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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

Savoring Reading, Schoolwide

The Schoolwide Enrichment Model in Reading increases readers' stamina—and their test scores.

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Imagine 3rd and 4th grade classrooms in which silent reading is interrupted only by rapidly turning pages and the occasional chuckle. Imagine a group of boisterous boys reading with intense focus for 30 minutes in a corner of a classroom. During the last four years, with a team of teachers and researchers from the University of Connecticut, we have helped bring about such scenarios daily in high-poverty schools through an alternative approach to reading instruction: the Schoolwide Enrichment Model in Reading (SEM-R; Reis et al., 2003). This enrichment-based approach, which evolved from the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Renzulli, 1977; Renzulli & Reis, 1997), focuses on engaging students in challenging reading accompanied by instruction in higher-order thinking and strategy skills. Teachers differentiate both instruction and student reading materials and guide students in continually regulating and challenging themselves as readers.

Why Enrichment Is Not Optional

Standardized reading achievement scores show that many students are unprepared for success in college or jobs, especially minority students and children living in poverty. Results of the 2005 American College Testing program's college admission and placement exam indicate that 79 percent of black students, 67 percent of Latino students, and 33 percent of students from families with annual incomes below $30,000 were not prepared for college-level reading (ACT, 2006). Reading and literacy contribute to academic success (Burns, Griffin, & Snow, 1999; National Reading Panel; 2000), and strong reading comprehension predicts performance on achievement tests (Allington, 2002).
Because reading is a salient ingredient in life success, it is imperative that schools try alternative methods of teaching reading that promote enjoyment. Our research team has implemented the SEM-R in urban high-poverty schools under rigorous research conditions, with successful results in every study (Reis et al., 2005). In schools in which we have used this approach, students' reading fluency scores have increased significantly compared with a control group, and in some schools comprehension scores have increased for students receiving SEM-R instruction as well. Results were so promising that in 2005, federal funds through the Jacob K. Javits Act enabled us to “gear up”; our team is currently implementing the model for an entire academic year in three Title I elementary schools in West Palm Beach, Florida, and two in Manchester, Connecticut.

How the Model Works

The SEM-R includes three categories of reading instruction: (1) broad exposure to appropriate texts and areas of possible interest, (2) higher-order thinking skills training and methods instruction, and (3) opportunities to pursue self-selected activities. It was developed as an outgrowth of a model widely used in gifted education programs; pedagogy geared toward gifted students can be used to enrich learning for all students. The model has been applied by schools not involved in our study that have become informed about SEM-R or taken our training.
This instructional program focuses on increasing student readers' enjoyment of the learning process through planned enrichment experiences. In some schools in which we worked, the SEM-R was integrated into regular reading instruction; in others, it was offered as an additional literacy block. In our study, teachers were randomly assigned to either a treatment group that received some form of supplementary reading instruction using SEM-R's methods or a control group that used the school's traditional form of literacy instruction. We provided teachers in the treatment group with a day of training and a manual that described all aspects of the approach; research team members frequently observed in classrooms and guided implementation. As we trained teachers in the three phases of SEM-R, we encouraged them to continue using their own teaching styles and to adapt the strategies rather than feel tied to a mechanical routine. Through working with teachers as they implemented the SEM-R, we observed how instruction in each phase helped individual students become motivated readers.

Phase 1: Hooking Kids on Literature

The key to enriching students' reading skills is providing them with challenging books they are eager to read. In Phase 1 of the SEM-R, teachers read out loud to students from diverse texts. After talking with teachers and reviewing the literacy assessments of students in each class, our team selected a set of high-interest books for each grade level and augmented this selection with books geared to each class's interests, reading levels, and background cultures. For example, if a class had several less-skilled readers who were interested in sports, we ordered a series of biographies of sports heroes. Each teacher received approximately 125 books and a gift certificate to choose and purchase more books for particular students.
In 10–20 minute “book hook” sessions, teachers used book excerpts to hook students on reading, interspersing readings with higher-order questioning. We gave teachers laminated bookmarks printed with cognitively challenging questions to help students become accustomed to answering questions connected to higher-level thinking and reading skills. Similar bookmarks were later provided to students to spur deeper questioning (see p. 34). Teachers asked significantly more high-level questions in the SEM-R Phase 1 read-aloud instruction than they did in control classrooms not using the approach (Fogarty, 2006).
During the book hook sessions, students jotted in their reading logs the titles of books that they wanted to read fully on their own.

