repeat the process of starting and completing a reading more frequently.

Reader notebook for personalized learning

Conduct Reader Workshops

The classroom routines came from my experience with running a reader’s workshop. I set up reading stations, created group work, and had them set up reader’s notebooks to track their own work and accomplishments. Because the students were all working on individualized skills, I used digital programs such as IXL, Vocab.com, and Moby Max in place of more typical mini lessons. However, I did require the students to provide quick story talks for their peers feeling that it was important for them to see each other as readers, share what they enjoyed about the stories they were reading, and hopefully generate interest for another student to try a story.

Recognize Growth

It was important that students recognize their own growth and were able to measure it in multiple ways. We used reflections and conferences to go over their reader’s notebooks. We tracked and recorded the work that they did on the digital programs. Finally, twice during the semester they repeated their STAR reading tests. Through all of these efforts the students had efficacy in their learning and were becoming independent learners. My job was moving away from that of a traditional reading teacher to something that looked more like a manager or coach.

In Conclusion

While my school is a traditional, secondary program, I was able to draw from the philosophy of personalized learning to create a model that works for the students within my classroom. The model has helped the students to take more responsibility for their progress and empowered them with increased voice and choice especially as they address one of their most challenging learning skills. While the progress they have made as readers is important, I think the ownership and confidence they feel as learners is equally worth celebrating.


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Theresa Dixon

Theresa Dixon is a full-time high school English teacher who blogs about life as an educator at SchoolYardJunkies.com. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and four children.

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