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Thirteen Strategies to
Improve Reading Performance

How have some Chicago schools improved student reading performance? Leadership is essential -- leadership and 13 practical strategies to nurture concrete, measurable gains in reading! This week, Education World tells what principals and teachers do in some of Chicago's most successful schools and how they do it!

Image"If primary teachers don't know phonics, I simply won't hire them!" said Anthony Jelinek, principal of Chicago's Hibbard Elementary School. The Chicago Schools Academic Accountability Council designated Hibbard one of the city's "most improved schools."

Thirty-nine of about 490 Chicago elementary schools (including pre-K through 4, pre-K through 8, and middle school) earned "most improved" commendations because of students' superior performance in reading and math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS). All are urban schools whose students face the kinds of challenges, such as poverty and English as a second language, that can often hinder student achievement. These schools have beaten the odds, though, and helped students do well according to objective performance measures.

The report "Leave No Child Behind: An Examination of Chicago's Most Improved Schools and the Leadership Strategies Behind Them" is the result of a two-year study by the Academic Accountability Council. Principals in the participating schools used 13 common strategies that showed dramatic improvements in reading. Those strategies include a zealous commitment to a focused reading program, teacher accountability and support, creative investment in student learning, and increased time on task.

"Students can learn, regardless of their racial or ethnic background or their family income, in schools that use 13 key strategies," said an announcement of the report's release. "Researchers found that principals and teachers in these most-improved schools used certain common strategies and engaged in similar activities." The first strategy cited in the report is "Create a consistent reading program."

"We emphasize phonics in the primary grades because that addresses the specific needs of our student population," principal Jelinek told Education World. "More than 50 percent of our students have English as a second language. We have students who speak Spanish, Cambodian, Arabic, four dialects from India, Vietnamese, and many other languages."



"Our school isn't located in Cherubsville, Suburbia," said Jelinek, whose school encompasses kindergarten through eighth grade. "We use a basal series because it more directly addresses comprehension and word attack skills, which is what our students need. The whole-language approach tends to presuppose a sophisticated ability with language that many of our students just don't have when they begin here."

According to Jelinek, a basal series provides students with needed continuity of instruction from one grade level to another, enables students to gauge their own progress, and allows teachers and administrators to measure students' reading progress. Jelinek also thinks the support basal series workbooks offer is of critical importance in developing students' skills.

In Hibbard's classes, students read both fiction and nonfiction. "This year, our drive is to enhance students' vocabulary, not just with lists but also with using the new words," Jelinek explained. "We introduce and have students use new terms from social studies and science. We also focus on the diverse meanings of one word. To students who use English as a second language, words with several different meanings are particularly confusing. For example, we might look at the word train. To one person, a train is a choo-choo. Someone else might use the word as in 'training' someone for a job. The word can also mean the train on a wedding dress.

"No one approach to reading and language works for everybody," Jelinek affirmed. "What's important is to know your student population and tailor your reading program to fit it."


Dr. Rollie O. Jones, principal at Kellman Corporate Community School, said schools must be "consistent and organized for success. Our resource teacher and grade-level teams work together to align curriculum."

A coordinated curriculum is vital because it enables teachers to plan lessons incoming students will have the skills to learn. With vertical and horizontal coherence in the curriculum, teachers also know what next year's teachers will expect from their students.

"We have a vision, a mission to provide a coordinated curriculum," Dr. Jones told Education World. "We have a cross-section of teachers, some young, some seasoned, some in-between, but they all must buy into our vision. I look for teachers who will make that commitment to a coordinated curriculum and become part of our 'family' here in the school."

Among the strategies Kellman, a pre-K through 8 school, uses is an extensive mentoring and tutoring program. "We have mentors come into the school once a week, successful adults to act as role models for our students," Dr. Jones said. "Some young men, college graduates, are rappers, some have the earring in the ear, but they are all fine young people. Our students can relate to them and learn from them."

Kellman also attracts student tutors from an area high school and from DePaul University. The tutors spend time at the school once a week. They use reading and math materials teachers provide to help students develop specific skills.

"Our mentoring and tutorial programs accomplish several goals," Dr. Jones explained. "They provide interaction with our community, showing students sources that enter the school from the outside, and they enable students to develop more acceptable behaviors and get one-on-one instruction in reading and math."


The "Leave No Child Behind" report notes that principals in schools whose students succeed have a can-do attitude focused on student achievement. They clearly communicate to everyone that outcomes matter, support is available, and progress is monitored closely

The 13 strategies identified as essential to progress in the 39 schools cited as most improved follow, along with recommendations on how to implement them.


  1. Create a Consistent Reading Program: A consistent, coherent, focused literacy program
    • Implement a coherent reading program at every level.
    • Emphasize phonics and decoding in early grades.
    • Read aloud to students at all levels.
    • Maintain a literature-based approach, balancing fictional and nonfictional materials.
    • Focus on fluency and comprehension.
    • Teach reading across the curriculum -- for example, how to read science.
    • Use writing for a variety of purposes across the curriculum.
    • Use daily oral language exercises (DOL) to teach grammar.
    • Develop vocabulary through planned experiences and projects.