Phase 2: Supported Independent Reading with Conferences

At this stage, teachers encourage students to select high-interest books slightly above their current reading level, and in regular conferences they assess whether the books readers have picked are an appropriate match. In our studies, the majority of students initially selected books that were easy for them. Teachers told them to take these easier books home to read because at school it was their job to select books with some words and ideas that were new to them.
Many teachers we worked with showed creativity in encouraging reading, and students responded. At North Grade Elementary School in Palm Beach County, Florida, Ms. Duke created a weekly “Beach Day,” filling a corner with buckets of sand, blankets, and beach chairs for atmosphere. She reminded her students that spending a day at the beach means you can just flop down and read. “This is awesome; we actually get to sit and read in reading class!” one boy said.
  • Talking openly about the need to develop the habit of focused reading for success in life, especially in higher education.
  • Telling students to pretend their brain is a television and that reading is only on one channel. If they let their attention “channel surf,” they're not maintaining an appropriate focus on reading.
  • Letting each student choose a comfortable spot in class in which to read. We found that students who moved around and chose where to sit read quietly for longer periods of time.
During in-class reading time, teachers circulated around the room conducting 5- to 10-minute conferences to provide individualized support and differentiated instruction. Teachers reviewed book selections, listened to each student read, and helped readers practice reading and questioning strategies. The challenge for most teachers was to provide individualized strategies and critical-thinking instruction when there was a huge range of reading levels among students. A teacher might need to coach one 3rd grader on a fluency strategy—for example, breaking free from using his finger as he reads—then help a more advanced 3rd grader explore how setting can influence plot. During training, we taught teachers how to differentiate instruction and modeled how to use a conference to meet a student's individual needs. The SEM-R materials include a series of lessons on how to increase self-regulation in reading.

Phase 3: Options for Individual Interests

  • Exploring the Internet and reading materials online.
  • Creative or expository writing.
  • Visiting learning centers on topics in which they show interest.
  • Interest-based projects.
  • Reading aloud with a friend.
  • Book chats in literature circles.
  • Studies in a particular literary genre.
  • Listening to books on tape.
These experiences enable students to explore personal interests and apply creative- and critical-thinking skills to self-selected work. This component of the SEM-R pushes students to read critically and to find enjoyable and challenging literature beyond the texts that the teacher provided.
A free-choice period we observed in Ms. White's 5th grade classroom in Jupiter Elementary School in Palm Beach County, Florida, shows a snapshot of typical Phase 3 instruction. A group of three students were engrossed in listening to a Harry Potter book on tape while reading from the book. In another section of the room, a girl read a book online. Two students were reading a novel to each other, and three others were working on a readers theater activity. At a bank of computers, five students had logged on to an online enrichment program, Renzulli Learning, through which students complete a questionnaire about their interests and learning styles and then receive hundreds of individually selected enrichment opportunities in their specific areas of interest.

Results in Urban Schools

Results from schools where we have used the SEM-R approach indicate that students taught through this method had more positive attitudes toward reading, higher reading fluency and comprehension scores, and increased confidence in answering higher-order thinking questions, when compared with students in control groups in these schools.
In 2002, our research team implemented the SEM-R in two urban schools in Hartford, Connecticut—Batchelder Elementary and Kinsella Elementary. Each school has a population of over 90 percent minority students, and most of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. All students in these schools participated in a direct-instruction reading block in the morning. Students in the treatment group had an additional one-hour afternoon literacy block featuring the SEM-R program, whereas control group students received remedial instruction and preparation for the statewide mastery test. In both schools, students who participated in the SEM-R instruction had significantly higher oral reading fluency scores and reading achievement scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills than did students in the control group. Students who received the reading enrichment also had significantly more positive attitudes toward reading than did students in the control group.
In the 2003–2004 school year, we implemented SEM-R as half of a regular two-hour basal language arts program in two other Connecticut schools for 12 weeks. One school had a majority population of culturally diverse students, most of whom spoke Spanish as their first language. The other school, a suburban school, had a more affluent, nonminority student body. Students in the SEM-R group at the more diverse school had significantly higher reading fluency and comprehension scores than did students who participated only in the basal language arts program. Interestingly, readers in the suburban school also benefited from the program, with significant differences evident in measures of reading ability between the SEM-R and control groups.
The positive changes that we saw in schools using SEM-R extended beyond increases in test scores. We saw students who could not wait to begin to read and who groaned when it was time to put their books down. Students who rarely read before the intervention devoured an entire book series. Teachers consistently reported positive changes in their teaching practices and excitement about reading and higher-order thinking skills instruction. They also found students participated in more advanced conversations about what they were reading.
As a teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida, explained, “My Phase 2 SEM-R conferences with kids expanded from one-word answers at the beginning of the year to long, thoughtful conversations about literature and themes. I actually had to cut them off for lack of time.” When students are able to have these kinds of conversations with teachers about their reading, they are clearly taking charge of their own reading—and their own literature-related thinking.

ACT (2006). Reading between the lines. Available:www.act.org/path/policy/reports/reading.html

Allington, R. L. (Ed.). (2002). Big brother and the national reading curriculum: How ideology trumped evidence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Burns, S. M., Griffin, P., & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999).Starting out right: A guide to promoting children's reading success. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Fogarty, E. A. (2006). Teachers' use of differentiated reading strategy instruction for talented, average, and struggling readers in regular and SEM-R classrooms. Storrs, CT: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented Technical Report.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidenced-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: Author.

Reis, S. M., Gubbins, E. G., Briggs, C., Schreiber, F. J., Richards, S., Jacobs, J., Eckert, R. D., Renzulli, J. S., & Alexander, M. (2003).Reading instruction for talented readers: Case studies documenting few opportunities for continuous progress [RM03184]. Storrs: University of Connecticut: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Reis, S. M., Eckert, R. D., Schreiber, F. J., Jacobs, J. K., Briggs, C., Gubbins, E. J., Coyne, M. K., & Muller, L. (2005).The schoolwide enrichment reading model: Technical report [RM05214]. Storrs: University of Connecticut: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Renzulli, J. S. (1977). The enrichment triad model. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1997). The schoolwide enrichment model. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

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