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The City Journals

The secret to increasing reading scores

Mar 12, 2018 05:07PM ● By Jet Burnham

Bennion Jr. High has embraced a culture of reading. (Danielle Hansen/Bennion Jr High)

Bennion Jr. High School teachers have discovered the secret to improving reading scores—create a culture of reading. 

“We read at Bennion. When you come here, you’re a reader,” said reading teacher Cami Sorenson. 

The focus of every student and teacher on daily reading is reflected in reading inventory scores. When Bennion’s seventh-graders were tested at the beginning of the school year, their average lexile score was 855. It increased 89 points to 944 in just three months. To put this in perspective, the Granite School District’s goal for students is an 80-point increase per year. Now, only halfway through this academic year, Bennion students are already averaging a 70-point increase across all grades. The reading inventory measures reading comprehension, which is where most students struggle.

“They’re all so used to reading things like Tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram posts, but they don’t always comprehend what they mean,” said English teacher Gabby Palombaro. “They are exposed to literature inside and outside the classroom, but when they’re with us in the classroom, we’re not just looking at it—we’re analyzing it and thinking about what it is saying.”

But this focus on comprehension is not just happening in English class.

“Something Granite District stresses is fidelity to the core, and reading comprehension is woven into our core standards pretty aggressively—and not just in English,” said Palombaro. “Reading comprehension is everyone’s responsibility.”

Teachers of other subjects incorporate reading skills through word problems in math, current events articles in science and historical documents in social studies. 

“Reading a variety of texts in a variety of genres is what grows the lexile score,” said Rebecca Winter, who also teaches English.

Because there is a wide range of reading levels between seventh and ninth grade, Bennion has provided teachers with tools and resources. One such resource is a subscription to the website NewsEla.

NewsEla provides current articles with five reading level options on a variety of subjects. Teachers can search for articles by purpose or topic and then customize it for each student in their class.

“You can change the lexile on any given article so students have individualized access to reading that makes sense for them,” said Palombaro. For example, if a student is reading at a seventh-grade lexile, a science teacher can adjust a science magazine article to use vocabulary that is challenging but still within the student’s ability to understand the content. 

“It’s a tool that helps kids stay engaged with reading all day,” said Palombaro.

The tools and the culture of the school have contributed to the increased test scores, but there is also another factor—treats.

Teachers provide reading incentives to students based on their performance on the reading inventory they take three times a year. Students who attain specific reading levels earn a lanyard and subsequent pins for each milestone. 

“We give out rewards, and that seems to be working—they’re trying to earn those rewards,” said Winter. “Anytime a student gains 100 points or more on their lexile level, they’ll earn a T-shirt. So it’s not just rewarding the high readers—we give away a lot of those T-shirts for growth.”

With students wearing “READ” T-shirts and teachers posting what books they are currently reading, Sorenson said reading is very visible throughout the school.

Every student and faculty member is encouraged to read every day. Depending on grade level, students read between 20 and 30 minutes at home. 

In Sorenson’s seventh-grade reading class, she provides accountability for at-home reading. While teaching concepts such as character development, conflict and an author’s purpose, she asks students to respond with examples from the books they are reading on their own. 

This is one of the strategies teachers learned through professional development training. Each quarter, Principal Rod Horton arranges for guest presenters to address topics that reinforce reading strategies and literacy resources in all classrooms. 

The final reading inventory testing of the year will take place later this month.

“We are eager to see what our kids can do as they keep pushing towards the end of the year,” said Vice Principal Danielle Hanson.