Helping Elementary School Students to Become Better Readers

April 15, 2018

By Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications

Teaching reading is the cornerstone of the MMFS elementary division program. Teachers are passionate about giving their students, most of whom struggle with reading, access to the world of ideas and knowledge through reading. Every student in the elementary division receives direct instruction in small groups for an hour four days a week. This will increase to five days a week next year. There are 31 groups of three-five students for the 2017-18 school year.

The innovative program groups students (within a two-year age range) according to similar abilities, rather than by homeroom or age. Groups are created based on extensive assessment and observation. On paper, students who appear to be at the same reading level may have different learning styles and needs. Once students are matched with a teacher, a specific curriculum is developed for each group. The group dynamic is family-like, creating trust and routines, which encourages students to take the risks necessary to become better readers. Students start at the same place and move forward together.  

In order to make sure that groupings best serve students’ needs throughout the year, formal assessments are given three times a year: a mini assessment at the beginning, and more in-depth assessments in the middle and end of the year.

There is an overarching structure to the program, within which teachers are free to modify according to the needs of their groups and to choose the themes of the books. The general progression begins with the youngest students in a PAF (Preventing Academic Failure) group, which is Orton-Gillingham based. Orton-Gillingham is a research-based, highly structured multi-modality approach to teaching reading that has proven to be very effective for students who struggle with language-based learning disabilities. Students dissect words, break them down to the smallest possible units of language, and find ways to build them back up. “We teach students how to be problem-solvers and empower them to use tools and strategies to become increasingly independent,” says Natalie Huerta, Elementary School Literacy Coach.

Students move through PAF/Orton and Advanced PAF/Orton groups. Once their decoding skills are solidified, they move on to more comprehension-focused groups. Students in these groups are also working on fluency – being able to read with expression by paying attention to punctuation, quotation marks, headings, etc. – to improve comprehension. In addition, they are developing writing skills using The Hochman Method as a way of responding to the reading. The goal is to bring their writing skills closer to their decoding skills.

At every level, students are working on vocabulary acquisition and spelling, and they are exposed to books that are higher than their independent reading levels during read-aloud time. Equally important, students are also learning strategies to persevere, to handle frustration, and to take risks to become increasingly independent readers.

Teachers make adjustments and modifications to target skills in different ways to engage their students. They are integrating multisensory activities and movement. Environmental modifications make a tremendous difference for students. Some students can’t sit for extended periods, so they stand and work on a vertical surface. Some students need sensory feedback, so they balance sitting or standing on a cushion. Teachers have students write words using sensory materials, or they incorporate movement games. One student , who is very rhythmic, drums out words to create associations that will help him remember. Another student, who has a hard time with the letter “e,” keeps a picture of an egg on his desk to remind him of the letter.

For older students, repetition is key; they play games that provide a variety of ways to practice the same skills. They also engage in what is referred to as “active reading,” which describes the activities that take place before reading – preview the text and practice difficult words; while reading – circle new vocabulary words, underline new characters, etc.; and after reading – identify the main idea and write a one-sentence summary. In addition, teachers incorporate performance and visual arts to help students to connect to words and reading.

Natalie Huerta provides oversight to ensure that the program is being taught with integrity and consistency in all 31 groups throughout the division, and that students are being prepared for middle school. She plays a large part in creating groups at the beginning of the school year and she provides ongoing support to teachers – modeling teaching, consulting individually, and brainstorming ideas to address challenges. She meets regularly with groups of teachers. “Teachers find the support very valuable,” Natalie says. “It’s great to see teachers sharing ideas with each other and to see the impact they are having on fellow teachers.”

This year, handwriting has been moved into reading groups. Tara Schneider, Head Teacher, says, “Handwriting works very well in a small group setting; it provides a nice break from reading because it is kinesthetic.”

The goal of the reading program is to inspire students to love books and reading, whether it is simply by gaining the skills to read or because the content is compelling, or both. Natalie comments, ”Teachers are empowering students to attempt what has been difficult for so long, to engage in it, and to feel that reading is worth the effort.”

Every reading teacher in the elementary division is differentiating instruction to meet the needs of her/his/their group. Here are some of the ways, amongst many others, that teachers are using modifications to engage their students so that they can improve their reading skills.


Teacher: Lucy Bayer
Group: PAF/Orton-Gillingham group of four emergent readers, ages 6-7, working on basic skills

Modifications and Strategies: Lucy provides students a variety of multisensory materials, such as different colored sand, shaving cream, and finger paint, in which to write. Students play movement games in which they skip or hop to a syllable or word. To practice letter-sound correspondence, her students enjoy Race Car Reading. Green signals the beginning of a word, yellow the middle, and red the end. Students practice pushing a car at a slow pace as they sound out the letters of the word, then they race the car as they blend the sounds together to say the word. They also play a similar visual and kinesthetic game, Dot, Dot, Blend, with big markers, to practice sounding out words.


Teacher: Alyssa Postman Putzel
Group: PAF/Orton-Gillingham group of three students, ages 9-11,  who who are focused on building decoding skills

Modifications and Strategies: Alyssa uses repetition, a slower pace, and a lot of structure. She provides anchor charts, which are lists of keywords and/or strategies. Students use a variety of types of tracking methods when reading, such as an index card or an E.Z.C. reader (a transparent piece of plastic that acts as a moveable highlighter), to focus on one line of text at a time. They build decoding skills by playing games that require them to identify and move a piece for every sound or syllable. Students also strengthen their skills by playing matching games.


Teacher: Bevin Daly
Group: beginning comprehension group of four students, ages 8-10, who have solid decoding skills

Modifications and Strategies: Bevin starts every lesson with “choral reading,” during which students sing a passage to improve their fluency. Students practice “scooping,” a term for grouping words that go together, based on punctuation or conjunctions, in a sentence, then take a breath before continuing with the next “scoop.” Bevin’s students are visual learners, so she uses visual aids, such as highlighted or bolded keywords, pictures paired with sounds or syllables, and graphic organizers.


Teacher: Tara Schneider
Group: Comprehension-focused group of four students, ages 9-11

Modifications and Strategies: Tara chooses books that are of high interest to her group. She pairs longer books and short stories that have common themes. She alternates between longer chapter books to develop fluency and literature analysis and shorter works to target literacy skills. One such pairing is Truman Capote’s short story, The Thanksgiving Guest, and Barbara Park’s chapter book, Skinnybones. Both share similar protagonists and issues. “Spiraling between the two works, students make connections and build vocabulary.” Tara says.


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