Building Better Readers Through Fun and Phonics
In the Mississippi Delta, an innovative after-school program puts struggling readers on a path to literacy
Taurean Morton kneels down low at a classroom table, sliding small white reading cards to a group of smiling students.
It’s after school on a winter afternoon at Booker T. Washington elementary school in Clarksdale, Miss., and Taurean is helping these young scholars build their reading skills.
Like players at a poker table, Taurean and the kids shuffle the cards back and forth, mixing them up and forming a variety of consonant-vowel-consonant words. RAT. CAT. FAT.
The lesson is part of an innovative program – called the Reading Roadmap – designed to improve early reading proficiency and comprehension among students from kindergarten to third grade.
The program launched in four Clarksdale Municipal School District schools last fall, aimed at striving readers who ranked in the bottom 25% in Mississippi’s standardized assessment.
Four days a week, 200 students across the city – including more than 50 at Booker T. Washington – spend two hours rotating through a series of activities where tutors target specific skills, from phonics to fluency to reading aloud.
The afternoon’s reading activities are interspersed with scheduled snacks and physical activity to burn off some childhood energy.
“I think what makes it work is the fact that it’s delivered in a nontraditional atmosphere. There is a little bit more flexibility in teaching and learning than in the classroom,” says Taurean, the Reading Roadmap coordinator in Clarksdale.
“The instruction is not focused on performing well on a test,” he adds. “The kids get to have fun. It’s about doing some cool and unique activities that help them overcome the deficits they have in reading.”
The Walton Family Foundation supports the program through the Clarksdale Municipal School District and provided funding last year for the Reading Roadmap in neighboring Coahoma County School District.
Created by educator Andrew Hysell, Reading Road Map was originally launched in Kansas and targeted students in low income rural school districts with fewer resources than their urban counterparts.
The program is steeped in the science of reading and matched with curriculum and skills being taught in the classroom during the day – something Andrew says typical after-school programs often struggle to implement.
“Striving readers get the boost of high-quality after-school programming aligned with their school-day instruction,” says Andrew. “It increases their chances of becoming proficient early readers and enjoying subsequent life-long personal and economic success.”
Students are grouped according to their particular reading deficit and receive individualized instruction on a sequence of skills. They start with basic sounds and symbols and progress as their vocabulary and comprehension increases.
At Booker T. Washington, a typical Reading Roadmap afternoon will find tutors like Wendy Gordon sitting cross-legged on the floor, at eye level with her students, leading them in animated structured read-alouds.
This is a critical part of the learning experience. Teachers model the basics of how to read, by placing emphasis on words, displaying enthusiasm and showing students how to stop reading at the end of a sentence.
In another area, Tiffany Burrel-Johnson helps a group of boys and girls decipher the mysteries of the silent ‘e.’
And in the school gymnasium, La’Shondra Philips leads students through an exercise circuit of jumping jacks, push-ups and light weightlifting. Time passes quickly.
“It doesn’t seem like two hours, because the students are never in one place for a long time. Once they get in the room, it’s very hands on,” says Taurean. “When they are reading in structured read aloud, it’s very animated. Each activity, each lesson, is going to be engaging.”
Becky Nider, Reading Roadmap’s program manager, says she witnessed a transformation in the students at Booker T. Washington since they began the program in the fall of 2018.
Some who seemed bored and reluctant on her first visit to the school were eager participants on her most recent visit in January.
“I can see the difference,” Becky says. “I love seeing the kids smile and have fun and laugh while they are learning.”
Another unique aspect of Reading Roadmap is the parental and family involvement. At each school, eight families are invited to participate in an eight-week Literacy Integrated Family Engagement (L.I.F.E.) program. Parents and family members join their children for a family meal and conversation, without electronics.
“It is designed to create a healthy family dynamic, to emphasize the importance of reading to your child, listening to your child, and for children to observe parents modeling a desire to read,” Taurean says.
The program is critically important for students in the Delta “who may not have easy access to affordable, high-quality out-of-school reading support,” Andrew adds.
“Early literacy is a driver for success, with early proficient readers being four times as likely to graduate on time as their nonproficient peers,” he says.
“Children living in the Delta deserve the same opportunities as children in more urban or affluent areas.”
The impact goes far beyond the classroom, Taurean agrees.
“If we can reach them at an early age, they will gain skills that can last for a lifetime.”