Success Story: How to read 352 million words in five years

Walker Elementary beats the odds with successful reading campaign

Ranked in 2011 as Santa Ana’s fourth-lowest elementary school, Walker Elementary struggled to boost the English Language Arts (ELA) proficiency of its largely Hispanic, high-poverty student population. According to the California State Test (CST), fewer than 35 percent of the school’s grade 2–5 students could read at grade level.

But 2011 kicked off a remarkable winning streak that produced a 50-point gain on the state’s Academic Performance Index from 2011 to 2013, an upsurge in grade-level readers to a school average of more than 42 percent in 2013, and a 2016 Gold Ribbon award from the California Department of Education.

Mariana Garate, principal at Walker Elementary, credits such success to a motivated team of teachers, students, parents, and community partners empowered by a suite of assessment and reading practice tools from Renaissance.

The challenge: year one, 25 million words

Like many neighborhood schools, Walker Elementary serves a student population beset by disheartening poverty that too often manifests itself in illness, poor school attendance, discipline challenges, inadequate home support, and disruptive mobility. In the fall of 2011, testing reflected the negative impacts on Walker students: poor overall literacy skills and plummeting reading achievement with an alarming number of students performing one or more years below grade level in English language arts.

Walker educators undertook the challenge and put forth a concerted effort to change the trajectory of achievement. “Research shows that vocabulary and comprehension skills are directly linked to the number of words students encounter,” says Garate. “So we initiated a reading program with a first-year, school-wide goal of 25 million words read. Admittedly we encountered skeptics, but a cadre of dedicated teachers made the commitment to participate. Together we developed a plan to optimize the resources already available to us, including Renaissance Star Reading®, Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®, and a library with leveled books.”

The results: 40 million words and renewed enthusiasm

Over the course of the 2011/12 school year, Walker Elementary students read a staggering 40 million words. The program sparked unexpected student enthusiasm for reading and converted skeptics into active contributors. “Since that first year,” continues Garate, “we’ve steadily increased annual goals to 60 million, 90 million, and higher, up to our current target of 125 million words. Most importantly, the program has positively impacted reading comprehension and even helped bolster the socio-emotional and behavioral outlooks of our students, confirming they can thrive in spite of challenges.”

Most importantly, the program has positively impacted reading comprehension and even helped bolster the socio-emotional and behavioral outlooks of our students, confirming they can thrive in spite of challenges.

Mariana Garate | Principal | Walker Elementary

The power of a goal

Star Reading provides assessment data that helps Walker Elementary teachers quickly determine skill levels and assign students to appropriate reading and intervention groups. Garate notes, “We start administering Star Reading assessments as soon as our students can read, typically in November of their first-grade year. When the students take that assessment, they can get a ZPD for use with Accelerated Reader 360. It’s particularly rewarding to watch first graders—who for the most part are still decoding—master the process. Realizing they can read a story and then confidently answer questions about it, they experience a real ‘wow’ moment—it’s priceless.”

The information provided by Renaissance solutions is fundamental to tracking progress against goals. Garate believes that if you set the bar high, students will rise to it. Set it low, and you’ll be doing them a disservice. “I review data every day to make sure I understand where students are and how we can help each one progress. Teachers have likewise come to appreciate the value of a data-informed school and routinely participate in data chats where we share information, ideas, and plans. They also regularly share data with parents. Because Renaissance provides reports and many other resources in Spanish, we’re able to more effectively communicate student goals and progress.”

I review data every day to make sure I understand where students are and how we can help each one progress. Teachers have likewise come to appreciate the value of a data-informed school and routinely participate in data chats where we share information, ideas, and plans.

Mariana Garate | Principal | Walker Elementary

Flowers blooming, stars shining

Each school year, the Walker team sets aggressive individual, classroom, grade-level, and school goals. And each year the school has been rewarded with across-the-board growth and success. Most recently, for example, 57 percent of first graders finished the school year at grade level based on DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) benchmark assessment tests. Every grade showed improvement, advancing from eight to as many as 32 points by year end. The team has also celebrated individual achievements. Last year, ten second graders each read more than 300,000 words, and 15 students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades each logged a phenomenal one million words—an accomplishment more typically expected of seventh graders.

