IMPROVING EARLY LITERACY THROUGH ACTION RESEARCH
This is the story of a journey taken by five public elementary schools in Ontario’s Grand Erie District School Board – Central, Graham Bell, King George, Victoria, and Woodman. We decided to focus our efforts on the area of early literacy. When we speak of this topic many questions come to mind: What impacts on early literacy? How can we improve literacy skills in our schools? What teaching practices have a positive impact on early literacy? Do quality materials contribute to literacy learning? Do environmental factors contribute to literacy success in the early years? Asking and then discussing these questions as a group of administrators led us to our action research.
We decided as a group to focus on classroom practice because that is where we were in direct control. We looked at our values around literacy learning in the early years and found that we all agreed that a balanced approach was best. Teaching should include the following activities as bases for the teaching of skills - shared reading, reading aloud, independent reading, guided reading, systematic teaching of reading and writing strategies, responding to text, and using quality literature in a variety of genre.
We met with our teachers to discuss our concerns. All were eager to embark on a project which would improve students’ reading skills. They were also eager to have the opportunity to obtain classroom resources that would benefit students and assist teachers in the teaching process. Our action research then became our teachers’ action research as well.
A gap analysis in our schools led us to realize that guided reading was not practiced in our classrooms. The main reason for this was that our schools lacked quality materials to conduct shared reading sessions. Because they lacked practice in this area, teachers lacked expertise. This discovery led us to narrow our question: how will using the guided reading strategy increase reading comprehension skills in primary classrooms? As an ancillary inquiry, we wanted to discover if the materials themselves had a positive impact on the children’s love for, and interest in, reading. Our ancillary question became: will the use of quality materials increase positive student attitude toward reading?
Throughout our study we collected data using video- and audio-taping, journal keeping, questionnaires and standardized tests. The data provides substantial evidence that, indeed, guided reading has had a significant positive impact on reading comprehension skills in our schools. The data also supports our assumption that the materials themselves had a significant impact on increased student learning. In addition to this, our data indicates that our teachers improved their ability to teach reading and that our students developed an increased love of books.
Conducting the Study
Our first step was to identify our needs. These included the following:
We obtained funds through compensatory education to release teachers for two in-service sessions and to purchase materials. One in-service focused on the delivery model of guided reading and a review of the new materials purchased. The second session looked at data collection. In addition, we released the grade one teachers for half a day to observe the guided reading process in a colleague's classroom.
We purchased the Bookshop (1997) guided reading program from Scholastic Canada. The program was chosen because it included big books and charts for shared reading, a variety of reading levels in each stage, and a wide range of genre. The books were suitable for independent reading as well as reading aloud.
Teachers were instructed on the process of keeping a journal and of observing students and recording comments - all important data collection skills. Video was used on several occasions to record students reading and teachers talking together. Teachers kept anecdotal comments regarding the process of guided reading, the students’ interest in reading, and the students’ increased skill levels. Teachers also recorded their feelings about the process, questions and problems that arose, and ways they solved these problems.
We decided to collect additional data using standardized tests. The Scholastic Reading Inventory was used at four of the schools. The Mann-Suiter test of reading comprehension was used at the fifth. Most schools used a combination of tests and teacher observation because younger students could not read the Scholastic Reading Inventory at the beginning of the year.
We encountered some challenges during the implementation of the project. Three of our teachers had extended periods of absenteeism due to illness. Three teachers changed teaching assignments in December and one teacher retired. We have left out the data from four of classrooms for these reasons. In two of the six classrooms, however, teachers, were able to leave sufficient instructions for the person taking over so that the project was not in jeopardy.
Guided Reading is a complex process but it involves the following steps. The teacher groups the students according to their skill level. Each small group meets with the teacher once a week to first preview a book, learn new vocabulary, discuss reading strategies, read the book and then engage in book talk. The process of previewing builds students’ confidence and helps them to implement appropriate reading strategies when they need to decode unfamiliar text. When students read the book they do so alone and aloud allowing the teacher to intervene when meaning making is in jeopardy.
Classroom management was an issue for some teachers when managing guided reading. As one teacher put it, "Those who have the responsibility of completing assigned tasks with the minimum of adult intervention can often stray off topic, disrupt ,and misuse the time they have been allotted."
Through the discussions with their colleagues, teachers were able to work through some of the difficulties. Staff at King George School wrote, "After much trial and error, switching groups and books, and venting frustrations to the rest of the primary team, we combined all our ideas and found a delivery method that appears to suit our needs and the students’ needs."
Students made tremendous gains in their levels of reading comprehension in the allotted time period - December to the end of March. Two hundred and five students increased their reading level and fifty-six showed no gains. Three hundred and six students said that their reading had improved while only seventeen said that their reading had not improved. Two hundred and sixty-eight students thought that the guided reading process helped them to understand the book while only 12 thought it did not help them.
Throughout the project, teachers made observations which indicated that the model was making a difference for children. Teachers’ journals included comments like:
Our data indicates that the quality of the books contributed significantly to the success of the project. The books in the Bookshop (1997) program were enticing and beautifully presented. The materials seemed to draw the pupils into the process. This led to increased exposure to print which, in turn, led to an increase in reading skills. Comments from teachers included the following:
When asked if they liked the Bookshop (1997) books, 286 students who answered the question said, "Yes," and 26 students said, "No." Reasons students gave for liking the books included such comments as, "interesting," "entertaining," "funny," "very colourful,"and, "very good pictures." Some liked the information or instructions the stories provided. One student wrote, "Some of the stories make me feel happy." Reasons students gave for not liking the books included, "The printing of the "g’s" confused me," "They are too hard to read," and, "Reading is boring."
Teachers expressed their own very positive feelings about the guided reading program. Teachers at one school wrote, "As we worked through the difficulties we all agree that the reading program is quite good. When you see the enthusiasm and willingness to read in the young children, you too get inspired and forget about the difficulties and pressure surrounding the project." A teacher at another school said, "I found the enthusiasm of the students contagious throughout this project. I have enjoyed experiencing the increase in self-confidence and self-esteem of the students as they have developed their skills in reading."
Other teachers found the project fit into their beliefs and values around literacy and worked through the process of learning about guided reading with zeal and enthusiasm from the beginning. Journals include comments such as the following:
The journal comments shared by teachers indicated that they had grown professionally through the experience. A number wrote comments like the following ones:
We view our action research to be a success in many ways. Students improved their reading comprehension and were aware that they had done so. The resources we purchased had a significant impact on students’ excitement and enthusiasm toward learning to read. Teachers gained expertise in learning a new strategy for teaching the reading process and discovered new ways to observe and record data.
Guided reading made a difference in encouraging reluctant readers, developing enthusiasm, and increasing comprehension. We can look back, however, and see that many more questions arise from our study. Should teachers be given more ownership at the onset of the process? Is Grade One too late to begin early literacy? Are other resources needed to meet an even wider range of pupil levels and needs?
I am sure that upon examining our data even more closely, we will conclude that we too must continue our journey up the learning spiral which action research spins for us, seeking answers to new questions and always looking to improve student learning.
Mondo Publishing. (1997). Bookshop: A reading program. Greenvale, New York: Author.
The Ontario Ministry of Education. (1997). The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Language. Toronto: author.