Reading Continues to be the Foundation of Education at Castle Heights Elementary


A student looks through a book that he may want from the Reading Leveling program at Castle Heights Elementary

Carbon School District Press Release

For principal Chris Winfree, the success of Castle Heights Elementary and what he sees as the foundation of the education there is the new reading program and the leveled reading effort.

“We have seen tremendous success in our school-wide reading program,” said Winfree. “This has been our big focus this year.”

He said the school has carts of leveled books at each grade level that the students can choose from.

“Using the superintendent’s (Lance Hatch) words, they can read ‘large quantities amounts of text’ at their independent reading level,” said Winfree. “We’ve seen some great success school wide this year. Eighty five percent of our students have moved at least one reading level or more. Some have moved as much as 10 reading levels already.”

He stated there is one second grade class in the school that was told if everyone in the class moved four reading levels or more, that Winfree would come in and dance on the table in their room.

“Dancing is not my forte,” he said. “I would rather have them throw pies at me than watch me dancing. But they got to their goal and I am a man of my word so I went in and danced. It was great to see the entire class made at least four levels. That was such a huge success that I don’t care what I had to do to help them achieve it.”

He said the entire program has been a learning process for everyone. As they have been going through and leveling students, they found that there were some holes in kids’ learning, specific learning gaps they had not identified before.

“We are figuring out effective ways for these students to become better readers,” he said. “Through this, we have realized that our first focus for kindergarten and first grade is a heavy emphasis on phonics. That means getting the students to where they can read effectively with proper rate and that they can have confidence in their ability to read independently. Consequently, we have backed off a bit on the younger grades when it comes to comprehension. We have incorporated some really good phonics-based programs for these age groups. We want them to have the ability to decode all the words they are reading. Doing that eventually leads to greater comprehension.”

He said they have also found that kids cannot decode all of the words in the lower reading levels because the authors of the leveled books have put in some bigger words to make the stories more interesting. However, he said, this is frustrating some students. In a nutshell, the decoding strategies being used are appropriate for their age but the books are only partially appropriate for them.

“If they can’t read all the words, then everyone gets frustrated,” he said. “So, we have spent a lot of time looking for totally decodable readers for them. That means all the text is appropriate for their age and the decoding strategies we are giving them. That brings success and they are going home and reading entire books to their parents without help. They feel successful and that leads to growth.”

He said that if a student can read accurately, educators can teach comprehension strategies. He related that sometimes the assessments can fool one into thinking a student is at a certain level, but they are not. Winfree gave the example of a fifth grade student who was assessed at a second grade level in reading, but that something seemed off kilter. So, instead of working just on that level, they raised the student up a number of levels and suddenly his reading ability improved. They moved him up more and more and the comprehension and the accuracy was fine. The student was reading at near grade level with very few mistakes and was still able to comprehend at a high level as well.

“We don’t know all the reasons for this, and that is part of what we are examining now, but we are realizing is that the content of the books he was reading was nothing that a fifth grader is interested in. He was bored. No assessment of reading is going to give us a perfect picture of what is going on,” Winfree said. “We asked ourselves if we were holding a student back because of holes in comprehension only based on the fact that the book is boring to him. So, now, we are going through the students and giving the teachers a little more leeway to personally assess a student’s abilities, to see if their phonics and accuracy is high enough to have them independently reading books at their grade level that the students would be more interested in reading. When we have done this, the comprehension has come up as well. The teachers know their students and they know what a student can really do.”

He said that at times, they have been trying to help students who had a phonics hole, particularly in the upper grades, when they really didn’t have one at all.

“We have found when it clicks, it clicks and the students move up levels rapidly,” he stated. “Some students may stay at the same level for two months, and then something happens and whatever hole they had in their reading skills suddenly gets filled and they jump ahead quickly. Once a hole is fixed, they may jump as much as four levels in a week.”

He said they are seeing it as a long term focus and everyone is very positive about seeing more growth.

One of the things he pointed out about the reading program across the district is that while it is structured, it is not so strict that the superintendent has come out and said everyone has to do things exactly the same way,.

“What one school may use as a strategy may not work at another school, so we are free to do what will work for our students,” he said. “What he did say is that everyone’s focus needs to be on improving reading and if you have ideas and strategies that you want to use, do so and if they are working, then those can be shared to make things better across the district.”

The goal of the elementary schools in the district is to have all fifth grade students that are going into middle school reading at a fifth grade level, but that will take some time.

“We realize we may not get there this year. We are going to help every student as much as we can this year, realizing that there are some holes that we may not be able to make up. We think that next year or the year after that we will have fixed the situation. If we do that, it will be amazing what the middle schools will be able to do and then later Carbon High. Anything can be taught to a student if they know how to read,” he concluded.

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