“Our students are hooked; they’re excited to be part of the Accelerated Reader 360 program,” comments Garate. “They particularly look forward to viewing progress reports. Each report includes an onscreen plant that ‘grows’ with their points for correct answers after taking Accelerated Reader quizzes—it’s amazing how motivating something as simple as a colorful, blooming flower can be!

Beating the odds

Garate and her team are committed to helping Walker students break the cycle of poverty. “It’s a true team effort, with every contributor rooting for our students’ success, helping to instill a love of reading. Each of us understands that education provides the best path out of poverty. Our students expect to be productive citizens and, in many cases, to be the first in their families to go to college—I can see they already have that light.”
How do you encourage reading practice in your classroom? Do you do anything similar to Walker Elementary? Let us know in the comments! To read the full version of Walker Elementary’s incredible success story, head over to our success stories page.

Curious to learn more about Accelerated Reader 360?


  1. Rita Platt says:

    I love this! Goal-setting should be a major part of our teaching. As my principal once said, “Learning to set and meet goals is a prerequisite for happiness.” Great example!

  2. Allyson Davis says:

    I love this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Dvawn says:

    We have different ‘clubs’. We have 25 point clubs, 50 point clubs, 100 point clubs, etc. As they achieve points from AR tests, they are moving towards reaching a club level. They earn a necklace with a medal and add on to it with each increased club level.

  4. P R says:

    Most children enjoy competition. They are given a goal. Then, they strive to achieve and even outdo that set goal.

    Just remember to reward the students for reaching that goal with verbal praise , end of year academic reading awards, and something “special” ( perhaps an I helped our school read _____ millions words. tee shirt)

    Our school board recognizes all the students in the county who read 1 million or over words during the academic year at the last Board meeting of the year with a special certificate and gift card.

  5. Renee Graham says:

    It all comes down to this, TIME SPENT READING!

    • Renaissance Renaissance says:

      Indeed, Renee!

    • Sherrilynn Bair says:

      We have a goal of reading for 20 minutes per night, but have never increased it or monitored to see if we are improving…..
      Interesting to focus on words rather than minutes. Maybe easier to “increase” that goal.

  6. Stacey Painter says:

    We have a similar goal for our students in the school I teach. Our students each strive to read one million words in a year. Last year, we had several come close.

  7. Christina says:

    Amazing job teachers! The students are lucky to have you!

  8. Micah Chatterton says:

    At my school we set goal-setting is at the heart of our reading initiative. All students 2-5th grade have a common goal of 85% accuracy and 25 Engaged Minutes a Day, which is individualized to their GE on the STAR test, so that from one year to the next, one class to the next, everyone knows what is expected of them and rewarded. I found that one of the most difficult aspects of AR for students is inconsistent implementation, and setting the same individual goals, along with schoolwide word and Honor Roll goals, is the best way to combat that inconsistency.

  9. Sally Birkey says:

    As two retired teachers, we conference with every child every week at our 200 student campus, grades 4-8. Among other things, we talk about the power of setting and meeting goals and hold kids accountable in a positive atmosphere. We see excitement mounting and even see some students go from hating reading to saying, “Reading has changed my life!”
    We plan three big reading events a year: Reading Cafe’ in September, ‘Snow Better Time to Read in January , and “I-Did-A-Read Iditarod” (students come on a Friday night in March and run the Iditarod trail by reading for a solid 4 hours) and is so popular that we may have to have a lottery this year to determine who gets to come!
    Having shared all this, we recognize that we have a long way to go in implementing AR well.
    Sally and Linda

  10. Chimere says:

    Love it! I’m now inspired! I definitely believe in setting goals and high expectations for students. I’ve also always thought that there was a direct connection between a school wide successful implementation of Reading Renaissance and proficient ELA standardized test scores.

  11. Laurie Mondragon says:

    Goal setting is pivotal! In my class, I have a 100 pages club. For each 100 pages, they put a star on the chart. If filled within the quarter, the student receives a reward. I also have a “linked in to reading” row of links. When students reach 100 books, we do a special class reward like lunch in the classroom, extra recess, or crazy sock day, which is a treat in a uniform school. 🙂

  12. Keita B says:

    This is a great story. Since we are a Leader In Me school I know all about the power of having goals and writing them down(habit 2).

