The Road to Reading:
How Early Reading Coaches are Making a Difference
By Louise Brown -- June 2018
A new kind of support team is helping out dozens of Grade 1 classrooms across Toronto, ready with fresh tools and tactics to help every child read by the end of the year.
These roving Early Reading Coaches give classroom teachers the latest research on how to better serve children who struggle most with reading, so all of them will be able to read by the end of Grade 1. This is a goal at the heart of the Toronto District School Board’s commitment to ensure all students have an equitable chance to succeed at school – because reading is key.
“I consider reading a survival skill, so I’m here to push teachers to make time to read one-on-one at least once a day with each underserved child,” says Marianne Bartkiw, one of 20 Early Reading Coaches the TDSB dispatched two years ago to work with schools in support of struggling readers. Bartkiw has been assigned selected Kindergarten and Grade 1 classes at four or five schools, and works with each teacher one or two half-days a week.
At Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park, Bartkiw has worked together with Grade 1/2 teacher Esther Cooper to help boost half the class’ reading chops since last fall.
“People will warn you: ‘If you spend too much time on reading, the other subjects suffer – like Science,’” muses Bartkiw, a 20-year teaching veteran. “But you need to be able to read for Science too, so reading really is the first thing they need to learn.”
In November 2017, 11 of Cooper’s Grade 1/2 students were reading below the levels expected. Four of them were reading below the level expected even in Kindergarten, including a lively Grade 2 girl who had few reading skills and spent much of each day in the office for behavioural problems.
Bartkiw sat down with Cooper and shared her knowledge about teaching and reading and Cooper shared her knowledge of her students. Together, they looked at what would best support the underserved readers while benefiting the entire class. The approach encouraged Cooper to spend 10 minutes every morning – and again some afternoons – reading one-on-one with each of the four lowest readers, looking for patterns in their reading, including successes and challenges, and determining next steps. It also gave Cooper strategies to share with all budding readers for figuring out words they don’t know.
“Reading isn’t memorizing; it’s problem-solving,” says Bartkiw. “If you don’t know a word, look at the picture for cues. Try making the first sound in the word. Think about the story; what might make sense? Look for small words inside bigger words.”
The team also strategized a way to move these children beyond simple pattern books as soon as possible and into beginner storybooks (called continuous text), which use children’s problem-solving skills rather than just recognizing words. And the storybooks have actual plot lines, not just repetitive patterns, which allow for discussions about the story.
What a difference it all made.
Each of the four students now reads at, or very close to, the level expected by the end of Grade 1 and 2, including the Grade 2 girl who now enjoys reading – and her behavior problems have all but disappeared.
“Her poor behavior was possibly meant to deflect attention from her reading,” says Cooper, “but now she’s engaged and even takes leadership roles.” With other readers, Cooper used the same strategies in small groups, with similar success.
“There’s this guilt teachers can feel if they’re not spending the same time with every student, but the truth is, the ones reading above level don’t need you as much,” says Bartkiw. “Spending equal time with each child is not really equitable.
“For a variety of reasons, some children aren’t reading ‘at level,’ and there’s an urgency now about moving them forward. Having them read one-on-one each day is huge.”
Cooper said the intense coaching and support of Bartkiw was a game-changer.
“Marianne came to my rescue! I brought my empty bowl and she filled it with reading strategies,” says Cooper. “She worked on my consistency to do reading one-on-one every day. She helped give me a sense of purpose, because every child can learn to read. It just can’t be taught the same way for each child.”