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Teaching Fellows’ research leads to big gains in student reading skills

Team presents findings at renowned Carnegie Summit

When a team of City Schools English Language Arts teachers came together to form the Baltimore Secondary Literacy Improvement Community (BSLIC), they had a clear goal: identify new ways to rapidly improve their students’ reading skills.

Using a continuous improvement method that conducts rapid testing of new ideas, the fellows adapted reading strategies that are used in elementary schools for their middle school students.

Now the results are coming in. Students in Fellows’ classes are becoming more fluent readers with help from the interventions. The original goal was for students to read 115 words per minute, on average, by June 2022. Instead, the students exceed expectations by reading at an average of 125 words per minute.

Thirty-eight percent of fellows' students who needed phonics instruction at the beginning of the year did NOT need it by the middle of the year — an improvement over the expected 29%.

What’s behind the success? 

Tanisha Dasmunshi, a seventh-grade English Language Arts teacher at Stadium School and a Literacy Fellow, has her students focus on Old Major’s speech in Animal Farm. She reads the passage aloud, and the class echoes her, line by line. Then, she and the class read the passage together, as a chorus. After several repetitions, the class moves on to answering reading comprehension questions.

When a student moves from sounding out words slowly to being able to read aloud quickly, accurately and with emotion, it’s a big step that’s important for their reading comprehension. When students build their reading skills, they can focus on the meaning of the text.

Emily. Jaskowski, Literacy Fellow and eighth-grade ELA teacher at Maree G. Farring Elementary/Middle School focuses on small-group activities. By differentiating where different learners are with their reading skills, BSLIC’s Teacher Fellows developed three different protocols for small-group activities that take 15-20 minutes. Students in the small-group activities will often annotate words or sentences in A Midsummer Night's Dream as they prepare for reading comprehension questions. 

The success of BSLIC’s continuous improvement approach is capturing the attention of educational experts. In March, the BSLIC team traveled to San Diego to present their findings at the annual Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education.

“I was expecting an audience of teachers, but there were also school leaders from districts across the country as well as researchers in higher education,” said Jaskowski. “The idea of a teacher fellowship was new to many of them, so hopefully more districts will use this approach to enlist teachers in improvement science.”

Back home in Baltimore, the Fellows in City Schools are sharing their findings with their colleagues at district-wide presentations and professional-development opportunities. The research and strategies have applications beyond ELA and fluency. 

“The continuous improvement framework has really influenced all my teaching,” said Ms. Dasmunshi. “It’s a great mental model that teachers can use to build lessons and strategies for students — not just for literacy, but for all academic and social emotional learning.”  

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