It is true that some people are born to teach. But, that
doesn’t mean they automatically know how to do it. Teaching, like all professions, is something that has to be learned itself. Unfortunately, there is increasing evidence that even many highly educated and fully certified teachers may never have been adequately trained to teach children how to read.
ReadWorks, a New York-based nonprofit, is trying to fill that void by providing research-driven, grade-specific lesson plans and reading materials– all completely free and available on-line. And, while its material is primarily geared for elementary school teachers, some local afterschool programs are beginning to see ReadWorks as a way to get volunteer tutors, adult literacy teachers, and other program staff up to speed in a hurry.
The ReadWorks curriculum has its roots in early efforts by a group of private donors to provide additional resources and supports to the Family Academy, an experimental public school in Harlem in 1991. When, despite significantly enhanced services and programming, the school’s third grade students showed only 8% proficiency on the ELA reading tests, the school founders turned their attention to the way reading was being taught in the school.
“They began to look at the curriculum and pedagogy,” says David Ciulla, Executive Director of ReadWorks. “They went to the cognitive sciences – a totally different body of research than was being used to guide thinking in the educational establishment.” They understood that phonics was valuable at an early age when children are first learning to decode words and letters.
However, children from low-income families tend to fall behind as they progress from grade to grade due to a lack of vocabulary and content knowledge. “They can decode, but they can’t comprehend because they have to make up for those oral language deficits,” says Ciulla.
The school revised its reading curriculum to focus on comprehension and began to see significant improvements in the school’s ELA performance – up from 8% in 1995 to 63% in 1998. The non-profit reorganized as Urban Education Exchange (now ReadWorks) and began marketing its curriculum to local charter schools. Overtime it saw that its main value was in providing curriculum and training teachers how to teach reading – something that is widely recognized as a problem for the education system as a whole. Only 33% of all fourth-graders -- and just 17% of low-income fourth-graders – are proficient at reading.
“We have a reading crisis in this country, and some of that stems from the harsh truth that many elementary school teachers aren’t well equipped to teach reading,” says John Merrow, Education
Correspondent for the PBS News Hour.
In 2006, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) reported that “85 percent of colleges and universities are not educating prospective teachers in the basic knowledge and skills necessary to teach reading effectively.”
“The highest caliber research findings, including those of the National Reading Panel and RAND Reading Study Group, have identified the most effective instructional practices,” says Ciulla. “Yet these research-proven instructional practices are not evident in most schools.”
In the fall of 2010, ReadWorks launched its website, making its materials widely available online to schools and teachers across the country -- all completely free of charge. As of today, more than 103,000 teachers in 38,000 schools nationwide have registered to download the ReadWorks curricula. In NYC, almost 6,500 teachers at over 1,000 schools have done the same.
“ReadWorks offers help — tons of it,” PBS’ John Merrow said in his recent blog posting. “I urge you to share this website with every teacher you know. It’s free.”
“We saw a 14% jump in our ELA scores,” says Dawn DeCosta, Principal at the Thurgood Marshall Academy, after its first year of implementing ReadWorks on a school-wide basis. Since Thurgood Marshall was one of many new small schools being created by the NYC Department of Education, DeCosta found that different teachers were teaching reading in their own ways. “We wanted to provide some consistency so that the kids would be able to build on their skills from year to year.”
The ReadWorks lesson plans address the 20 concepts of comprehension, such as author’s purpose, cause and effect, character, drawing conclusions, main idea, plot, etc. “It is all very straight forward and the website is easy to utilize,” says DeCosta. “The lessons are already there; the strategy is already there. It saves the teacher work so they can focus on teaching students.”
Teachers can download the lesson plans and printable fiction and non-fiction reading passages that can be used by students. There are multiple suggestions regarding books that can be used as texts –including many that are regular parts of typical school libraries. As a result, there is often no need to invest in new reading materials.
ReadWorks is also aligned with the Common Core standards now required in New York State. “It is a great resource for teachers who are trying to learn the Common Core,” says DeCosta.
Since lesson plans and materials are grade specific – but uniform in approach -- teachers can select different grade level materials to work with various groups of children in their own class who may be either ahead or behind, says DeCosta.
An After-School Resource
While ReadWorks is primarily focused on in-class elementary school teachers, the system also offers real benefits for after-school and volunteer tutors, says DeCosta.
As part of The After School Corporation’s ExpandED Schools network, Thurgood Marshall Academy operates on an extended day model, with children staying at the school until 5:15 every day. As part of the expanded learning time, they work with both their own teachers and AmeriCorps volunteer tutors.
DeCosta now uses the ReadWorks lesson plans and materials to ensure that these AmeriCorps volunteers are fully prepared and in synch with what the children are learning during the school day.
“These are not trained teachers,” she explains, “but by using the materials and going through the lesson plans they know what they are supposed to do. There are even videos online where they can watch someone teaching a lesson plan that they are going to teach.”
“ReadWorks is not designed as an afterschool or tutoring program/curriculum,” emphasizes Ciulla. “However, ReadWorks can be used effectively, without barriers, by tutors, teachers, and non-teachers in afterschool, ELL, adult, and supplemental programs.”
“Online curricula and professional development resources make it much easier for community organizations to work with students in coordination with their school partners,” says Jennifer Siaca Curry, TASC’s Director of National Technical Assistance. “Now that you can search through standards-aligned curricula by grade and subject on the web, you don’t have to be a teacher to know what students should be learning at every age and grade level. Just like teachers, community educators can draw on these resources, and they’re great at finding relevant lessons online and making them fun and engaging for kids, even at the end of long school days.”
Resources like ReadWorks are even more valuable given ever more frequent contractual requirements that community-based organizations coordinate tutoring, homework help and other after-school academic activities with the in-class curriculum.
“Despite all the talk about educational reform in this country, almost no one talks about that moment of instruction when a teacher and a student engage over a particular piece of content and curriculum,” says David Ciulla. “That is when learning either takes place or it doesn’t.”
To download ReadWorks lesson plans and teaching materials, visit www.readworks.org.