by Donni Stickney, M.S.Ed., Mathews County Public Schools
In several regions throughout the Commonwealth, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is providing professional development to schools in the use of Instructional Support Teams (IST). These teams are comprised of general education teachers, principals, counselors, specialty area teachers, school psychologists, and an Instructional Support Teacher. Team members use a systematic problem-solving process to help teachers better match their instruction to the needs of their students, creating what is known as an "instructional match." Working as individual case managers, team members are trained to assess students' learning needs and to design specific classroom strategies to help students make educational gains and achieve greater success with their curriculum. It is a collaborative approach in which teachers, students, and instructional support team members work together to find the most effective way to help students move forward in their learning. This approach has proven extremely valuable in our school.
As an Instructional Support Teacher in Mathews County, I am available to assist teachers with their students' concerns. Often teachers approach me about students who are struggling academically or behaviorally. The teacher and I work together to pinpoint the student's strengths and difficulties. We design intervention strategies and then collect data to determine if they are effective. A specific case example will give a better sense of how the IST problem-solving approach works, and how effective it can be in aiding students and teachers.
Not long ago I received a request for assistance from one of our third-grade teachers. She was worried about a student's reading as she had noticed that he often read on the wrong line and miscalled words. However, she was unsure of what caused the difficulty and how to help the student improve. During our first meeting, I explained that she and I would be working collaboratively to find solutions. She expressed a strong commitment to her student and a willingness to work with me. We then decided on a date for our next meeting, during which we would examine how the student approached the curriculum.
Before assessing the student, the teacher and I met briefly to review the steps of the Curriculum-Based Assessment (CBA) to be used with the student. We then explained to him that we would be working with him on improving his reading. We told him that we would be looking for what he knows, what he can do, and how he thinks when he approaches new material.
Once he was seated at his desk, I read to him from his textbook and asked him to retell what he remembered about the passage. We noted that he was able to retell the story with all the important concepts and events detailed. Next, it was his turn to read aloud. He read very slowly, 39 words per minute, during his first reading. He frequently lost his place on the page, which further slowed the process. However, his comprehension during his retelling remained high. We then had him reread the same selection. He improved to 56 words read per minute with continued high comprehension. As he continued reading and rereading passages, using a marker or sliding his finger under the correct line, his words per minute increased to a high of 70 with 100% accuracy.
We then did some trial teaching, allowing him to form his own questions about what he was reading. He would read a few sentences and then ask us a question about what he had just read. We helped him move from questions that could be answered directly from the passage to higher-order inferential questions. He caught on quickly and enjoyed forming his own questions.
A couple of days later his teacher and I met to go over the information we had gathered during the assessment. We agreed that we had learned some important things. Most commonly, he would change the first letters of the words or add letters to words. He was able to self-correct these errors when they were brought to his attention. The type of errors he made did not impact his comprehension. We noticed an increase in fluency, the number of words read per minute, during his rereading of passages and decided that by focusing on strengthening his fluency skills, we would get the results we wanted.
We consequently began to implement a program called Read Naturally (www.readnaturally.com), which is designed to increase reading fluency. The program provides audiotapes of recorded passage selections. The student begins by doing a word search, circling words that he needs to know to be able to read successfully the passage selected. After the teacher helps him with the unknown words, he begins to time himself reading the selection. He graphs in blue pencil the number of words he was able to read correctly in one minute. He then listens to the selection three more times. Each time he has the opportunity to reread the text and practice fluency. He times himself again and graphs his results in red pencil. Finally, he answers some comprehension questions and writes a retelling of the story.
During the last three months, the rereading strategy has helped increased our student's fluency. Specifically, his first, cold, readings have increased from 39 to 68 words read per minute. His second, warm, rereadings have increased from 56 to 94 words read per minute. He continues to work toward his fluency goal of 100 words read per minute.
The teacher, her student, and his family are all very happy with the progress he has made. By using some of the Instructional Support Team's strategies-word search, rereading, forming questions, and retellings -the student's fluency rate has more than doubled. The student has become proficient at self-assessing reading material to determine what words he needs help with to be successful when reading an unfamiliar story. He has begun reading fluently on his grade level. At this point, we are ready to close his case and count this as another IST success story.
In our school the Instructional Support Team has helped bring about change on many levels. For example, our view of how we can best meet students' needs has broadened. We now look at the classroom environment and examine the effectiveness of tasks rather than focus on student weaknesses. We are much more adept at creating an instructional match between the students and the curriculum. We have found that the strategies we design as interventions for one student are often valuable for a group of students or the entire class. IST has also helped us meet our own needs as educators who value learning and benefit from working collaboratively rather than autonomously. As a result, in our school, teachers are talking about quality instructional strategies and academic gains instead of problem students and poor grades. More of our students are profiting from instruction than ever before.