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Education Reporter

Alabama Reading Initiative Is Bright Spot for Learning
Alabama Reading Initiative BIRMINGHAM, AL - When more than 97,000 Alabama students in grades 3-11 scored among the lowest 23% in the nation in reading on the Stanford Achievement Tests three years ago, the State Board of Education appointed a Reading Panel to find out why. Made up of teachers, higher education faculty, and representatives of business and grass-roots organizations, including Alabama Eagle Forum, the panel studied the research for a year, then developed a comprehensive strategy designed to improve the reading skills of all students.

Called "The Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI)," the program targets reading achievement on three fronts: beginning reading, expanding reading power, and effective intervention.

Beginning Reading

The ARI insists upon using what scientific research has established as successful with beginning readers - emphasis on the development of phonemic awareness (the individual sounds in a word) and the systematic teaching of skills needed to decode words in the context of language-rich, literature-rich classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to read to students and discuss the meaning of words and ideas in the material. This requires highly-skilled teachers trained in the most effective instruction methods.

Expanding Reading Power

The Alabama Reading Panel discovered that the reduced emphasis on reading and comprehension during the critical middle school years resulted in lowered test scores. The ARI encourages teachers to maintain high literacy levels among students in the middle and high school grades by continuing to develop vocabulary and comprehension, increasing the amount of students' reading, and connecting reading with writing.

Effective Intervention

Often cited as the most noteworthy aspect of the ARI is its insistence on effective intervention instruction. Research suggests that up to 40% of students may experience some level of difficulty in learning to read and that highly specialized instruction combining lessons in phonemic awareness, explicit phonics instruction, and direct, integrated instruction in text reading and comprehension is needed. Early intervention by highly skilled teachers accelerates learning and has proven the most powerful remedy.

Solutions & Goals

Having designed ARI's extensive teacher training program to show teachers how to achieve high levels of literacy for all their students, the Alabama Reading Panel serves as a grassroots support group for the program. During the 1998-99 school year, 16 schools, called Literacy Demonstration Sites, became the first to implement the program. They were selected from a pool of applicants that agreed to: (1) set 100% literacy as a goal; (2) attend the required 10-day training program; (3) adjust reading instruction accordingly; (4) model effective reading instruction for other schools; and, (5) be evaluated by an outside evaluator.

The program also involves teachers' colleges as trainers and mentors to the schools and provides advanced study to teacher educators to ensure future success. Evaluations are conducted at all levels to guide continuous improvement.

ARI's goals include statewide expansion over a four-year period. Teacher training was conducted for the initial 16 sites in the summer of 1998 in preparation for an expansion to 80 schools in 1999, and training will continue each summer until all Alabama's schools serve as Literacy Demonstration Sites. Expectations are for 240 schools to be included in 2000-2001, 720 schools in 2001-2002, with all schools involved by 2002-2003.

Early Successes

Joan Kendall
ARI's first two training efforts received contributions in the amount of $650,000 from businesses, professional organizations, and government. Last year, the state legislature awarded $6 million to train faculty from the 80 schools involved in the program this year. "We are now preparing to ask for $10 million to include another 240 schools next year," explains Joan Kendall, a member of the ARI's Steering Committee and education chairman for Alabama Eagle Forum.

The first training academy received rave reviews from the 600 teachers who took the instruction. ARI schools are already reporting that more students are reading at grade level and that struggling readers are improving. Substantial drops in discipline referrals have accompanied these successes.

ARI has received support from all segments of Alabama's education community, as well as from the media and the general public. It has also garnered national attention and received mention in the National Education Association's 1999 Winter Journal, Teaching and Change.

"We know that the willingness of the faculties at the initial 16 sites to pull together and ensure that each of their students is able to read grade-level materials exists in other Alabama schools as well," says Joan Kendall. "This gives us hope that our vision of 100% literacy can become a reality. The ARI is clearly the most positive and promising effort to happen in Alabama for a long time, and we are very excited about it."

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