Listen up! How one school in North Dakota made significant reading gains | Renaissance

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North Dakota (ND)  |  Literacy  |  Motivation & Engagement  |  Nonfiction  |  Reading Practice  |  Success Stories

Listen up! How one school in North Dakota made significant reading gains

Oakes Public School District 41

Oakes, ND

Oakes Public School District 41 is located in SE North Dakota. It's a K–12 school district and home to a little more than 500 students.

Oakes Public School District 41


  • Reverse trend of decreasing reading performance
  • Engage reluctant readers
  • Encourage at-home reading


  • Renaissance Flow 360®
  • Renaissance myON® Reader
  • Renaissance myON® News, powered by News-O-Matic


  • More reading hours, in and out of class
  • Improved vocabulary and comprehension
  • Accelerated reading progress
  • Reduced early-literacy gap
  • Greater agency to personalize learning

Text or audio? Independent or read along? Fiction or nonfiction? In class or at home? Anna Sell will tell you that the answer is always “both.” When it comes to reading, the more choices the better.

Sell is a K–6 elementary school principal in the Oakes Public School District 41, one of five North Dakota districts selected to participate in the state’s personalized, competency-based learning initiative. “As part of our participation in this pilot, we’ve been focusing on student agency—that is, helping students learn through activities that are relevant and interesting to them, and letting them make their own learning choices wherever possible. Likewise, we’re promoting teacher agency. Teachers must teach to state standards but have greater freedom to select their own instructional resources.”

Sell says that Renaissance myON® Reader and Renaissance myON® News, powered by News-O-Matic, are helping her school meet program objectives for both agency and competency. “Both give our students broad control over what, when, and where they read. As a result, they’re reading more than ever. Within the first few months, students logged hundreds of hours of reading and completed thousands of books. myON gives our teachers access to data and tools that help engage students with widely varying literacy skills, interests, and learning styles. One of our teachers touts the spoken-word audio feature, calling it a game changer for helping auditory learners and improving overall reading comprehension. Combining choice and an abundance of options, myON is proving to be a valuable tool for achieving our school’s growth goals.”

“Combining choice and an abundance of options, myON is proving to be a valuable tool for achieving our school’s growth goals.”

Anna Sell
Principal, Oakes Elementary School

The challenge: Improve reading progress

Oakes serves as the hub of southeastern North Dakota, an agricultural area known for its production of corn and soybeans. Some 500 students attend Oakes Public School District 41—215 students at the high school and 285 at Oakes Elementary School. Sell understands the needs of the community and brings a wealth of experience to her position. After graduating from Oakes High School, she taught English at Oakes and nearby Enderlin public schools, then served as principal of the Ellendale Public School. During her tenure there, she was appointed to the 2014 Class of National Distinguished Principals, recognized in large part for her work on the district’s successful RTI program.1

A decades-long Renaissance user, the district utilizes Renaissance Flow 360®, connecting Renaissance’s assessment and practice solutions, planning, and data. However, Sell was new to myON. “We first evaluated the program as an online news resource,” explains Sell. “One of our goals—based in part on parents’ feedback—was to find a neutral source, one that neither slanted news stories nor gave the suggestion of bias because of its media affiliation. myON satisfied that requirement as well as our teachers’ requests for a program with daily news updates and a searchable-by-topic archive. One of my social studies teachers praises the program as ‘convenient, current, interactive, and high interest with good topics for discussion and summarizing.’”

“At the same time, we were also looking for tools to help students make better reading progress. Benchmark data showed we weren’t achieving goals and reading scores lagged math results. We wanted to focus on vocabulary enrichment by boosting listening comprehension.”

The results: More tools for teachers and engaged readers

“In the past, we struggled to find appropriate audiobooks,” recalls Sell. “Books that aren’t in the public domain are expensive, and just one student can listen at a time. Today, our students can listen to numerous books and news articles—its more economical, students have more choices, and they can download books to their iPads. Our students are very tech-savvy and they love to listen to books, so myON is a good match, particularly for auditory learners.”

Alicia Bata, an Oakes second-grade teacher, says that myON promotes both interest and achievement. “myON’s audio ability on almost every book has been a game changer for my reading group. It’s helping my students that struggle with reading enjoy different genres and find joy in reading again. It has helped boost their confidence and overall comprehension as well.”

“myON’s audio ability on almost every book has been a game changer for my reading group. It’s helping my students that struggle with reading enjoy different genres and find joy in reading again.”

Alicia Bata
Teacher, Oakes Elementary School

Increased reading, shrinking gaps
Oakes qualifies for Title I schoolwide programs and Sell estimates that some 24 percent of her students receive free/reduced lunches. “As a consequence of poverty, time-stretched working parents, and other factors, many students don’t have reading opportunities at home. Nearly one-third of our students enter kindergarten already behind in literacy. myON is helping us better serve those students, giving them access to books at home and helping them catch up more quickly. Teachers have been surprised to see just how many hours students are reading at home.”

Oakes first-grade teacher Kelli Gebhardt suggests that the program works in part by piquing personal interests and by letting students make their own reading decisions. “My students love myON—it’s one of the choices on their weekly reading playlist. The stories and newsletter articles are engaging and finding a topic that interests them is a breeze.”

An upward spiral of comprehension
myON offers teachers and students a variety of features to personalize the learning process. Teachers, for example, can assign texts to support their classroom subjects or tailor assignments for individual reading goals. Sell says that while teachers encourage within-ZPD reading to ensure gains, they also urge students to listen to above-ZPD texts. She reports that the process has been very effective in enriching vocabulary, with gains borne out by continued improvements (and successively higher ZPD indications) on their Renaissance Star Assessments®.

“myON gives Oakes teachers and students new options for reading with more ownership of the process,” Sell concludes. “The program was a logical addition to our suite of tools and ties together with Renaissance Flow 360 to give our teachers a unified view of mastery data. As long-term Renaissance users, we’ve come to trust Renaissance to help us continue to develop successful reading strategies.”

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