Achieve 3000: A Great Program for Struggling Readers

October 8, 2012

Achieve 3000 is a great program I came across last year.  It’s a computer program for reading non-fiction articles.  The amazing part of the program is that it sends the articles to students at their own reading levels, based on an assessment they take when beginning the program each year.  Students at lower reading levels will read a shorter article with simpler vocabulary, while more advanced students will read more complex versions of the same article.  For severely struggling readers, there are extra interventions the teacher can select, such as having certain parts appear in the student’s native language, or having the passage read aloud.

Getting the Students Started

In order to be used most effectively, the teacher must use the program correctly.  The lesson should begin with the students logging onto the system and responding to a question sent by the teacher.  The question should assess prior knowledge, or do something to get the students thinking about the topic about which they are to read.  The students can reply to the question via their Achieve email, which will be sent directly to the teacher.  New this year is an opening poll question which students can vote “yes” or “no” on.  After clicking to submit their answer, they are brought to their email, and asked to write about why they voted the way they did.  Teachers can choose to use the poll question as their opener.  This hits right on the common core initiative of presenting and backing up an argument.

Next Steps

Students will then read the article at their own level, summarizing various paragraphs and making reading connections by clicking tabs within the article, as directed by the teacher.  The article always has a map the students can click on to aid their understanding, a picture, and highlighted vocabulary words that will have the definitions pop up when clicked.

The next step is a multiple choice activity, which, again, is sent to students at their level.  The same questions are asked of all students, but with different wording.  Students will then be directed to the same poll question they saw earlier, but now that they have read the article and possibly learned something new, they will be asked if their opinion has changed.  This is also new this year, and a tie in to the common core.  The final step is a thought question, which can vary in length, dependent on the parameters set by the teacher.  The teacher can award points based on the quality of each response, and respond to the students directly through the system.

Going a Step Further

Last year when using this program, I would do one more step.  After the students had finished all the steps for one article, I would show the correct grade level on my computer, using an LCD projector.  So, while a class of 11th graders may be reading at  4th, 8th, or 9th grade levels on their own computers, they would now get a glimpse of the same article at an 11th grade level.  I would pull out some vocabulary, and using context clues, the class would try to figure out what the words meant.  Achieve 3000 has made this job easier for me this year.  Now, the students can click a tab above the article to see the article on their screens at their grade level.  It gives them a reality check, and a goal.  After all, it is at this level that they will be tested on come the state exams.

Will Students Take This Seriously?

I have seen teachers use this program incorrectly, and it becomes more of a baby sitter.  Students log on, and pick the first article they see.  They then breeze through the multiple choice and poll, and move on to another article without ever having really read the first.  The program is best used with guided instruction.  I choose an article for my students based on what we are doing in class, and I guide them through each step.  I encourage the students to take their time on the multiple choice by telling them to shout it out if they reach the goal of getting 75% on their first try.  If they achieve this goal, the score gets recorded on a classroom chart.

The program, itself, has incentives for the students, but this is one area I feel still needs work.  The program gives points to students for the amount of time spent on the program, and for the amount of activities completed.  This results in students rushing through activities, just to get to the next one.  If the teacher sees this happening (and we can, based on reports of how much time each student spends in each area), we can sit down with the student and go over their goals.  My students will get the biggest rewards when they have done enough for the program to move them to a higher reading level.  This is something that many students dread, having to read more difficult work, but with encouragement, I think this program can get them there.

Believe it or not, I’ve seen the most reluctant readers take to this program.  They enjoy the rewards the program gives them, and they like competing with their classmates for points.  And anything is more fun with technology.  I even enjoy replying to my students’ work via email instead of with paper and pen.  It may also help us get back to using academic language in email, rather than “texting” language.

I am not sure how much this program costs, but for schools with technology, see if your principal is willing to give it a try.

