SANTA MARIA, CALIFORNIA—Ninth-grade students in Santa Maria High School’s reading improvement class gained an average of 6.8 reading levels in the Reading Plus instructional program over the 2018–2019 term. Typically, gains of about 5 grade levels within the instructional component of Reading Plus translate to 2 to 2.5 grade levels of reading proficiency growth as measured by the Reading Plus InSight assessment.*
“Reading Plus started at Santa Maria High School through United Way as a possible intervention,” says Steve Molina, district LCAP director. “Our teachers liked it, and it just grew district-wide as we do have a high English language learner population, especially at Santa Maria High. We’ve incorporated Reading Plus as a part of our reading development program.”
“Reading Plus has an impact,” says Eddie Taylor, CEO of Northern Santa Barbara County United Way, the organization responsible for supporting SMHS with Reading Plus implementation and continuous teacher training process. “It’s used at various levels at different locations—some use it three times a week, some five—but if you use it with fidelity, you will change not just their lives, but also their families’ lives for generations because it changes their ability to succeed. Teach them to read, to write, and to think. It all starts with literacy.”
Located in the heart of Santa Maria, California, SMHS serves grades 9–12 and has more than 2,600 students enrolled. The student population is highly diverse, including a large number of English language learners (ELL) and students coming from low-socioeconomic status (SES) homes. A large number of SMHS’s incoming ninth-graders are significantly below their academic level, many reading at the third- and fourth-grade level.
“We have a huge population of ELL students, and the incoming reading level of our ninth-graders was really low,” says Laurence Orlick, who teaches three ninth-grade reading improvement classes at SMHS. “That’s why we needed [a reading intervention program].”
“There’s a general sense of self-consciousness,” says Rick Hebert, a reading improvement teacher at SMHS. Hebert started teaching with the Reading Plus program five years ago. Now he’s the site coordinator for Reading Plus, and he helps teachers like Orlick learn how to use the program effectively.
“These are students who would be reluctant to read out loud if they get called on,” he continued. By the end of the year, however, those same students were excited to use the Reading Plus program, expressed pride in their progress, and were reading at remarkably higher levels than when they started.
On average, the ninth-grade reading improvement students at SMHS achieved 6.8 levels of literacy growth in the instructional component of Reading Plus—and in one class, those gains rose as high as 7.4 levels. According to the staff at SMHS, achieving reading gains requires a culture change; teachers need to first create an environment that’s conducive to the students’ learning.
“We have some extraordinary teachers who are dedicated to the program—Mr. Hebert and Mr. Orlick,” says Molina. “They’ve both excelled so well with the kids, especially under the guidance of Mr. Hebert. It takes a teacher like that to really understand the program, all of its ins and outs, and how to communicate the academic strategies that are necessary for a kid to progress.”
“I don’t micromanage them during the week,” explains Hebert. “They have 12 assignments per week and have until 8 p.m. on Saturday to get them done, so they can manage themselves.”
Student choice and student-directed learning has been a widely-discussed topic in the educational world; educational leaders argue that giving students the freedom to choose the topics that interest them and take as much time as they need to complete their assignments promotes deeper, richer learning and helps students develop the intrinsic motivation they need to become lifelong learners.
As Taylor says, “it’s about giving the students ownership. They have control of the program. The teacher can use classroom management techniques, but when you give the students the autonomy to use the product on their own, they’ll take advantage of that.”
“I think that speaks to the accessibility of the Reading Plus program,” says Hebert. “The students get to choose their stories and that’s super important. They want to be better readers, but they don’t want to sound dumb in front of the class. Reading Plus gives them the ability to do it alone and at their own pace.”
Additionally, by layering Reading Plus on top of a number of other reading interventions, SMHS educators have developed a flexible and impactful learning environment for their students in reading development classes.
“Last year, we built the structure for a collaborative effort between all our districts for our interventions and English classes to follow the same curricular maps,” says Molina. “In order for us to get results district-wide, we had to have some centralized oversight, so…we came together to understand those results and make adjustments as needed.”
“We try to provide the least restrictive environment for support and growth of our students,” Molina continues. “It works for us, and it continues to support our kids in feeling good about themselves.”
Along with student choice, a carefully cultivated learning environment, and district-wide collaboration, SMHS educators believe that their commitment to implementing and taking full advantage of the program contributed to their success.
“The biggest reason for our success is using [Reading Plus] with fidelity,” says Hebert. “If you use this program religiously, you’ll see the results.”
According to Orlick, establishing that consistency as early on as possible is critical.
“As a teacher, those first three weeks are important for getting those routines down,” says Orlick. “At the very beginning of the implementation process…if you can get the students to believe that this is actually going to help them in their life—not just get them a better grade in English class—they’re more likely to have that incentive to use it with fidelity and say, ‘Wow, the world is less intimidating now.’”
“It takes leadership to make this program work,” adds Molina. “It’s not a panacea…. As a district leader, I’ve got to be on top of it to be sure that I’m always providing the best support and guidance, listening to feedback from my stakeholders, and learning all the time.”
After only one year of using Reading Plus, 63% of SMHS’s enrolled ninth-grade students were reading at or close to grade level in the instructional program.
According to Hebert and Orlick, students’ confidence gains were the most important results they saw after the Reading Plus implementation.
“It’s palpable, it’s real,” Hebert says of his students’ confidence. “After a month, I was actually surprised to see kids come in early and brag about their progress.”
“Being a teacher is a thankless job,” adds Orlick, “but I’ve had students come up to me personally and tell me that this has been the most helpful class. That’s the part I love about this program.”
*InSight provides measures of reading comprehension, vocabulary, comprehension-based silent reading rate, and motivation, as well as a composite reading proficiency grade-level score. The assessment yields results that can readily be compared with nationally normed standardized test results, such as SBAC (see correlations here). A detailed review and evaluation of InSight’s reliability, validity, and classification accuracy can be found on the National Center on Intensive Intervention website.