Words are hard, sometimes. The success of Fort Smith’s monthlong summer reading camp for students struggling with reading, however, could mean its expansion and the possibility of an after-school program.
Forty kids from eight elementary schools — Howard, Morrison, Pike, Spradling, Sunnymede, Sutton, Tilles and Trusty — and two junior high schools — Darby and Kimmons — were invited to participate in the pilot program during the month of June. Of those invited, 34 students participated and 31 graduated from the camp.
Each child selected to attend scored at or below the 25th percentile on standardized tests. The goal of the intense four-week camp was to advance their reading skills by one grade level, but many students made multiple grade-level improvements.
“We were really excited to have the opportunity to have this camp, and the outcomes were just incredible,” said Cathey Ford, Fort Smith intervention and dyslexia coordinator.
Participants attended their respective school from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday through Friday. Each day was broken into four 50-minute sessions. Students worked with teachers on a more individualized level than they receive during the school year due to class sizes.
Based on the results of each student’s reading test, and in order to best tailor instruction to the needs of each student, they were split into two categories: decoding and comprehension.
Children in the decoding category have weak “symbol imagery” and struggle to visualize letters in words, have a hard time remembering sight words — common ones found in most texts, such as “and,” “the” or “for” — and imagine word patterns.
This means a student can see a word, sound it out and not remember the same word when it appears later. Because they struggle to retain the “image” of letters, patterns are also difficult to recognize — they can’t see changes that create new but similar words. For example, Ford said a child can create a mental image for the word “cat,” but can’t visualize the difference when told to change the “c” to a “b.”
Students in the comprehension group have a weakened sense of “concept imagery,” meaning they read and understand words but are unable to determine a passage’s meaning on the macro level due to an inability to retain information past individual words and phrases.
Exercises taught during the program are based on strategies and curriculum from Lindamood-Bell, and students of both groups saw improvement in 10 areas when tested at the conclusion of the month.
Ford called the program a “game changer,” increasing students’ technical skills such as accuracy and comprehension, while also providing a sense of heightened confidence.
“That is the goal of this program, of the visualizing, is to get them into content material where they’re reading actual text books, and they’re creating the images to help with application in the different subjects,” Ford said.
‘Changing the culture’
Having a summer reading camp is great, but the district knows it doesn’t mean much if students don’t retain the skills.
“We’re tracking the students who participated in the summer reading program, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest a lot of resources in something that’s not sustainable or doesn’t work,” said Kellie Cohen, director of student achieve.
All kindergarten through second-grade teachers received training in the Lindamood-Bell strategies, allowing instruction during the academic year to reflect what students learned during the camp and bring consistency to the curriculum for all students.
Interventionist and special education teachers are also trained to remediate and correct any literacy problems students may have past second grade before falling too far behind in their education. Cohen said the lessons kids are taught are foundational skills they will use as they transition through their academic careers.
“We’re looking at changing the culture in some of our campuses, so we really build these skills in students,” Cohen said. “If they don’t have (the skills), they can’t access the content, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to continue to drill eighth-grade English if the student’s reading at a second-grade level.”
The district is also watching the progression of the students involved, hoping the success will be long term and something it can invest in for the remaining schools. Cohen said approximately 300 students who took the standardized testing scored at or below the 25th percentile, but the camp only hosted 10 percent.
Executive director of communication Zena Featherston Marshall said Fort Smith is looking for grants and writing proposals in order to continue the summer program and possibly implement an after-school option during the year.
‘Get in on the ground floor’
Students in third through 10th grade take the ACT Aspire test to measure their learning progress and college readiness. The English and reading sections measure both detailed literacy skills, such as grammar and vocabulary selection, and big picture skills — determining a passage’s purpose and contextual information. These results pinpointed who the district considered most needing support and invited to the camp.
According to 2017-18 Aspire test results released in July by the Arkansas Board of Education, except for those in eighth grade, the percentage of Fort Smith students who met or exceeded the readiness benchmark for reading was less than the national average. Children in third and 10th grade had the lowest percentages for students meeting the benchmark with 35 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
Featherston Marshall said third- and 10th-graders are statistically more likely to struggle with reading, which is consistent with the recent scores and why the district wants to “get in on the ground floor” with the K-2 classes teaching these techniques that had success over the summer and “prevent the low literacy early in high school.”
Excluding third grade reading, the English and reading results showed a slight trend toward those in younger grades having higher readiness scores than those who are older. This is due in part to the relative newness of the strategies being implemented, which have been used on the younger students and not necessarily on older students who should have already learned these skills, Featherston Marshall said.
Superintendent Doug Brubaker is pleased with the results of the camp and hopes the efforts can be carried out districtwide throughout the year to make sure its students can read and comprehend text successfully.
“The great news is that we’ve got this in all of our K-2 classrooms, we’ve had this really successful experience with this age group and they’ve got ideas to expand this model to affect more kids,” said Brubaker. “Because if we don’t catch them at this point, there’s a good percentage of them that we could lose.”