They just didn’t want to read. Rewards and incentives that usually worked for first graders held no sway. But between the start of the school year in September and the close of their reading program in late May, a tiny miracle unfolded. Twenty-six disinterested, diffident six- and seven-year-olds discovered they could read—and loved it! By the end of the year, Crystal Salmi’s first-grade class at Warrenton Grade School in Warrenton, Oregon, had set a new standard for achievement, together reading nearly five million words in more than 7,000 books.
Salmi believes that from their first hesitant steps as emergent readers, her students gained ground because of ready access to high-interest books, a supportive teaching and community ecosystem, and a program built on the Renaissance Accelerated Reader® application. “We were determined to find ways to engage these students, to spark a love of reading that would last a lifetime. Using Accelerated Reader for personalized reading practice and encouraged by a wonderful team of helpers, these first graders ultimately progressed beyond all our expectations.”
The challenge: Motivate skeptical first graders
Part of the Warrenton-Hammond School District (WHSD), the Warrenton Grade School (which includes Warrenton Prep preschool) serves some 850 pre-K–8 students in coastal northwestern Oregon. Honored by the WHSD for her literacy efforts, Salmi has been teaching Warrenton first graders since 2011. But a recent incoming class presented unique challenges, even for this educator, who has nearly 25 years of teaching experience. “All but four of 28 students were emergent readers with varying levels of ability. As a class, they showed little interest in reading, and the promise of rewards, both intrinsic and tangible, didn’t move the dial at all.”
Salmi says it didn’t take long to recognize that this otherwise diverse group of students shared a common anxiety. “They just didn’t believe they could read. Asked to participate in reading activities, they universally responded, ‘But I can’t read.’ The turning point came when students began experiencing success on Accelerated Reader comprehension quizzes. Because they were new to the program (Warrenton has made Accelerated Reader its standard curriculum for use in grades 1 through 8) and skeptical about using it, we started out with just five-question quizzes. They could choose any book that interested them, and we made sure they had easy access to lots of books, as well as an inviting place to read. Once they realized they could do well, they became addicted to the sense of accomplishment.”
The results: Motivated readers, spillover success, and trailblazing achievement
With a little help from our friends
A galvanized community stepped up to help students build confidence. Noting the town’s history of involvement and generosity, Salmi comments, “Everyone contributes to the common goal of fostering a love for reading, making sure each child has access to a wealth of engaging books and enjoyable experiences.”
Reluctant to take personal credit, although clearly much is due, Salmi mentions a retired military veteran, Linda Brandon, who for two years running has donated classroom prizes and twice weekly reads with students. Members of the US Coast Guard visited the classroom to share stories. The WHSD Board President, Debbie Morrow, partnered with Salmi early on, helping secure resources and donating two e-readers to be awarded at year’s end to the top achieving and most-improved students. Charles Salmi, a local boatyard owner and Salmi’s husband, lends a hand wherever needed, most recently constructing a school bulletin board commending reading-achievement milestones. Computer teacher Danielle Jeffery helps daily in the classroom, managing computer resources and assisting with quizzes.
Salmi continues, “Our Title I Aide, Tina Ame, works throughout the year to encourage and read with my firsties. Margaret Heyen, our school’s computer-based learning mentor and Accelerated Reader program manager, provides both expertise and inspiration. She was instrumental in bringing the Renaissance applications to Warrenton, recognizing the value they deliver through both practice and assessments. When our parent-teacher organization purchased Accelerated Reader in 2011, Mrs. Heyen’s nine- and eleven-year-old daughters helped label and type in the titles of hundreds of books for my classroom.”
More reading, less mischief
Today that classroom houses a mini library with thousands of donated books, comfortable but low-cost child-size sofas and chairs, and a Dr. Seuss-inspired decor. Salmi says this welcoming reading environment pairs well with the structure of the Accelerated Reader program. A decade-long user of Accelerated Reader, she stresses the effectiveness of the program. “In contrast to other applications I’ve used, Accelerated Reader encourages participation with more selections of leveled, relevant books. Students choose the books they find interesting, take quizzes at their own pace, and receive instant feedback. They take more responsibility for their own learning, and the data helps me track progress and provide individualized instruction.”
Salmi says that success has spilled over into other areas. She has also observed improvements in her student’s math scores and general conduct. Early in the school year, she took a call from a parent expressing concern about her son’s behavior change, explaining that he’d abandoned after-school video games for reading. “I assured her that was okay! A few months later she called again, amazed to report how reading had changed his life. ‘Now when he has free time he gets into a book, not mischief.’”
Blazing their own trail
By year’s end, that little boy alone had read more than 1,000 books. Every one of Salmi’s students met or exceeded their individual reading goals, which ranged from 50 to 1,000 books. In September, when students first took Accelerated Reader quizzes, the class completed 259 books. By February, the monthly tally had skyrocketed to 1,000 books or more, including both chapter and story books.
Salmi summarizes, “We finished the year with 26 students—14 reading at end of grade 2/beginning of grade 3 levels, three at grade 2, five at grade level, and just four below. And those four have actually made tremendous gains, progressing from emergent to fluent readers. The zone of proximal development range that Accelerated Reader provides has been particularly useful in helping guide students with varying abilities to books that will be challenging for them without causing frustration or discouragement.
“We began the year with very measured expectations for a class that seemed to have no interest in books. But I’m so proud to tell you that they worked hard, met all their goals, and broke last year’s reading record by more than 1,000 books. In June we’ll mark their achievement with the e-reader awards and an end-of-year Accelerated Reader celebration. But in the meantime I couldn’t resist asking them how many would still love to read lots of books, even without prizes. Every hand went up.”