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Cover January 11, 1999

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Reading in Renfroe

An Account of a Reading Intervention Approach

by Dick Fuller
Carl G. Renfroe Middle School

"Reprinted from the Winter '98-99 issue of MIDDLE MATTERS (Vol. 7, No. 2) with permission from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

I teach at Carl G. Renfroe Middle School in the City Schools of Decatur which is located in Decatur, Georgia. Decatur is a suburb of Atlanta located about six miles due east of the capitol and still within the perimeter. We are a small, urban school with 585 students and a free or subsidized lunch program of about 48.9% of the student population. We are the feeder middle school for seven elementary schools, and we feed into the one high school in our system. All nine schools are located within the four square miles of the city limits.

The City Schools of Decatur is also different in that all of our teachers are required to have a Master's degree within seven years of being hired. Children who are products of the system, entering at kindergarten and graduating from high school, have a distinct advantage here.

I give you this information for two reasons: 1. our demographics demonstrate clearly that we are in an urban setting with all the possibilities, potentials, and problems that can mean and 2: our size allows us to assess our situation easily and to move forward quickly, deliberately, and with great intentionality. Small is beautiful and a blessing.

Reading has always been a cornerstone of the City Schools of Decatur curriculum. A little over two years ago, we found ourselves in a quandary. The student body of Renfroe had been tested in the spring and we found that over 100 students in the school demonstrated reading skill deficiencies two or more grade levels below where we expected them to be. (Grade level is a term used to designate the needed skills to successfully complete academic work for a specific year, the year or grade in which the student is enrolled.) This finding called for immediate attention.

We discovered there was a wide range of reading difficulties. There were students who struggled with the basics of reading - sounding out letters and words - and students who appeared to read rather well and yet had trouble with comprehension and analysis of information. Beginning with the premise and belief that the reading is the cornerstone to all academic success and that all the students need to be successful, the staff began to look for a solidly researched reading intervention program that could address the needs of the full spectrum of problems within the student body.

Concurrently, Georgia State University's School of Special Education, was looking at a similar problem and received a grant to work with SRA's (Science Research Associates) Corrective Reading Program at several schools within the metropolitan Atlanta region. Renfroe Middle School and Georgia State University entered into a collaborative effort and the program was piloted at Renfroe for one year focusing on the reading skill needs of those students at the decoding level.

The Corrective Reading Program incorporates a wide range of skill level deficiencies and their remediation in its intervention program. The program is divided into two parts - decoding and comprehension - with each of these parts divided into three subsections. The decoding program, with 215 lessons, offers step-by -step, incremental skills in these three sections. Decoding A emphasizes sounds, rhyming, pronunciation, sounding out, word and sentence reading. Decoding B offers word discrimination, letter combinations, accurate story reading, and comprehension questions. Decoding C offers vocabulary development, informational reading, comprehension questions, and affixes. The comprehension sections offer oral language skills in deductions and inductions, analogies, inferences, sequenced instruction, organizing and utilizing information and much more.

The Corrective Reading program, with a 30-year history, claims that students involved in the program will make positive gains in reading skills and usually this gain will be significant. There are several key points to know about this program and its structure:

For Carl G. Renfroe Middle School and our needs to provide a workable intervention program for our students, the Corrective Reading Program gave us the model we were looking for.

I became involved in our school's reading intervention program because of my involvement as an ISS (In-School- Suspension) coordinator. I had observed for several years that many of the children assigned to ISS struggled with reading. Working with the children on a one-on-one basis, it was clear that these same children were capable students and could articulate solutions and discussions, but their reading was a stumbling block.

These observations and the claims by SRA that reading gains could be dramatic were the initial impetus to return to school and begin work on a Specialist's degree. I discovered through research on my thesis that experimental studies have demonstrated that young children with behavior disorders are more likely to develop reading problems and simultaneously there are studies that demonstrate that children with reading difficulties are more likely to develop behavior problems. My original research question was: Is there a correlation between behavior problems (as measured by the rate of referrals to the office and assignments to ISS) and reading difficulties? The null hypothesis - There is no significant difference in the rate students receive discipline referrals before and after the acquisition of new reading skills through the direct instruction method of teaching reading - was rejected at the .05 level of reliability. In other words, there is support for the link between behavior problems and reading difficulties. While there is widespread awareness of the link between the two, there is no agreement as to cause and effect.

Children with behavior disorders and children with reading difficulties are at-risk to be unsuccessful in the school setting. There is considerable research literature on these students. At-risk students don't qualify for the entitlement programs under IDEA/94-192, and they differ significantly from students who are able to negotiate public school traditions and expectations. It is precisely this difference that exhibits itself in behaviors that interfere with good functioning.

Research shows that these at-risk students tend to have marginal parental or adult influence for traditional values and traditional school. Because of so many hours of television watching, they are easily distracted and their attention spans are short. These students undervalue education; are suspicious of the educational endeavor; have a high need for mobility, informal settings, and cooperative learning. They relate to their work emotionally (they are unable to put distance from their work and their emotions) and in general actually learn, behave and think differently from the student considered ideal for traditional school. At-risk students are easily mistaken as unmotivated, lethargic and disruptive, while they are actually quite bright and talented and must have a specifically designed environment, an environment that is highly structured and with clear lines of relationship with the teacher.

A compelling book in the area of reading difficulties and inappropriate behavior is Retarding America, The Imprisonment of Potential by M.S. Brunner (Halcyon House, 1993). Using a systematic phonics approach in the teaching of reading, the Juvenile Justice Literacy Project (1989) in California provided reading instruction for incarcerated juvenile delinquents in two settings. It was established that every dollar invested in reading saves $1.75 as a result of reduced recidivism.

Brunner's work and research also revealed: 1. reading failure is most likely a cause of delinquent behavior; 2. an inordinately high percentage of delinquents are unable to write legibly and grammatically what they can articulate and comprehend; 3. a high percentage of delinquents are diagnosed learning disabled with no evidence to indicate any neurological abnormalities; 4. handicapped readers are not receiving the type of instruction recommended by experimental research.

Renfroe adopted the Corrective Reading Program. Even though we had fewer students in the lower levels of the program and even though the special education students scored higher than we expected, it was clear was that too many students lacked basic, essential skills in reading. Is it any wonder students react in anger when schools impose on them tasks for which it has not given the basic skills.

Is the adoption of the Corrective Reading Program a panacea for all reading problems and behavioral problems at school? Of course it isn't! However, for Renfroe Middle School, the program offered us a logical and systematic way to address the reading needs of our entire student body. Over two years ago now, we implemented a school-wide reading program. The program takes advantage of the different levels of the students, provides a mechanism for promotion within the program as new skills are learned, and lets us offer an enrichment reading program for those students who have mastered the Corrective Reading skills.

The jury is still out on how the acquisition of new reading skills will impact behavior for our students. What is quite clear is that Renfroe took a proactive stance and is offering a remediation for all of its students in reading instruction that will help to provide a key to their success within school. That is what we should all be about.


Brunner, M.S., Retarding America, The Imprisonment of Potential. Eugene, Oregon: Halcyon House, 1993.

Engelmann, S., Hanner, S., & Johnson, G., Corrective Reading. Eugene, Oregon: Science Research Associates, 1989.

Powell, T., Taylor, S., Taking Care of Risky Business. The South Carolina Middle School Journal, 24 (3), 1994.

Smart, D., Sanson, A., & Prior, M., Connection between reading disability and behavior problems: testing and causal hypotheses. The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 24 (3), 1996

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