The It Factor
By Robert Schroeder
A virtual throwaway word. So short it nets only two points in Scrabble. So irrelevant Google removes it from searches.
And yet, as I observed a Reading Recovery session at Cicero West Elementary School on Chicago's Southwest side, this puny sentence starter was causing a whale of trouble for one student.
I was struck watching this young girl, reading with relative ease through most of a short children's book, come to a dead stop at the word "It." She stared at it; she ran her finger across the text; she visibly tried to sound it out. After at least three minutes of silence, what she settled on, however, was "to," not "it."
Even to the untrained eye, what is taking place here is far deeper than a child struggling to read. Somewhere in the brain, an internal struggle is taking place, and the wrong side is winning. National Louis University's Reading Recovery Center is providing the ammunition to ensure the outcomes are reversed.
"I did my own work as a reading specialist, I earned a Master's degree in reading, and a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction, but where I learned how the brain functions and how young children learn to read was in Reading Recovery," said Mary Ann Poparad, the director of National Louis University's Reading Recovery Center. "It makes a huge difference in perspective."
National Louis University has been Illinois' exclusive home for Reading Recovery, a professional development program for reading and literacy teachers and specialists, for nearly two decades. The center trains teacher leaders in Reading Recovery to return to their districts and prepare teachers as intervention specialists in early intervention.
The training is grounded in the theory and research of early literacy learning and acquisition but also focuses on building leadership teams within a school. At the Reading Recovery center in Lisle as well as in the Evanston and Cicero school districts, Reading Recovery teacher leaders and intervention specialists observe Reading Recovery lessons through one-way glass, observing both the actions of the teacher and verbal and visual cues from the student.
"We're watching for when does the teacher give a whole lot of help, when does the teacher give a little coaching, or when does the teacher sit back and let it happen," Poparad said. "We're looking for responsiveness; does the child pick up on the teacher?"
National Louis's Reading Recovery center trains teacher leaders and intervention specialists in Spanish Reading Recovery, a program called Descubriendo la Lectura (DLL). At Cicero West Elementary, students from Spanish-speaking homes enrolled in Spanish lessons will be placed in DLL; students from Spanish-speaking homes in receiving instruction in English will still pass through Reading Recovery. The transition from Spanish reading and writing to English presents additional challenges in Reading Recovery.
"You have to develop their language and have more conversation with them," said Nancy Mills, a Reading Recover teacher leader at Cicero West. "Sometimes the structure of the stories we read in English, they may not understand that structure."
The Reading Recovery program is now part of the Partnership for Comprehensive Literacy, a whole-school approach to literacy improvement. Currently, National Louis' Reading Recovery center is training 30 coaches for districts around the state of Illinois. With Wisconsin's only Reading Recovery center slated to close at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, National Louis' center may become the Reading Recovery home for some Wisconsin schools as well. The center is also expanding beyond elementary school to include junior high and high school levels.
Ultimately, Reading Recovery is building student reading skills, one student at a time. For the teacher leaders and intervention specialists who are winning these battles, National Louis University is serving as a resource and a sounding board.
"When we come to National Louis, we talk to other district coaches, other people who are implementing these things in their districts," said Heather Friday, District Process Strategies Coach in the Quincy, Illinois School District. "We are recognizing things, we talk about them together, and we can build on that. I think that is so valuable."