A Chapter in the Life of a Reader Tells the Story of the Main Characters Who Make It Possible
Reading is a bit like walking in that few of us remember when we didn’t have these skills or exactly how and when we learned. However, when you’re the parent of a child who has just taken their first steps or read their first full sentence aloud, it’s a memory that is never forgotten.
Many kindergarteners begin school not knowing how to read. By the end of the year, they have learned all 26 letter sounds, and several blends and digraph sounds, leaving parents to wonder how so much growth can happen in just one year. It almost seems magical, yet the “magic” is the result of a lot of hard work and dedication by the student and teacher.
Approaches to teaching literacy have been a subject of national interest with recent reports citing alarming reading and writing statistics for children in grades three through eight. Although there has been a steady increase in ELA proficiency in the Bronxville elementary and middle school, the administration deems the topic worthy of deeper examination. “Our approach to literacy has been purposefully designed to reflect a balanced teaching philosophy,” said Dr. Mara Koetke, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum at The Bronxville School. “At the elementary level, this includes phonics, sounds, blends, encoding, and decoding. As well as teaching reading comprehension strategies and writing narratives, informational, and argument based texts. These are the building blocks of reading and writing.”
Recognizing that all children do not learn the same, Bronxville’s ELA curriculum includes an arsenal of approaches to support the needs of all students through a variety of professional development for teachers. These include Wilson Language- a reading and spelling program based on ‘the science of reading’, Preventing Academic Failure (PAF) - targeting phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, word recognition, vocabulary, spelling, and handwriting, and the Orton-Gillingham based program - Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) which teaches connections between letters and sounds and a sequential and multi-sensory approach to literacy.
“We base our instructional approach on real-time student assessment data and appropriately provide differentiated strategies based on individual needs of the student,” said Rosana Colliniates, Literacy Coach for Bronxville students in grades K-8. “That intervention can look like extended time on phonics, where we focus on one sound at a time, pounding out syllables, and using other sensory-based methods such as drawing letters and their sounds in sand.”
“Teaching students emergent literacy requires a strong focus on foundational skills. At the elementary level, that is where our attention lives,” said Dr. Koetke. “Professional development in literacy is crucial. All special educators in K-2 are trained in PAF and many are trained in IMSE, an Orton Gillingham based approach from the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. In addition, all primary grade teachers have received training in phonics instruction.”
As readers develop, the next benchmark of literacy lies in aptitude and cultivating love of reading and the ability to write effectively. Strategies and support for this next level come from The Reading and Writing Project, Teachers College, Columbia University. Since 2014, Bronxville Middle School teachers have been trained in TCRWP, and in 2015 the program expanded to the elementary school. The training is an immersive and cyclical experience, taking place several times throughout the year with lead consultants visiting the school, meeting with teachers, visiting classrooms, assessing student progress, and adjusting instruction as needed. “TCRWP training allowed us to build upon an already solid foundation. Literacy requires a tremendous amount of support and a variety of resources,” said Ms.Colliniates. “Professional development for teachers is an important piece in the ever-evolving educational landscape. Programs that are student focused, first and foremost, are beneficial because they address specific needs. One of the strengths of TCRWP includes the team meetings and classroom visits, which provides targeted feedback to students.”
Dr. Koetke and Ms. Colliniates independently have a long history with the TCRWP program, having utilized it in their prior positions as an administrator and teacher, and achieving measurable results. Dr. Koetke served as Principal of The New York City Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education (PS 77), a top-ranking elementary school in New York City, and prior to her position as Literacy Coach at The Bronxville School, Ms. Colliniates taught at P.S. 6, The Lillie Devereaux Blake School in Manhattan - also as a highly rated elementary school. “Working with the TCRWP program at my former school provided tangible and adaptable diagnostics to its effectiveness, while also understanding that other interventions and support were needed to maximize its effectiveness,” said Ms. Colliniates. “Most reading and writing programs are not ‘one size fits all’. A balanced approach is necessary to unleash any one program’s effectiveness,” said Dr. Koetke “TCRWP is an effective and powerful resource in a teacher’s tool belt, but it can’t be the only one. We’ve had enough instructional experience to recognize that we needed to actively round out our teaching and learning programs to ensure basics are mastered and that proficiency is an attainable possibility for all our students.” With the numbers telling the story, the percentage of ELA student proficiency has consistently shown improvement since 2016. That year, ELA student proficiency in third through eighth grades was 73%. Last year, in 2022, proficiency reached its highest percentage ever - 89%, placing The Bronxville School in the top spot for New York State ELA Assessments that year.
In just a few weeks, kindergarten students will be closing the chapter of their first year at Bronxville Elementary School. There will be many more chapters to come as they enter the building for each of their remaining 12 years. They will write stories about themselves, their ideas, learn about the world, take passionate positions, be discerning about reliable sources, turn their research into concrete action, build personal awareness and create it too. By their senior year, they will be telling the stories of their lives and the world around them. And it will truly be magical.