“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing to
happen to the human brain.” – John Steinbeck
We couldn’t agree more.
When I walked into both the Latin American Community Center and Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center today, I saw this “revolutionary” process firsthand. Volunteers from Salesianum and Operations Specialists were working with children on data driven, individualized, and targeted activities tailored to teach them the fundamentals of reading.
At the entrance to The Latin American Community Center, Nancy Aragbaye, a Curriculum Director for The Summer Learning Collaborative, welcomes three new volunteers from Padua and Salesianum to the center. She shows them special uno cards that they will play 1:1 with kids to help improve word recognition. This is but one of many strategies Nancy will employ over the course of several weeks this summer to provide data driven and targeted activities tailored to teach children the fundamentals of reading.
Nancy, who taught 5th and 6th grade through Teach For America, brings five years of experience working with countless children who barely knew how to recognize words, let alone read full sentences. Due to the immense and critical needs of her kids, Nancy struggled to provide her students with the fundamentals they needed, while still maintaining the rigor of her assigned school curriculum. This structure made it nearly impossible to provide the personalized interventions her students’ needed.
The Summer Learning Collaborative provided her with a solution: a flexible environment that allows her to take a step back and teach kids the fundamentals in a fun and engaging way.
For several weeks, Nancy studied the trends in data collected by Let’s Go Learn, an online research-based diagnostic assessment of reading and math. Her research unearthed a startling fact: the average third grader attending LACC’s summer program was scoring at the kindergarten level. This aligned with what Nancy had seen in her classroom experience, but – outside any red tape and in a flexible learning environment she was empowered to make a change.
“Now,” Aragbaye explains, “each day we pull struggling kids out of their general camp group. Volunteers work with the children to develop the specific topics they struggled with in the Let’s Go Learn assessment.”
According to a study done by RAND Corporation on personalized learning, “Achievement analyses find that personalized learning has a positive effects on student reading performance and that the lowest-performing students made substantial gains relative to their peers.” We are indeed seeing this firsthand at LACC in our students receiving individualized attention. Kids are reading through play and loving it. Through this targeted reading intervention, our kids are fully realizing that they matter and their progress matters.
This summer, Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center also instituted their own innovative reading program. Melany Justice, a Curriculum Director for The Summer Learning Collaborative, created the program in collaboration with her professors at Johns Hopkins, and Maryann Ireland, a Hilltop academic volunteer. They developed a language test to accompany the data from Let’s Go Learn to gather a comprehensive set of data for each child. This test focused on comprehension and spelling, two very important indicators that Melany analyzed. Using this information, she developed a program that aims to help children learn to read, while also form the beginning fundamentals of writing.
Every day Hilltop’s Operations Specialists, Maryan and Dhruv, pull out individual campers, chosen based on their assessment results. Each intervention session begins with a game, for example spelling practice formatting much like a spelling bee, all of which are incorporated with vocabulary practice focused on sight-word recognition and phonics.
“The very special thing about this program is that each lesson is tailored specifically for each child” explains Melany. “The level of difficulty is customized to fall in their “instructional” level. This targeted reading intervention approach maximizes their ability to learn by avoiding the “basic” and “frustration” levels, which simply means they have some mastery but are still challenged.”
The child then proceeds to read aloud and answer comprehension questions. Melany has incorporated both explicit and implicit learning into her lessons, and the children are encouraged to form and express opinions about the stories. At the end of the lesson, Dhruv and Maryam update progress charts that make sure each following session specifically targets skills to be reviewed and new material to be learned based on the child’s progress and learning techniques.
I was fortunate enough to observe these sessions, and it was uplifting to hear the children talk about reading. Ramaya wanted to take the books home to read, Washim’s favorite book is “A Cat in the Hat,” and Devon shyly, yet proudly, told me she could now read on her own. Dhruv, the Operation Specialist, who works with these kids individually for hours, said, “easily the most rewarding thing I do every day is working with the kids and seeing them smile when they learn something new or when we read a book together.”
Although this is only the third week of both programs, the gains are apparent – in the way that children’s faces light up when recognizing a new word, the way volunteers and OS’s interact with our highest-need youth, and the way change has inspired the LACC and Hilltop communities.
Throughout the school year children are herded in large class sizes through Common Core Standards, whether or not they know the basic foundations of the content they are meant to master. Unfortunately this means that many of our city’s highest need kids will never become literate: they will never master the basic skills that underpin future success. The Collaborative’s mission is to leverage summer – and in particular data and strong teams within community agencies – to respond to the individual needs of children.
“Our school system is often a blunt force tool to children who require individual attention and support, ”explains Catherine Lindroth, Founder and Executive Director of SummerCollab. “Summer offers us a unique opportunity to help non readers build a strong foundation for literacy; we can ensure our highest need children go back to school as stronger readers, with a strengthened belief in their personal power.”
“Change is the theme,” says Rahul Sabbaraya, a SummerCollab Operations Specialist at Walnut Street YMCA. “These programs have the potential to drive change in “revolutionary” ways.”