Study of Alabama Reading Initiative Finds Flexibility Is Better Than One Size Fits All Approach to Teaching Reading

Washington, D.C. – The Alabama Reading Initiative, which has drawn national attention, has produced encouraging results among secondary school students in part because of educators who took initial instructions that used a “one size fits all” approach to instruction and modified it to meet their students’ particular needs, according to a report by the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

The report, “Lessons and Recommendations from the Alabama Reading Initiative: Sustaining Focus on Secondary Reading,” was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The study identified factors that contribute to the program’s successful implementation at the middle and high school levels. Numerous interviews were conducted with students, teachers, local and state school administrators, higher education faculty and members of organizations that supported the initiative.

The study focuses on the secondary school implementation of the Alabama Reading Initiative, a statewide K-12 program that aims to significantly improve reading instruction and literacy among Alabama’s public school students. The initiative is unique among state efforts to address student reading difficulties because implementation and sustainability do not depend on federal funding, and it helps address the needs of a group frequently overlooked – secondary students who struggle with reading.

The initiative began in 1998 as an effort to improve teaching and learning. It seeks to strengthen the skills of students of all literacy levels through research-based instructional practices, and is grounded in strong professional development across content areas.

The statewide effort to combat the poor reading achievement of Alabama’s students is a cooperative effort established by the Alabama State Department of Education, the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Alabama Education Association, private businesses and non-profit organizations.

Study recommendations include:

1. Begin with a flexible model that reflects a broad and solid research base and that can be responsive to different content areas and local conditions. The study found that initially, “professional development and resource materials provided to teachers reflected something of a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching reading, with only minor nods toward the subject-matter specialization of secondary teachers.”

“Many of the secondary teachers used their initial instructions as a key starting point but then modified them to reflect their situation and created beneficial results,” said Dr. Terry Salinger, a chief scientist at AIR and director of the study. “A flexible model is important.”

2. Develop partnerships among teachers, administrators, and schools to create a coherent and well-defined K-12 continuum of reading instruction. Provide teachers with resource materials that illustrate a defined progression of literacy development that they should be seeing as their students gain skills and strategies for addressing reading and writing tasks.

3. Identify students who are most at risk for continued reading difficulties and provide intervention as early as possible. “Many students in Alabama’s middle and secondary schools are seriously below grade-level expectations in reading and need more than their teachers can offer them, no matter how well teachers integrate Alabama Reading Initiative strategies into their teaching,” the study found. The researchers said “anecdotal accounts maintain that intervention teachers are often not well trained, instruction is not monitored, and procedures are insufficient for identifying students who should receive services.”

4. Ensure that there is centralized leadership at the beginning but also encourage and support the emergence of local leaders. “Over and over, leadership was cited as an important feature of successful Alabama Reading Initiative implementation,” the study found, noting there were significant benefits to “identifying and cultivating local leadership” capable of developing a cohesive, collaborative professional community.

5. Be creative in the use of local monies, while also being vigilant about sources of external funding. Many cited budget shortfall as a problem “but they also related how they had compensated for poor funding with the kind of grit that marks educators dedicated to making do with poor resources.” Teachers worked together to share knowledge and resources for helping students improve their reading skills.

Best practices featured in AIR's report include:

Provide secondary teachers and schools with consistent support from specialized reading staff.

Adequate and consistent human resources – school and regional coaches, professional development providers, and administrators at the state level – are most effective when they understand the particular needs of adolescent learners and the teachers who teach them specialized, content area subject matter.

Be attentive to the local, state, and national policy environment related to reading.

AIR’s report also notes that even a well-developed initiative cannot erase deep-seated reading difficulties. Through such programs as the Alabama Reading Initiative, content area teachers can become better skilled at helping students improve their ability to understand and learn from textbooks; however, these teachers cannot be expected to provide in-depth intervention.

The Alabama Reading Initiative involves several components, such as: schools becoming literacy demonstration schools and committing to a 100 percent student literacy rate; at least 85 percent of faculty and administration attending intensive summer institutes about reading improvement, as well as ongoing professional development throughout the school year; and appointing full-time reading coaches to work with struggling readers and teachers.

Additionally, the program encourages collaboration between schools and higher education faculty partners and local businesses, to provide mentoring services and research and to help resolve instructional issues relating to literacy learning.

The full report is available on AIR’s Web site: www.air.org.

About Carnegie Corporation of New York

Andrew Carnegie created Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911 to promote "the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding." As a grantmaking foundation, the Corporation seeks to carry out Carnegie's vision of philanthropy, which he said should aim "to do real and permanent good in the world." The Corporation's capital fund, originally donated at a value of about $135 million, had a market value of $2.2 billion on September 30, 2005. The Corporation awards grants totaling more than $80 million a year in the areas of education, international peace and security, international development and strengthening U.S. democracy.

About AIR

Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research on important social issues and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education, and workforce productivity.

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