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At Democracy Prep, counting words adds up to literacy growth

When Democracy Prep students stroll into school wearing t-shirts that read “I’m kind of a big deal” and “Don’t act like you’re not impressed,” they don’t get in trouble for not wearing their uniforms. Instead, they get applauded for winning the right to wear the celebratory shirts by hitting a major milestone on their journey towards reading 1.2 million words.

Requiring students to log the pages or books they read is common practice in city schools. But the expectation is a bit different at Democracy Prep.

Schools in the network regularly see students’ math scores shoot up. But reading scores proved harder to budge. The network’s founder and superintendent, Seth Andrew, chalked the phenomenon up to differences between the two subjects. In math, a student can be strong in geometry but weak in algebra, but literacy is built on more cumulative knowledge, he explained: In order to raise students’ reading scores, they mostly needed to read more.

In 2010, when Democracy Prep Harlem opened, literacy specialist Ajaka Roth and principal Emmanuel George thought about ways to make this happen. It wasn’t by requiring students to read more books, they decided.

After all, Roth realized, there is something inequitable about having a blanket book expectation for students with very different reading abilities who were in the same class with very different reading abilities. She thought it wasn’t quite fair one student to get credit for reading 25 Level L books (e.g. “Make Way for Ducklings,” which has 1,089 words) while another student had to plow through 25 tougher Level T books (e.g. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” has 30,181 words). Plus, a book-completion requirement would give reluctant readers an incentive to select books that were simpler than they could handle, so they could race through faster.

So Roth and George turned to a tool that Democracy Prep charter schools already had in place: access to Accelerated Reader, a widely used reading software tool that allows teachers to track the books students read by genre and difficulty level. Thinking about how to use the program to help them also push volume, Roth and George were drawn to Accelerated Reader’s word count tool, which indicates the number of words in each book in the program’s expansive library.

In thinking about how many words students should be expected to read, Roth turned to research published by Richard Allington, an education professor and reading researcher. According to Allington, children who read one million words a year tend to score in the top 2 percent on standardized exams. But for most of those students, voracious reading is a lifelong habit. To make up for lost time and the fact that Democracy Prep students were coming in 2.5 grade levels behind in reading, Roth set a 1.2 million-word requirement for her students.

Roth and George piloted the word count goal with Democracy Prep Harlem sixth-graders last year. At the end of the year, nearly half of their students scored proficient on the state reading test, 15 points higher than at another Democracy Prep school with identical math scores. The gains convinced Andrew that focusing on word count was making an impact, and he spread the expectation network-wide this year.

But the network isn’t satisfied. Next year, officials are increasing the goal by 50 percent, so that students will be asked to read 1.8 million words on their own.

“Initially it is a huge transition for many of our scholars,” Roth said of the network’s ambitious literacy program. “But we provide opportunities for the scholars to be successful.”

Students must read for half an hour each day at school — and then another half hour each evening at home. They have a chance to get in some of their at-home reading on school grounds after school on Friday and on Saturday mornings.

Students who have already reached this year’s target are being taken on a cruise around Manhattan today. The reward was meant to incentivize students to hit the goal prior to the state exams, since that’s where reading on grade level comes especially in handy. Students also have the chance to celebrate their accomplishments along the way with their flashy t-shirts.

“A big part of this work is building the joy — the joy factor,” said Samona Tait, Democracy Prep’s chief academic officer. “So it’s not simply demanding that the kids are reading more and making them more accountable, but making it fun.”

The strategy could hit some road bumps next year, as Democracy Prep tweaks its reading expectations toward non-fiction as required by new Common Core curriculum standards. The network’s social studies and science classes have already started building content-specific libraries and book clubs, but Accelerated Reader’s library and built-in comprehension assessments tilt heavily toward fictional works. In order to keep up many of the practices that have been successful, Andrew said service providers must expand their content to include more non-fiction titles.

Tallying the number of words students read isn’t a school reform strategy, Andrew said, but it helps.

“So much of what people are looking for in schooling is a silver bullet,” he said. “By no means is this that. This is a lot of small pieces coming together to work.”

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