Four years’ reading growth in half that time. That’s what Nebraska’s Boys Town Reading Center has achieved with unruly older adolescents in the Boys Town residential facility. When the center’s courses were replicated in 34 public schools around the country, the schools reported the same gains, about one year per semester of instruction. The ingredients are small classes (8 to 10 students each), teacher training with follow-up, diagnosis of individual students’ problems and a four-semester sequence of courses based on the six stages of reading identified by the late Harvard University professor Jeanne Chall, author of “Learning to Read, the Great Debate.”
The sequence concentrates on the four stages where most teenagers can be found. The first course is Foundations in Reading, which supplies the F to the program’s acronym, FAME. In this course, students learn phonics through computer games and oral reading.
The second course is Adventures in Reading, where students practice advanced word recognition and fluency by reading young adult novels aloud.
The third course is Mastery of Meaning, which uses direct instruction to teach vocabulary that allows readers to express complex ideas. High school reading programs typically stress comprehension strategies for students at Chall’s third stage, “reading to learn.” However, Ann Marie Longo, director of the Boys Town Reading Center, says such readers need vocabulary first. “They’re not learning anything if you just keep reading and writing,” Longo argues, because their word knowledge is too limited to pick up context clues.
The fourth course is Explorations, where students conduct research, using study skills like note- taking and summarizing, and apply what they’ve read to solve problems in class discussions and essays. This course helps students master the tasks of Chall’s stage four, “multiple viewpoints;” students learn to infer meaning and analyze problems to find solutions by using many different texts.
Longo says school districts tend to train special education and reading teachers in the first two courses and English teachers in the last two.
“If we train you in August, we come back and observe you at least once, often more than that,” Longo adds. “We do not want to be a ‘train and hope’ program, where we train you and you hope it works. We come back to help once you have begun the program.”
Many students don’t need the entire sequence, Longo observes. For placement, each student is diagnosed individually by an adult, who spends 30 to 40 minutes checking specific reading subskills using a commercially available assessment.
Longo says the biggest challenge she’s faced in transplanting the program is schools’ resistance to individual diagnosis and small classes. “They say, ‘Well, they’re in the such-and-such percentile,'” she says. “I don’t know if they scored poorly because they can’t read the words or they don’t know what they mean.”