  2. Set Clear Goals and Standards: Clear standards and high expectations focus on results
    • Create a culture of achievement by setting high expectations.
    • Set clear performance expectations for students.
    • Set clear, broadly understood performance expectations for staff.
    • Focus on results, not inputs, for evaluation and development processes.


  3. Coordinate Curriculum: Coordinated curriculum has vertical and horizontal coherence, alignment and accountability structures throughout
    • Implement a curriculum with vertical and horizontal coherence.
    • Align school curriculum to local and state standards and assessments.
    • Ensure quality control.
    • Facilitate inter- and intra-grade communication.
    • Serve as a resource for staff.


  4. Build Strong Team Faculty: Superior teachers: dedicated, resourceful, self-evaluative, and mutually supportive
    • Recruit and retain superior staff.
    • Establish a mutually supportive environment and team philosophy.
    • Encourage joint planning and problem solving.
    • Expect professionals to share ideas and resources.
    • Create a culture that encourages learning, thinking, reflection, and self-analysis.
    • Create an environment in which the staff is respected and everyone is expected to contribute.
    • Counsel out or remove staff members who do not buy into the philosophy of the school or meet expectations.


  5. Hold Teachers Accountable: Principals hold teachers accountable for improving student achievement
    • Make no excuses!
    • Have principals and peers hold teachers accountable for student achievement.
    • Use student performance data as part of the evaluation process.
    • Expect teachers to gain skills in areas where student performance is weak.


  6. Monitor Both Students and Teachers: What is measured gets accomplished!

    Specific techniques for monitoring include the following:

    • Collect, read, and comment on teachers' lesson plans on a weekly basis.
    • Require weekly parent newsletter.
    • Collect a writing sample each week from children in each class.

    Recommendations for monitoring students and teachers include the following:

    • Constantly monitor and use a variety of formal and informal methods.
    • Use student data for instructional decision making.
    • Meet regularly with teachers and grade-level teams to review student progress and solve problems.
    • Make parents official partners in the process.
    • Be visible and visit classrooms regularly.
    • Pace instruction carefully.
    • Place high value on early detection and remediation of student learning problems.
    • Implement an individualized learning plan for every student performing below grade level.
    • Begin assessment and monitoring in kindergarten.
    • Make sure no child falls through the cracks.


  7. Foster Individual Teacher Support: Designate a point person to support and coordinate instruction
    • Support teachers to ensure success.
    • Designate a point person to coordinate instruction and support staff improvement.
    • Use coaching and mentoring as support processes.
    • Implement a mentoring/induction process for new staff.


  8. Encourage Professional Development: Encourage and support staff to update and refine their skills regularly
    • Give teachers time and opportunity to refine and improve skills.
    • Tie professional development to school priorities and staff needs.
    • Value and use teacher expertise.
    • Plan high-level professional development topics: reading and writing strategies, curriculum alignment, standards and assessment, technology, and data-driven instructional decision making.
    • Set the expectation that staff members share what they learn and provide enough time for them to do so.


  9. Ensure Philosophical Consistency: Schools that improve have a common vision and mission and are philosophically consistent.
    • Hire principals who exemplify the vision and philosophy of the school and "walk their talk."
    • Match staff philosophy, attitudes, knowledge, and skills to school needs.
    • Work to ensure an across the board "buy-in."
    • Hire teachers who support the school's mission, vision, and philosophy.
    • Counsel out or remove staff members who are not a good match for the school!


  10. Invest in Performance: Invest resources wisely to support achievement
    • Invest resources beyond per-pupil allocations to enhance student achievement.
    • Monitor results carefully; fine tune budget when investments do not yield results.


  11. Instill a Love of Learning Through Reading: Everyone is a learner! Everyone is a reader!
    • Help students learn to love reading so they will love learning!
    • Make sure everyone in the school is a learner and a reader!
    • Value learning and make it fun!


  12. Work Together: Parents, community, teachers, students, and administrators work together
    • Expect everyone in the school community to work together; do not compartmentalize.
    • Create a culture of achievement that depends on everyone's contribution.
    • Develop and implement "robust" communication strategies between and among staff, families, and the community.


  13. Increase Time on Task: Be creative and find more time for learning!
    • Increase reading time during the school day and make good use of time.
    • Provide smaller class sizes or tutors to give extra time-on-task during the school day.
    • Provide opportunities before and after school to increase learning time.
    • Increase the school day for all students by using discretionary resources.
    • Increase the school year by using discretionary resources.
    • Focus, focus, focus!!!"

"It is our hope that the "baker's dozen" strategies we have identified will become a blueprint for every school looking toward greater achievement," explained Dr. Karen Carlson, executive director of the Academic Accountability Council and primary author of the study.

"The most successful elementary schools ensure that all students have a reading-enriched curriculum, beginning in the first grade, where there is a strong emphasis on phonetics," said Carlson, who is a former Chicago Public Schools principal. "This is complemented by consistent monitoring to ensure that no child falls through the cracks."

"Leadership...specifically, the principal's leadership is what we are seeing here," said Leon Jackson, chairman of the Academic Accountability Council, in reference to how schools implement the 13 strategies. "In each of the schools that are improving, we see a successful management team that is goal-oriented, well-organized, well-supported and, most important, well-led. These are principals and schools from whom all can learn."


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