I teach two “regular” and one “support” English-language arts classes on a block schedule at a middle school in Elk Grove, California. Elk Grove Unified is the third largest school district in California with a treasure trove of ethnicities and languages and schools ranging from 75% free and reduced lunch semi-urban (my school) to schools from wealthy rural enclaves.
I served for years as a district elementary reading specialist before the sunset of our program at the beginning of the recession. I transitioned back to the classroom as a middle school teacher. With no funds to purchase new language arts or reading intervention programs and the advent of the Common Core State Standards, we teachers were encouraged to develop our own curriculum. Works for me!
As the only reading specialist on staff, I volunteered to teach our “support” classes. I will admit to having dual motives. I’m also an author and publisher of assessment-based curriculum. I decided to put what I learned as a district elementary reading specialist into practice in the classroom and into writing curriculum. I’ve always found teacher-created curriculum to be the stuff that works best for kids and trying out and revising curriculum to get the best results in your own laboratory (the classroom) is ideal. So on with my DISCLAIMER: I sell my own reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies with the Sam and Friends Phonics Books and Reading and Spelling Game Cards.
As money has finally started to creep back into education, districts are now turning their attention and dollars into purchasing reading intervention programs. My district has decided to “speed pilot” two reading intervention programs for our secondary schools: Language!® Live is the re-vamped Language!® program from Voyager Sopris with new contributing author Louisa Cook Moats; and Read 180 Next Generation is the thoroughly revised offering from mega publisher Scholastic/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with new contributing authors Kevin Feldman and Kate Kinsella. At my middle school we have one pilot teacher for each program. Training has been extensive from these two eager publishers because Elk Grove Unified is the third largest district in California and a district-wide adoption would be quite a plum for either of the two companies.
So I’ve been able to check out these two programs to compare to my own. A bold move given that my cost per class of 25 students is about $15 per student, whereas the cost per class for each of the two comparative programs is closer to that of a well-equipped Lexus. I started my comparisons with the screening and placement assessments in Read 180. Of course, as a publisher (check out my program advert to the right of the article, you would expect bias. See what you think.)
Our school has always struggled with screening and placement for our “support” classes. As a large middle school with about 1100 students, we have five “feeder” elementary schools and lots of transfer students. Program scheduling is a nightmare. We have used a variety of assessments, teacher recommendations, and decision-making tools to place students with mixed results. Since teachers have done “their own thing” in the “support” classes for years, the “curriculum” and instruction has only haphazardly matched the student needs indicated by the placement tools. Since the placement criteria has been a “moving target,” misplacement of students has been an ongoing concern. Our principal makes all transfer decisions and, fair to say, these are rare. Once students are placed in a “support” class, they remain all year. So if the district adoption of either the Read 180 or Language Live! program would mean that screening and placement assessments and exit criteria would be honored at our school, we might be moving onto the right track. Or will we? This article will focus on the Read 180 Foundational Reading Assessment.
Read 180 Foundational Reading Assessment
As described in a companion article, READ 180 and Phonemic Awareness, the first part of the Foundational Reading Assessment (designed by Dr. Richard K. Wagner as a K-2 test and published as such for another program) consists of a short random sample 12 rhymes, initial, final, and medial sounds (3 each). I can hear kindergarten teachers cringing at the sample size and components. The take-away from my article is that the test assesses only part of what constitutes phonological or phonemic awareness and is not teachable because it is not comprehensive.
The next component of the assessment is the Letter-Word Identification Strand, which includes 10 items designed to measure students’ knowledge of uppercase and lowercase letter names and 20 items designed to measure students’ sight word knowledge. The last component, the Word Attack Strand, includes “40 total items, specifically 10 items designed to measure students’ ability to identify letter sounds and 30 nonword items designed to measure students’ decoding skills” (SRI College and Career Technical Guide).
“A total of 20 sight word items were developed using the 100 most frequent words from Fry’s (2000) 1000 Instant Words. The distractor items were other high-frequency sight words or common decodable words.”
Sight words are, by definition exceptions to the rules. Random sampling presupposes that the components are representative of the whole. How can there be external validity when the sample does not match the group? It’s a bit like tasting 6 of the 31 (the same percentage) ice cream flavors at Baskin Robbins and claiming that students either like or don’t like all ice cream based upon the results. Missing 20 out of 20 sight words indicates that the student does not know those 20 sight words. It does not mean that the student does not know the remaining 80. My Teaching Reading Strategies program assesses and provides instruction to remediate all 100 of the most frequently used sight words. That makes more sense.
Why have sight words as part of a screening and placement test in the first place. Knowledge of sight words is not a reliable indicator of reading difficulties. And why 20 test items when there are only 30 phonics sound-spellings (a much more reliable indicator). The ratio is completely out of whack. Plus, as any remedial reading teacher will tell you, the easiest reading remediation is memorizing those 100 words.
“A total of 30 nonword items were developed, representing the full range of commonly taught phonics skills. All targets and distractors were nonwords or obscure English words that are unlikely to be known. In addition, all targets and distractors follow conventions of English spelling, and care was taken to avoid Spanish words, slang, and nonwords that sounded like real words.”
While my Teaching Reading Strategies program includes the same sound-spellings as the 30 nonword items, my program includes 52 vowel sound-spellings and 50 consonant sound-spellings in the nonword format. Phonics tests are necessary as screening and placement assessments for reading intervention, but why not test everything that needs to be taught with corresponding activities and worksheets? The tests take only 12 minutes to give and can be graded on Scantrons® or Grade Cam®. Audio files are provided with the program. Why not check out these assessments yourself?
Finally, the little known fact about the READ 180 program is that students who fail the Foundational Reading Assessment will need to be assessed and placed in another program: SYSTEM 44. This program is a separate program and is extremely expensive. The publishers claim that READ 180 and SYSTEM 44 can be taught concurrently in the same classroom, but none of our pilot teachers throughout our district is doing so. Fair to note that the Language!® Live program and Teaching Reading Strategies each provide the instructional resources to teach the full range of student pre-reading and reading needs within the same program.