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Pull Out: The Only ESL Program That Makes Sense

October 8, 2012

A Pull-Out Program in Action:

When I was still a copyeditor for a major publishing company, I was terrified by the idea of becoming a teacher.  Before I spent a lot of time and money going back to graduate school, I decided to check out an ESL classroom to see what was in store for me.  I walked into a shared classroom in New York’s China Town, and immediately felt at home.  The ESL teacher was busy working with three first graders at a table on one side of the room.  She was reading to them while they looked on in their books.  After the reading, she helped them complete simple sentences in their workbooks.  At the end of the period, she gave two children the opportunity to go into the prize jar, while she gently told the other student he had had his head down too much during their time together today.  She then walked these children back to class and came back with a few fifth graders.  I knew from that moment that my path was clear:  I had to become an ESL teacher.

One short year later, I was an ESL teacher stepping into my own classroom.  But I have yet to experience anything as perfect as that day in China Town.  This, I learned, was called a “pull-out program,” and these days they are rare.  You might still find them occasionally in elementary schools, but even here, there is a switch to whole-class instruction for ESL.

Whole Class Instruction and The Abuse of Least Restrictive Environment:

Someone at the top (who was probably never an ESL student or a teacher) decided that pulling students out of class when they need extra help is wrong.  The term “least restrictive environment” was coined, and in order for students to feel good about themselves, they must always be in a classroom filled with other students.  As with many educational policies, the intention behind least restrictive environment was probably once good.  It was meant for students with disabilities, to keep them from being ostracized and placed in separate classes.  Now I believe it is mostly an issue of money.  Allowing an ESL teacher to pull out several students costs more than having that teacher be in charge of a full class.

Because of least restrictive environment, I find myself teaching whole classes of students, when maybe only a handful of them are ESL.  If I am lucky, the subject I teach them is English, otherwise known these days as English Language Arts (ELA.)  But the teaching degrees for ELA and ESL are different.  In an ELA classroom, I can’t teach phonics or focus on the finer points of grammar and pronunciation.  In an ELA classroom, I have to focus on finding the main idea, and character development, and plot.  When a child comes to this country and doesn’t speak the language, how does this help them?  I feel helpless standing in front of the room discussing character development when my ESL students may not even know how to say their own names yet in English.

The Co-teaching Model

Like I said, this is the situation if I am lucky.  If I am not lucky, I end up co-teaching.  ESL teachers used to be able to “push in” to a class in addition to “pulling out”.  This meant I would visit my students in their classes from time to time to see how they were getting along.  I might sit with them and help them understand what the content teacher was asking them to do.  The co-teaching model has mostly replaced this.  Now, I am expected to teach the entire class along with the content area teacher, rather than just sitting and helping the ESL students.  The goal of the co-teaching model, at least according to my principal, is to have both teachers appear as equals, seamlessly teaching the entire class.  I’ve been placed in every class from Economics to Earth Science with no knowledge of the curriculum or daily lessons, and I’ve been expected to teach alongside the teacher whose classroom it really is.  Exactly how does it help the ESL students when their ESL teacher is teaching a subject she has no knowledge or interest in, rather than helping them develop their English skills?

My Plea

Am I a terrible person for wanting to take my students out of class to give them their ESL services?  Would this really be “restricting” them?  Some of my closest friends were once ESL students, back at a time when things made sense.  They are now doctors, business people, and even teachers.  Every one of them speaks fondly about the time they spent with their ESL teacher outside of the larger classroom environment.  They all spent a year, maybe two, in ESL before mastering the language enough to succeed in their classes.  When I mention “least restrictive environment,” they look at me like I have two heads.  When I describe teaching Earth Science and Economics under my ESL degree, they say it doesn’t make any sense.  And it doesn’t.  While my friends finished their ESL services quickly, it is common these days for students to spend most of their years in school as ESL students.  Obviously, something isn’t working.

Students still get pulled out of class for services like speech and occupational therapy.  Hopefully by the time the occupational therapist is forced to teach algebra, I’ll be retired.  But seriously, if anyone reading this post has any more power than this measly teacher, I beg you to help make a change and allow ESL teachers to do their jobs.

Note: This post is based mostly on anecdotal evidence from my dealings with other ESL teachers, and my own experiences.  I would be interested in comments about what is happening in schools across the country, regarding ESL instruction.


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