A raft of past programs have failed to substantially improve the reading skills of middle grade and high school students. CPS is trying once again, as part of a federal project that aims to help teens learn how to analyze complex non-fiction.
Daily reading course required for freshmen
It's mid-morning at Prosser Career Academy, and English Department Chair Judy Kane is outlining a list of reading strategies in a reading/writing workshop, a freshman requirement that has helped this Belmont-Cragin school post some of the largest reading gains in the city. "We're going to work on previewing," says Kane, who designed and, along with three other colleagues, teaches the workshops. "These are steps you can take before you read newspaper articles, textbooks or expository material, and they will help you to read faster and better."
The steps are outlined on a sketch board in front of the class: Read the title; read the first sentence of each paragraph; read names, numbers and dates; and, finally, read the last sentence of the last paragraph. The class gets half a minute to preview each of two articles, one on a little girl's rescue in a fall from an apartment window and the other on the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Kane then fires off questions: What's the little girl's name? How old is she? What are the biological reasons why women live longer? And so forth.
After a round-robin reading session, where students took turns reading out loud, Kane points out the advantages of previewing to improve comprehension. "Because we already had a little information, we had something to plug in the new things we found out, and understand it better."
The class then begins silently reading "The Chocolate War," an award-winning book for young adults that tells a story most teenagers can relate to: how one teen stands up to a gang of prep- school bullies who will do anything to win first place in a contest to sell chocolate. Homework for tomorrow will be to write a paragraph on one of two related themes—the individual vs. society or the end justifies the means—using an example from the book or from real life.
Kane sits down to read also, explaining later that she believes it's important that teachers pick up the book and set an example for students. "Otherwise, you're telling them 'I'm getting something more important done while you just read.'"
All can benefit
Today's class was typical for the workshop, an effort begun three years ago when school officials decided that 9th-graders, even those reading at grade level, would benefit from an extra period every day devoted solely to language-arts skills.
"Everyone can improve their reading and comprehension," says Kane, who holds a master's degree in the teaching of reading for grades K-12. "I tell kids, 'Even I can improve my comprehension.'"
In 1996, Prosser's freshman reading scores hit a low of 17 percent at or above national norms. Last year, 52 percent of its freshmen scored at or above average. Though the school has a selective admissions policy, its percentage of low-income students has held steady at 90 percent.
Prosser continues to require the workshop because "reading and writing are the most important things we can teach our kids," says Principal John Jursa. "We want 100 percent of our students [reading] at grade level."
The workshop also covers note-taking skills, TAP test-taking skills and expository, research and journal writing. Once a week, students read and analyze newspaper stories.
Prosser's workshop is in line with recommendations by reading experts, who note that elementary reading instruction, which tends to focus on children's literature, doesn't include the higher-level skills that all students need when they reach high school. So even kids with high reading test scores can fall short when faced with, say, history or biology textbooks.
In a position paper prepared last year, the International Reading Association stated that "the literacy development of adolescents is just as important, and requires just as much attention, as that of beginning readers. The expanding literacy demands placed upon adolescent learners includes more reading and writing tasks [now] than at any other time in human history."
"You wouldn't find many people who doubt that kids need to read better at the high school level," says Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "They might be reading at a high level, but they're not really able to deal with technical writing or non-fiction."
Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education, agrees. "Even if you're at grade level, you still need strategies about how to organize and understand more complex text."
Such strategies, like those Kane taught to her class, are often overlooked in high school English classes, which tend to focus on reading the required American and British classics. And secondary school teachers typically have little or no training in teaching reading.
"That's a problem with education training—it's lacking in the programs," says Kane.
In Illinois, that's about to change, due to lobbying by reading experts. New state teaching standards set to go into effect in 2002 will require prospective high school teachers to take such courses.
Getting kids interested in reading is also a key part of Prosser's program. The readings are organized around a different theme each quarter, such as historical fiction, mystery or social realism. The school aims to choose high-interest books; along with "The Chocolate War," Kane's students will read other contemporary classics, including "Harrison Bergeron," "Animal Farm," "Across Five Aprils" and "The Witch of Blackbird Pond."
Most of the books are at a 9th-grade reading level or slightly below, so reading them becomes "recreational" and students can cruise through them with little difficulty.
"We don't want it to be above their level," says Kane. "For most kids, to go right into British literature is not practical. If you jump right into 'Romeo and Juliet,' they're not reading it—you're reading it to them. ... We want them to read for fun as well as knowledge."
Kane devotes class time to reading because, she says, students often won't read on their own. One day a week is spent reading the Chicago Tribune so students are exposed to reading for practical purposes as well.
Next year, the reading/writing workshop will extend to sophomores and will include components on speech, drama, expository writing and grammar. While many researchers say teaching grammar does little or nothing to improve writing skills, Kane believes it's important to teach it anyway.
"If their papers continually show a problem with subject-verb agreement, then you teach it, so you're responding to the need [for instruction] as it arises," says Kane. And at Prosser, she adds, many students speak a native language other than English and don't have the same "ear" for correct grammar as native English-speakers.
As an adjunct to the workshop, and to further boost writing skills, Prosser also requires students to write essays each month in every class, focusing on a topic from the particular subject area, for instance, on a famous mathematician in a math class, or the history of a particular sport in physical education. Students with the best essays win prizes, such as gift certificates to Blockbuster Video, and have their work posted on the school's bulletin board.
Physics and chemistry teacher Bill Howard has his students write up their lab experiments—explaining how the experiment was carried out, what they discovered and what it might mean—or do essays summarizing articles in science magazines or textbooks.
Having students write about science concepts—in their own words—does more than just improve their writing skills, Howard points out. "One thing that's hard to do is force kids to think. This forces them to think, and come up with something original that goes beyond what they read."
Reading and writing in specific subject areas is important, says Radner. In science, for example, reading is often overlooked as schools stress hands-on work. That kind of work is important, but students also need to read about science to learn vocabulary and basic concepts. "If you read that a molecule has a configuration that is parallel to that of an amoeba, but you don't the meaning of 'molecule' or 'amoeba,' then it's just like reading a foreign language," she says.