Program increases children's reading comprehension
by: Contributed photo Evan Williams, third from left, was named an ING Unsung Hero for his innovative literacy work at Reynolds Middle School, during this ceremony Aug. 31. Williams has taught at the school for 19 years.

If you want a student to understand what he or she reads, start by making sure they can read words out loud correctly, says Evan Williams, literacy coach at Reynolds Middle School.

'We realized that this almost elementary reading skill was a gateway to higher scores on reading comprehension tests,' he says of oral fluency. 'It's important for students to read out loud with correct pronunciation, expression and accuracy.'

Williams, 47, has overseen a program called 'Oral Reading Fluency: The Gateway Skill to Middle School Success' at the school for the past three years. The concept is simple, he notes. Students pair up and read each other passages from an age-appropriate novel throughout the week, while teachers tutor the students and monitor their progress.

The program is particularly useful at the middle school, he says, because about two-thirds of the students live in homes where English is the second language. Reynolds is home to students whose families speak 37 languages other than English, he adds, noting Spanish and Ukrainian are the two top foreign languages spoken at home.

'Students who are not fluent in English are so busy concentrating on sounding out the words that they are unable to focus on the meaning of the passage,' Williams says. 'Our theory is when the kids have good oral reading fluency, then their brain can expend energy focusing on meaning rather than just merely sounding out the words.'

Award winner

Williams' efforts recently earned him an ING Unsung Heroes 2011 Award. The financial services company donated $2,000 to Reynolds Middle School in his honor, and Williams says the grant will be used to buy more novels for the students to read.

The novels are specially designed to increase oral fluency, he says, noting they introduce words to students that they may have struggled with in the past. English has 'very complicated spelling rules,' he says, and many words in English can be pronounced more than one way, for example, 'wind.' The idea is to get students familiar with such words through the novels.

The growth in students' reading comprehension through the program has been dramatic, Williams adds. For example, in 2006, prior to the program's introduction, sixth graders increased the amount of words they could read out loud by 4.3 words per minute from fall to spring.

In 2009, sixth graders who had spent 10 minutes each day working on oral fluency increased the number of words per minute they could read out loud by 21 in just five weeks.

'Just to be sure, the next year, we ran a control group of advanced sixth graders, who already read fluently, and compared their growth with nine classrooms that received fluency instruction,' Williams said.

The control group was only able to read out loud eight words more per minute correctly between fall and spring, whereas the students who received oral reading fluency instruction more than doubled that in the same amount of time.

More money, more books

Winning the Unsung Hero award also puts Williams in the running for a $25,000 top prize, he says.

'I hope I win the big bucks,' he says with a chuckle, adding the school would use the money to buy even more novels.

He credits his colleagues Gordy Smith, a reading specialist, and Paul Cameron, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, for helping him create the program. He adds that the program has helped the students' self-esteem.

'The kids can see their growth immediately,' he says, noting many teachers have the students keep graphs to chart their reading improvement. 'It's extremely gratifying for the students to see their gains.'

Unsung heroes

• The financial services company ING's Unsung Heroes program gives grants to kindergarten-through-grade-12 educators using new teaching methods and techniques that improve learning.

Each year, educators submit applications for a grant by describing projects they have initiated or would like to pursue. One hundred finalists are selected to receive a $2,000 grant, payable to the winning school.

Winners are selected by Scholarship America, a national non-profit educational support and student aid service organization.

Of the 100 finalists, three are selected for additional financial awards: $25,000 for first place; $10,000 for second place; and $5,000 for third place.

For more information, visit and put 'Unsung Heroes' in the search engine.

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