‘New’ programs impact literacy for young people in Bethlehem

More than seven years ago, less than half of the students in the Bethlehem-area school district passed the third-grade literacy test.

Jack Silva, deputy superintendent and director of studies for the school district, he acknowledged that changes needed to be made.

He said the district used what is called the balanced literacy method.

According to Iowa Reading Research Center, balanced literacy “focuses students on grapheme representations (such as letters/words) combined with context or imagery to teach basic literacy skills.

Silva said teachers in Bethlehem would practice the Balanced Literacy Method by exposing students to a large amount of text to fuel a love of reading that would propel high levels of literacy.

But the results revealed that some students fell short.

Below the Balanced Literacy Curriculum, Silva said only 56% of students performed satisfactorily on third-grade literacy tests.

“Finally, I said we have to do something differently,” Silva said. “We can’t keep waiting for the same approaches to change things.”

Silva studied bodies of research in the cognitive sciences on the process behind learning to read. He concluded that another method, the science of reading, was the most effective way to produce high levels of literacy.

This method follows the research of scholars such as Louisa Words, Mark Seidenberg and Kim Shanahan. This revolves around explicit instruction in basic reading skills guided by phonemic awareness, which is defined by the Reading flares as “the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words”.

Silva and his school district administration decided to implement the Science of Reading method at the kindergarten level and test when students reached third grade.

In 2018, the year kindergarten children entered third grade, their test scores saw a significant increase in literacy. The change in method had worked.

The facade of Donegan Elementary School on September 25, 2022. Donegan is part of the Bethlehem Area School District, which has incorporated the science of reading method to increase literacy rates based on the grade school. (Christina Perrier/B&W Team)

According NPR, 84% of kindergarten students in the Bethlehem Area School District met or exceeded the benchmark score, and three of the schools saw 100% of those students meet or exceed it.

Silva said the approach works in various schools.

“We have 16 elementary schools and they range from high need: with students getting free and reduced lunch, and very low need: suburban schools where homes sell for $500,000 in three days” , Silva said. “The growth students displayed in kindergarten was independent of school socioeconomic status.”

Regarding resource allocation, Silva said the school board believes in fairness, not equality. Silva said all students need resources, but some need to receive more depending on their situation.

“Let’s say you have 25 kids in your class and there are five kids who need glasses,” Silva said. “Give glasses to the five children. You don’t need to buy 25 pairs of glasses. You need to be data aware because you need to know who needs what and when. »

Despite increased literacy levels, some students still struggle with reading and feel the need to take advantage of outside resources.

Families in the Bethlehem-area school district have access to the America Reads tutoring program offered by the Community Service Office at Lehigh University.

Connected to more than 100 local agencies, the Desk provides community service opportunities for Lehigh students. America Reads is one of the ways Lehigh students mentor Bethlehem students.

Ashley Sciora, deputy director of the Center for Community Engagement which oversees the America Reads program, says there are still a good number of students who need tutoring.

“Normally what we would see with students in our homework club is that they would have at least one, if not more grade levels behind what they were meant to be,” Sciora said.

Farrah Elhefnawy, the is a graduate assistant in the Community Service Office responsible for overseeing the America Reads/Counts program, says the program allows students to improve relatively quickly.

“At the end of each year, through testing, we find that students have improved at least one grade level just after one year of tutoring,” Elhefnawy said.

Sciora said the shift in reading methodology from balanced literary learning to the science of reading has been a masterminded process within the district. By next fall, all teachers in the district will have completed and begun implementing reading science training.

Sciora said she hopes to see an increase in basic skills among students who need tutoring.

“Some of the students we’ve taken in weren’t necessarily taught by this strategy yet, so that’s something we’ll probably be looking at in the fall,” Sciora said. “We will get to the point where all the teachers will have taken this training. All will use this science-based reading program.

Silva said plans for the reading program will integrate sixth, seventh and eighth grades to stay ahead of students who have been following the program since its inception.

The administration is also changing the main schedule for all schools so that science, math and social studies can use some of the high-impact reading strategies. Schools are considering the next level of literacy instruction, such as vocabulary and comprehension strategies.

“You can’t put everything on everyone simultaneously,” Silva said. “It’s too heavy an elevator. But if you can build it up and have the teacher of the next level learn from the success of the teacher of the previous level, it’s much easier to keep that momentum going.

The Role of the Lehigh Community Services Office

Lehigh students devote more than 10,000 hours each school year teaching children to read.

The America Reads Tutoring Program, offered through the Lehigh Community Services Office, brings together more than 100 student-tutors from Lehigh and Bethlehem-area school district students at Fountain Hill Elementary School, School Donegan Primary and Broughal Middle School.

Farrah Elhefnawy, the Community Services Office graduate assistant who oversees the reading program, said the students who need tutoring have skill sets that are usually at least one grade level behind where they should be, but may finish the year with skills above their expected grade level.

The tutoring program not only has an academic impact on students, she said, but it also opens their minds to a love of learning and the possibility of going to college.

Lehigh Community Service Office on April 30, 2022, at the University Center. This office works with the community on service-oriented programs such as tutoring in local schools. (Chunjing Yang/B&W Team)

“Children look up to our tutors, and our tutors have a lot of knowledge and experience to share with our students, especially about college life,” Elhefnawy said. “I hope this will encourage these students to want to have a passion for education and to want to go to college to have these experiences as well.”

Ashley Sciora, deputy director of the Center for Community Engagement, said students come with different obstacles and challenges.

The school district and the tutoring program look not only at the academic side of learning, but also at the life circumstances of the children.

“(With) the old-school education, you would kind of avoid that kind of stuff,” Sciora said. “When a student came to your class, you were just focused on learning, and now it’s a bit more (of a) holistic approach. It’s not just what they learn, it’s also what impacts their ability to learn.

Some schools in the Bethlehem Area School District are primarily made up of socio-economically disadvantaged families who need additional resources.

Jack Silva, assistant superintendent and director of education for the district, said they need to provide the children with what they need.

“But some children and some teachers, because of the circumstances they find themselves in, will need more.”

Elhefnawy said many Lehigh tutors enter the America Reads program with the motivation to help those students and their community.

Tutors often join without a background in education, but are accepted for reasons beyond their fields of study.

“We have engineering, business, science and biology majors,” Elhefnawy said. “They just share this passion for wanting to better the community and providing service to the community and improving the lives of the children they work with.”

Hannah Corea-Dilbert, 24, has been working as a tutor for America Reads since fall 2021.

She said she not only enjoys teaching children, but enjoys getting to know them on a personal level.

“It’s nice to be involved and help them with questions that I wish I had the opportunity to ask students when I was in college,” Corea-Dilbert said.

As their students build math and reading skills, Lehigh tutors also learn from the experience of teaching and engaging with the community.

“We’ve heard from many of our tutors that it’s a life-changing experience, especially those who have never worked with children before,” Elhefnawy said. “It allows them to get involved in the community and get to know a lot of people who come from different backgrounds.”

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