The Reading Success Network: Linking Teachers, Building Community

by Jill Slack
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 1, March 1999, Unlocking the Future: Early Literacy

One of the most compelling findings from recent reading research is that more students fail to learn to read by the end of third grade than many people imagine. Indeed, well over one-third (38 percent) of the nation's fourth graders scored below the basic level on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1998. This failure of a substantial number of students to learn to read during the first three years of school is a national problem—one that confronts every community and every school in the country.

Picture of Arlene Malloy and Londa Foster

Jefferson Parish master teachers Arlene Malloy and Londa Foster participate in a SECAC-sponsored Reading Success Network training session.

SECAC is helping teachers in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi tackle this problem by engaging them in the principles and practices of the Reading Success Network (RSN).

"The RSN is a collaborative effort by the fifteen comprehensive centers to improve the reading instruction and enhance the reading skills of K-3 students, especially those who are disadvantaged and at risk" says Hai Tran, SECAC director. "Each comprehensive center has the flexibility to adapt the RSN model to meet the unique needs of its region."

Addressing the national goal to have every student read independently and well by the end of third grade, the SECAC Reading Success Network is a professional development initiative to train experienced reading teachers to become reading coaches for K-3 classroom teachers.

Tran notes, "The basic plan of the network is to start small with only a few schools in each state, provide intensive training and support for these pilot schools, and then scale up." Schools with a high concentration of students with limited proficiency in English are encouraged to join the network since the RSN model can be replicated in settings with diverse characteristics.

To date the center has developed and provided RSN training and support for more than 50 reading coaches in nine elementary schools in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana and plans to extend the training to Arkansas and Mississippi this spring.

RSN Is a Process, Not a Program

One of the most important concepts of the Reading Success Network is that it is not a prescriptive program, but rather a process that can be implemented with almost any reading program a school has in place. "Many people think RSN is 'just another program' and they become apprehensive," says Debbie LaCaze, program specialist for the Louisiana K-3 Reading Initiative. "Once they hear it is a process and learn more about it, they begin to view RSN as a structure that will help them reach their benchmark goals in reading."

The Reading Success Network (RSN) is sponsored by the Southeast Comprehensive Assistance Center (SECAC), one of 15 regional technical assistance centers funded nationally by the Improving America's Schools Act. SECAC is operated by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in partnership with Texas A&M University? Kingsville and American Indian Research and Development, Inc. SECAC serves the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi by providing teachers with information, professional development, and resources. RSN is similar to SEDL's Reading Coherence Initiative in that it draws on research in reading, professional development, and the use of reading assessments to help teachers provide the best instruction for each reader.

The network supports classroom teachers' efforts to provide powerful reading instruction through peer coaching, use of reading assessment tools, and data collection and analysis to inform instruction and determine appropriate intervention strategies.

The peer coaching strategies give participants information on various coaching models and opportunities to develop their facilitative leadership skills. Coaches learn about the critical attributes of the expert, team, and cognitive coaching models, but most of the emphasis is on the study team model promoted by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers. The reading coaches discover how study teams enhance staff development efforts and offer support for teachers implementing new strategies. In addition, the coaches participate in simulated study teams throughout the training so they can experience the process firsthand and practice their leadership skills.

"On the surface, the peer coaching study team model appears simple to implement, but it's not" says Rachele Savory, RSN reading coach and teacher at Rosenwald Elementary School in New Orleans. "It's a complex innovation because it requires big changes in relationships among teachers and between teachers and administrators." Peer coaching study teams offer teachers the opportunity to develop greater faculty cohesion and focus; teachers, in turn, facilitate skillful shared decision making.

The reading coaches also learn about a variety of diagnostic assessment tools that cover different aspects of reading, from phonemic awareness to comprehension. These assessment instruments are quick to administer, easy to score, and provide both measurable or quantitative data and observational or qualitative data. The Yopp-Singer Test of Phoneme Segmentation, Retelling, High Frequency Reading List, and the Developmental Spelling Test are among the most common assessment tools the coaches use during training. Other instruments may include informal reading inventories and formal assessments promoted by individual states.

Picture of Teacher Javetta Brogan, reading facilitator Adrienne Dowden, and reading coach Arment Guillaume

Teacher Javetta Brogan, reading facilitator Adrienne Dowden, and reading coach Arment Guillaume work during a Reading Success Network training session. All three women are from New Orleans Public Schools.

The coaches practice administering several reading assessments and collect and analyze the data to determine what the results are saying about the students. They use the data to discuss how to meet the instructional needs of the students. All the while, emphasis is placed on providing a balanced reading approach that includes building phonological awareness along with the reading of meaningful and engaging texts.

RSN Coaches Facilitate Change

When the reading coaches take the RSN components back to the teachers, they act as leaders of the study teams by assisting classroom teachers with identifying appropriate assessment tools to monitor each student's progress in reading and writing. They provide demonstrations on how to administer the assessments and help teachers practice using the instruments. The coaches also show teachers how to use assessment data to identify the needs of their low-performing readers and to improve their instruction of these students.

Belinda Biscoe, Region VII Comprehensive Center director at the University of Oklahoma, says the RSN process "offers schools something new and different that can help teachers make an impact that is both immediate and sustained."

Often teachers who haven't been communicating immediately begin talking to each other and collaborating on teaching activities. "Teaching is rooted in isolation; RSN provides the mechanism for them to come together to make informed decisions," explains Krista Underwood, reading program manager at the Arkansas Department of Education.

The sustained impact stems from the program's ongoing nature.

The RSN process and training have received district and community support and attention. Following an orientation meeting in Louisiana, Ramona Mitchell, associate director of reading for New Orleans Public Schools, and her colleagues immediately signed up to participate in the RSN. They say the process was what they were looking for "to improve the reading instruction and achievement of K-3 students."

Glenda Rawls, Title I Department, Fulton County, Georgia, has played an active role by helping schools find the time to meet and by guiding the direction of two RSN pilot sites. Across the state line in Phenix City, Alabama, a local news crew videotaped the RSN orientation for the school district's six elementary schools. In an interview, Assistant Superintendent Cordelia Moffet explained that RSN is a promising approach because it offers "a collaborative strategy that builds teachers' knowledge of how to provide a balanced reading approach to help all students become successful readers."

RSN Schools Are Unique

The way the network develops and the ways the reading coaches organize their work with classroom teachers may vary from state to state, district to district, or even school to school due to the diverse needs and goals of each entity. "One of the most important lessons we learned is to align the RSN components to the state and district reading initiatives," says Tran. This factor substantially contributed to the success of network activities in all three states where the SECAC RSN is currently being implemented. The reading coaches like the way the process complements their reading initiatives. "I am pleased to see the Reading Success Network tailored to meet our district's specific needs and goals," says Rawls. "RSN is helping us help our students experience reading success at a young age."

Next Article: Resources for Improving Children's Ability to Read