New program to help young readers who fall behind

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Sometimes a child reaches a point of no return.

Researchers have discovered that once a child falls behind in reading skills in kindergarten and first grade, they will continue to struggle with reading the remaining 11 years of their education-and beyond.

To identify those students and help them before it’s too late, educators at Hillsboro Elementary School plan this year to use a set of standardized-test measurements called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, known as the acronym DIBELS.

“Whatever we’re doing to teach that child is not effective, or maybe they were a little behind, and we need to help them catch up right away,” said Evan Yoder, HES principal.

“If they’re behind, even if they’re a sharp student, they’re still going to be behind. And we want to eliminate that possibility that they will be behind all the way through school.”

All kindergarten students will be tested in late fall at HES. Those identified as needing early literacy remediation will meet regularly with teacher Charlene Driggers outside the classroom.

In the regular classroom, teachers in kindergarten and first grade also have been trained to supplement Driggers’ work. Throughout the year, students will be reevaluated to monitor progress.

Discovering DIBELS

Teachers and administrators in Marion County first learned about DIBELS this year during monthly Marion County Reading Task Force meetings.

“Tom Alstrom in Peabody was really concerned that when the kids got to high school they couldn’t read, and some could read but they couldn’t comprehend very well,” Yoder said.

“That started this whole task force. And one thing we decided to do was to discuss some different kinds of programs out there we heard good things about. Someone mentioned DIBELS, and we decided to get someone in to explain it more in depth.”

Facilitated by the Marion County Special Education Cooperative, the program concept was introduced by June Gerber of Pratt. Gerber spoke with participating task-force members in April.

With interest sparked, the task force invited Gerber to come back in May to offer the first training session.

“We had all our first-grade teachers who will be teaching this coming school year,” Yoder said. “They came in for training as did the two kindergarten teachers and our special-ed teacher and our Title I paras. We had 40 people here from around the county.”

With the permission of parents, Yoder and his staff also administered the DIBELS tests to HES kindergarten and first-grade students.

“So we practiced with them and really felt good about it and what DIBELS would do for us,” Yoder said.

Most of the participants gathered again in June for a second all-day training session. Some others participated for the first time.

“There were so many people across the county that talked to the teachers who attended the May training and thought, ‘Gosh, this is really something.'”

The DIBELS concept

The DIBELS concept was developed when researchers at the national education level reported within the last six years the need to assess a student’s early literacy skills between the ages of 5 and 6.

The DIBELS program identifies the following three of five areas considered to be building blocks for children to become a good reader:

n Phonological awareness. This area measures initial sounds fluency and phonemic segmentation fluency. ISF assesses a child’s skill in identifying and producing the initial sound of a given word. PSF determines a child’s ability to produce the individual sounds within a given word.

n Alphabetic principle. Nonsense word fluency will be evaluated by measuring a child’s knowledge of how a letter and its sound correspond, and the ability to blend letters together to form unfamiliar nonsense words, such as “fik” and “lig.”

n Fluency with connected words. Measuring oral reading fluency, administrators determine a child’s ability to read connected text in appropriate grade-level material.

Testing for results

The DIBELS program is sponsored by the University of Oregon, which offers a Web site and a variety of resources for participating educators.

“They have done enough research, and enough kids have gone through this program, that they can identify kids who are not at a particular level by the time January rolls around their kindergarten year,” Yoder said.

Each measure takes less than three minutes to administer and score per child. A class of 25 children can be tested in about 30 minutes by four trained administrators.

Follow-up tests will be administered about three more times throughout the school year to monitor progress and adjust the curriculum.

Getting started

Yoder presented the program to the board of education in mid-July and plans to send out literature to parents regarding the purpose of the program and the results of each of the tests throughout the year.

The first part of the program is identifying the students who can participate, and the second part is providing the curriculum to help bring them to grade-level reading proficiency.

Children at HES attend half-day kindergarten with about 20 students in each session. Yoder said he anticipates no more than five students from each session enrolled in the DIBELS program for one to two hours, three to five days a week.

DIBELS children in the morning session will remain at school for two hours following morning kindergarten, eat lunch at school, participate in the curriculum and go home or be bussed home.

Students in the afternoon session will come to school or be bussed in two hours early and follow the same basic schedule.

“Extra instructional time has proven to help bring those low-level readers up,” Yoder said. “And so this is going to provide that extra time.”

Instructional material for the program will include the guideline titled “Pathways to Reading,” facilitated by Driggers.

“But it’s not just Charlene working with the kids,” Yoder said. “All the first-grade and kindergarten teachers will know these different strategies, and they’ll work with them, also, in the classroom.”

The costs to implement and offer the program through the year are minimal, Yoder said.

Driggers, who previously taught first grade, will be back on a half-time basis.

“So that’s no extra cost,” Yoder said. “One extra cost would be running possibly two extra bus routes to take the afternoon kids home early and bring the morning kids in early if they’re not town kids.”

Encouraging reports

The reports from other districts that have implemented the DIBELS program are encouraging, Yoder said.

“One thing June Gerber mentioned is that in Pratt, they found they had a significant drop in the number of special-ed referrals once they put this program in place. That doesn’t mean that a child won’t have a learning disability, too, but we want to find out where that disability is and the provide them extra instruction.

“First, the key is identification, which we haven’t been able to do with kids this young-to find out specifically where their weaknesses are. Then, after identification, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to help?”

In addition to evaluating student progress and successes during the year, the DIBELS program will be monitored, too.

“We’ll constantly reevaluate,” Yoder said. “But, I want people to know this isn’t going to be another experimental thing. It will be key for me to make sure parents are informed on what we would like to do and how we can work with them to help their child. The bottom line is we want their child to be a good reader, to be with their classmates. And we feel this program will help us achieve that goal.”

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