  13. Belinda says:

    Setting goals has always helped my students .

  14. Anne Tipton says:

    My school has also found success setting a school wide goal for number of words read. Glad to see it was successful for your school as well!

  15. Meredith Sanders says:

    So proud of them setting and reaching goals!!

  16. Denisse Ochoa says:

    Setting reachable goals is definitely important.

  17. Narda Lugo says:

    I like the data information provided. Very resourceful.

  18. Lee Houston says:

    Expect more, achieve more. You did it! Congratulations!

  19. Carmen Garza says:

    The key is the combination of setting goals and using data provided by Star to set these goals. Providing students with their ZPDs will help them be successful.

  20. Roxann Hauser says:

    In my kindergarten classroom I am setting a goal to help my students have one book a week read to them and take an AR test on that book. I sit and read with each child through this activity, it is time consuming but such a valuable experience for them. We have been using Eric Carle books and memorizing the text. We are combining this activity with Daily Five and reading mini readers independently while working on building our stamina for reading.

  21. Melissa Robles says:

    Wow. Thank you for sharing. Definitely important to have goals set in place for student to be able to achieve. This helps to build a confidence and creates a life long reader.

  22. Jennifer Slade says:

    I like to put the words read for the year for the top five readers on the board each week but without names. I ask the students if they believe they are one of these. I also put the top points for the year without names, but it’s not always the same students. It sparks their competitive side, and they want to be at the top. I told them I’d let them know in the middle of the year how many words they’ve read. I don’t think they’ve taken the time to see on their TOPS report that it has a running total for them to see.

  23. Jenn Coppock-huegel says:

    What an inspiring story!

  24. Laura Quiroz says:

    Setting goals has helped our students succeed. I love this article it’s a great inspiration .

  25. Dalina says:

    When done correctly the program works. Sucess for the children is why we becsme teachers. This program is a success story.

  26. Francine Canarios says:

    Goal setting in Accelerated Reader is an important part of my reading program. I encourage my children to reach their goals everyday. I conference with each child at least once a week about their reading. Once my students reach their goal, I announce it to the class so that we can cheer for them. They also get to sign their name on my “Rockin’ Readers” poster, which they really look forward to. I create on for each quarter, and they stay up all year long. Also, as a school, when students reach their goal for the quarter they get to attend a goal reacher’s party. They love getting recognition for reaching a goal.

  27. Sarah Swanzy says:

    This is an awesome story. Goal setting is a great way to motivate students.

  28. Christina ostrander says:

    I love giving little incentives and watching them spend points in AR

  29. David Keech says:

    Research has shown the number one factor in students’ success in reading is TIME spent reading. Seems simple, but for anything that takes practice and repetition to improve, then providing plenty of time to read is important. It’s also important that kids have opportunities to read what they like. The mostly(it still exists in some places) extinct process of using basal readers as the sole source of reading didn’t allow kids to read actual, real-life books. Wish I was growing up in school now, with AR around.

  30. Jennifer Bunn says:

    Cheap Pokemon toys and cards have been a powerful motivator for my class. Every ten points they get to choose a prize if they are above 85%. We’ve sort of turned AR into our own Pokemon GO by capturing Pokemon through reading goals.

  31. Evelyn says:


  32. Monica says:

    Students need to set goals so they can have a sense of accomplishment when they achieve them.

  33. Mary Tyner says:

    Invested administrators has advanced our implementation of all Renaissance products!

  34. Kelsie says:

    This is an amazing story. Growing up in California I witnessed a lot of this and to see the success since I have moved away is remarkable.

  35. Elizabeth Nelson says:

    I try to give my students as much selection as possible. This includes the reading they do to earn their credit. As an alternative high school, I have more flexibility to work one on one with students and really look for reading selections that align with their personal interests.

  36. Alice Peach says:

    In the 2011/2012 school year, the reading teachers at my middle school decided to make Accelerated Reader part of the curriculum. Students are required to read at least one book per week and take an Accelerated Reader quiz. Since then, the school has gone from being the bottom scoring school in state standardized testing to being the top scoring school in the county. Last school year, 105 students read over 1 million words; all of the students read approximately 345 million words. One student read over 7 million words! This school year, eight students have already read over 1 million words.