Blog Author: Mary Cohen
Catholic schools face extraordinary challenges today in addressing a multitude of students' learning needs. This is especially true for educators who teach students who struggle to read. As a dedicated servant of the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools first as a teacher, then principal and associate superintendent for twenty-five years, I have gained a unique perspective on strategies that may help more of these learners succeed. I want to share them with you.
Barriers to Reading - Learning Disability
Children come to our schools with joy, wonder and unlimited potential. They have special gifts and talents, but many students face considerable obstacles in their learning process. Barriers to reading may be due to learning disabilities, like dyslexia, a language-based processing disorder that now affects tens of thousands of children who cannot easily comprehend print, and thus are not able to keep academic pace with coursework and peers.
Many intellectually bright children are unnecessarily frustrated in the learning process and deal with emotional distress. Many teachers experience failed attempts to reach a child's true academic potential because of a learning disability, leaving the student, the teacher and their families wondering what to do. No child should feel trapped in the learning process and no teacher should have to settle for this fate.
Early Identification - RTI Framework
Statistically proven, children who do not read well by the third grade will fall behind academically. They need our help to identify their barriers to reading early in the learning process. How do we help them make sense of language and have access to grade-level text they are required to learn?
In Colorado, we employ a framework of screening assessments to identify struggling readers as early as first grade, and then use a systematic remediation and intervention process. This includes instruction, testing, interventions and data to develop a baseline understanding of a child's needs.
We screen every student in first grade with the DIBELS reading assessment at the beginning of the school year. Using that screening information, we develop intervention plans to deliver in the classroom with the assistance of a reading specialist. The specialist implements the interventions are for three to six weeks and then we conduct a progress monitoring assessment to determine the success of the intervention.
Students in grades 2 through 8 also begin each year with a reading screening assessment. They complete the STAR Reading Assessment and students in grades 2-4 may receive additional support in the classroom from the reading specialist. We use the information gained from the screening of the older students to determine instructional reading levels, appropriate literature and appropriate time allotments for processing text.
Access to Curriculum
We also provide access to curriculum-aligned materials on grade-level in digital format, including audiobooks, (textbooks, literature and pleasure reading) from Learning Ally, a nonprofit organization. This audiobook solution provides an effective reading accommodation, access to all kinds of digital books, and a cost-savings resource that does not require additional teaching staff.
Teacher Collaboration and Support
With potentially three or more students in a classroom who may have a learning disability, it is nearly impossible for teachers to always think outside the box to address each child's individual needs. Knowledge sharing proves to be very beneficial. Encouraging time for teachers to connect with colleagues enables them to learn about and try new approaches in their teaching regimes, and to strengthen their resolve to find solutions.
Weekly collaboration meetings with teachers have worked extremely well. Through the act of caring and sharing, we are able to bring new ideas to light. We are grateful for reading specialists on staff who support our students with interventions that address specific skill sets, such as improving vowel sounds that can stall a struggling readers' ability to read fluently.
Teacher collaborations also keep us accountable and keep teachers from working in silo environments. None of us has all the answers. When we come together, we reap the benefits of pooling resources, and receiving reinforcement and reassurance that we are doing everything possible to ensure a child's academic success.
Reading Accommodations and Access to Curriculum
Access to grade-level text is also critical for struggling readers. The Learning Ally audiobook library has textbooks in science, history, English and literature, as well as age-appropriate books to keep students inspired to read in school and at home. These audiobooks with human-narration help to model accurate oral representation of text for reading prosody. This is particularly helpful to middle school students who have rigorous studies with intense vocabulary. At this critical age, keeping academic pace in grade-level coursework and reading enrichment are keys to learning success.
Students who once pretended to read now read with gusto with human-read audiobooks. They appreciate having more control over their learning process. they no longer rely on their parents. They see themselves as readers. This is a wonderful thing.
It is true that many of our Catholic schools have limited resources, but there are always solutions if we have faith and willingness to be open to new approaches.
In this article, I shared some of the proven strategies and resources that have worked for me. My hope is that these ideas may help you educate more struggling readers and that more families choose catholic schools to reap the rewards of a faith-based, catholic education.
Parents always ask me if we have the strategies and tools in place to help their child who is a struggling reader succeed academically. I can say emphatically that we do, and so can you.
Mary Cohen is a recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice award for her service to the Catholic Church and ministry of education, a highly distinguished recognition given by the Pope and Vatican.