Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 28
Reading is powerA new literacy program is helping local students jump grade levels in reading comprehension
BY AMY ASMAN
Eddie Taylor, CEO of the Northern Santa Barbara County United Way, is giving me a tutorial on one of his organization’s new education programs. Reading Plus, or “Power Reading,” has been around for decades, but the United Way—through a partnership with educators and businesses—recently helped implement the online version of the program at local schools.
Reading Plus is one stage of the United Way’s national “United for Literacy” campaign, designed to help cut the country’s high school dropout rate in half by 2018. It’s been proven by numerous researchers, including the U.S. Department of Education, that literacy and school dropout rates are inextricably linked.
“Approximately 60 percent of students aren’t reading at grade level,” Taylor says as he shows me an introductory video of the Reading Plus program. A picture of a ninth grade student named Santiago comes up on the screen. Next to him is the text of a grade-level reading assignment.
Taylor pauses the video and says, “The important thing to do here is to not read what’s on the page but to follow the bouncing ball. You’re going to attempt to read like an inexperienced reader.”
He starts the video again and a red ball appears over the words, simulating Santiago’s reading progress. Instead of skimming the page in a smooth line, the ball bounces erratically back and forth. Santiago, it appears, has to pause on numerous words and re-read whole sections of text.
I feel frustrated and confused—the way many children, and even adults, often feel if they aren’t proficient readers.
The Reading Plus program is designed to give people the individualized tools they need to improve reading comprehension and, eventually, develop a lifelong love of reading.
The United Way partnered with dozens of local businesses to partially fund the program so it can be offered to schools at an affordable rate. The United Way also provides ongoing training and technical support.
Two teachers at Santa Maria High School are currently using the Reading Plus online software to get their students up to reading level or beyond. Educators at the school openly admit that they’re plagued by a “literacy crisis,” like many other schools throughout the country.
On a recent school day, English teacher Auni Baldwin took me through a simulation of Reading Plus.
We start with a warm-up; we must count the number of numeral 1’s that flash across the page in about a minute’s time. This exercise, Baldwin says, is designed to improve perceptual analysis, or “the ability to see things and recognize them.”
The more correct sightings a student has, the faster the program goes. “You’ll see some of these kids whose numbers are flashing across the screen at lightning speed,” Baldwin says.
Next, we begin “guided reading.” We select a story about a man who dreams of moving to Alaska (all of the students can pick from a collection of stories within their reading comprehension levels, which are determined by a placement test). The story text appears and I’m about to start reading, when suddenly an oscillating blue line—similar to a computer’s “download” line—starts to flash across the screen. Baldwin tells me the goal is to read each sentence before it gets eaten by the blue line—a task that turns out to be more difficult than it sounds.
After we finish reading the story, we’ll be asked a series of comprehension questions and then scored based on our answers. As I glance around the utterly silent classroom, I see that my fellow students are equally engrossed in various stages of the program.
“People come in here and say, ‘Wow, your class is so engaged in what they’re doing,’” Baldwin says. “And I tell them, ‘Well, yeah. You can’t look away for a second or there’s no way you can complete the task.’”
Baldwin started teaching the high school’s Reading Plus pilot program in February of last year. She started with 60 students. Of those students, she says, approximately 95 percent were reading at a fourth grade reading level or below. By May, 75 percent of them were reading at grade level or within one grade level.
This year, both Baldwin and her teaching partner Teri Magni have already seen vast improvement among their students.
“I have one student who went up four grade levels. That’s one grade level per week,” Magni says. “I have others who have gone up two or three grade levels.”
Lizbeth Hernandez, one of Baldwin’s current students, tells me the program has helped her become a better reader.
“It used to take me a long time [to read something], and at the end of the story I wouldn’t know what I read,” she says. “Now I can read faster and understand more.”
Now, for the first time in her life, Hernandez is reading for pleasure.
“I like fantasy and mystery books,” she says. She’s currently reading Bag of Bones by Stephen King.
Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at firstname.lastname@example.org.