‘A Beautiful Dance’: The ABC’s of Reading Recovery

Amber Weidinger, left, and Joanne LeBlanc, center, take notes as six-year-old Caleb Rutkowski starts his 30-minute Reading Recovery session at Lynch Elementary.
Amber Weidinger, left, and Joanne LeBlanc, center, take notes as six-year-old Caleb Rutkowski starts his 30-minute Reading Recovery session at Lynch Elementary.

LAPEER, Michigan – On a blustery February Friday at Lynch Elementary, a group of six professional learning coaches, who moonlight as linguists, focus their collective attention on the moment’s most important person in the world.

For the next 30 minutes, six-year-old Caleb Rutkowski, and his future as a life-long learner, takes center stage.

Caleb is one of many elementary students in Lapeer Community Schools who has access to Reading Recovery, a research-based intervention program for young students who need extra support in reading and writing. It’s a proven, highly effective short-term intervention that has been used in the District since 2011.

Specially-trained learning coaches, like Amber Weidinger at Lynch, work individually with students in daily 30-minute lessons for as many as 20 weeks. Nearly three quarters of students reach their grade-level standard or higher after a full series of lessons. Follow-up studies indicate that most Reading Recovery students also do well on standardized tests and maintain their gains in later years.

Today’s session is more crowded than normal, as Reading Recovery teachers regularly come together for cluster visits to observe, collaborate and develop new strategies that can have a positive impact on all students.

“Reading Recovery is designed to support struggling readers and writers, but the strategies we use are best practice for all students,” Weidinger said. “So over the past few years, I’ve focused efforts on developing a shared understanding of the program and its practices.”

Kasie Allen, who works alongside Weidinger, said the daily collaboration in the building has proven beneficial to students and teachers.

“We are blessed; we get to work side by side and discuss what’s going on with each student,” she said. “We work closely with teachers to coordinate efforts, so students get consistency. Our kids see a lot of adults during the course of the day; without consistency, it can be confusing.”

Known to New: Making a Connection

Caleb doesn’t need his neon-green sneakers to light up a room. The young man strides into Lynch Elementary’s Title I room and completely changes the dynamic. The alphabet soup of acronyms, statistics and wonkish vocabulary that had been swirling around the room just minutes earlier, floats away.

Former struggles and future solutions set aside for a moment, everyone raves at Caleb’s on-time arrival (and without a courier). He was ready to work. If not for the muffled sighs every now and then, you might not know this is a rigorous 30 minutes for the kiddo.

First grader Caleb Rutkowski works through the writing portion of his 30-minute Reading Recovery session. He is writing a story about why he loves school.
First grader Caleb Rutkowski works through the writing portion of his 30-minute Reading Recovery session. He is writing a story about why he loves school.

He, all involved agree, is a perseverant young chap; he doesn’t give up easily. He reads at home, he does his schoolwork and, can be a little cantankerous if he doesn’t have the book he wants for the weekend.

Caleb is in week 17 of his intervention and has made significant gains to this point. His final three weeks will be a mad dash toward grade-level proficiency. He has come a long way. He’s re-reading, self-correcting and problem-solving now more than ever.

Weidinger is joined in the session by GISD Reading Recovery Coordinator Joanne LeBlanc. Before sitting down, LeBlanc asks Caleb if he’s OK with her joining them for the session. She remembers him from her last visit back in October. Caleb doesn’t object.

Weidinger starts this session, and every session, paying simple homage to Caleb’s knowns, — his literacy comfort zone.

“We know what he can do, and we build off that,” LeBlanc said. “We cannot build off what students can’t do. It’s important to stay with that positive piece.”

Caleb quickly chooses a book he can read, one about a surprise birthday party Bella, a bright white poodle, is throwing for her friend, Rosie. The book is written at his level and he reads for several minutes before getting hung up on a word. Since students are trained to gain meaning from text and visuals, Weidinger gives him a moment before intervening.

“Let’s think about what would make sense here,” she said. “How would Rosie feel?”

He quickly responds and charges through the next few sentences without a hitch.

As the lesson progresses, the readings become more difficult and the interventions more frequent. At one point in his writing session, Caleb gets stuck on a word and, instead of waiting on his teacher, he takes matters into his own hands.

“I think I want to do boxes for that word,” he whispered.

The box he’s requesting is an Elkonin box, used to help students build phonological awareness by segmenting words into sounds or syllables. The word “cake,” for example, has three sound boxes (like “kuh-eh-kuh”).

Throughout the sessions, observers are taking notes while Weidinger and LeBlanc focus on the timing and content of their intervening words. Like an SUV in a Michigan winter, they are constantly shifting on the fly.

“You cannot pre-plan everything because you don’t know what they’re going to say or do,” LeBlanc said. “That moving in and moving out … it’s a beautiful dance once you understand it. It’s research-based, contingent teaching … she knows that child better than any of us.”

Rather than finding the mistakes in his writing for him, Weidinger gives him time to find his own mistakes so he develops a greater awareness (“something doesn’t look right”).

After reading a short story he wrote the day before, Caleb starts a new story on the topic of his choosing and plans it out. He decides he wants to write about how much he likes school.

“Why do you like school?” Weidinger asks.

“Because of reading and writing,” he says.

Continuing on the Journey

The basic principles that underlie Reading Recovery have broad-based import for all students, not just those who may be struggling. The opportunities for observation and collaboration have helped to create a culture of excellence that is focused on success for students at all levels.

“When teachers see positive results, they want to know what we’re doing,” said Allen. “Reading Recovery is a catalyst for collaboration in our building and across the District.”

Weidinger has created regular observation opportunities for K-2 general education and special education teachers, as well as parents and administrators. These observations are aligned with professional development best practices identified in Reading Recovery.

“This learning has directly improved teaching and learning for all students,” Weidinger said.

At this stage in a young learner’s life, it is of paramount importance that they do not lose ground in reading. This requires daily lessons and supplemental readings and activities at home.

“Literacy cuts across the entire curriculum,” LeBlanc said. “We can connect literacy to art, music and all the specials.”

A group of four participate in a Reading Recovery cluster visit in the Title I room at Lynch Elementary. Top to bottom: Kasie Allen, Cortney Brendel, Cheryl Smith and Karen Allmen.
A group of four participate in a Reading Recovery cluster visit in the Title I room at Lynch Elementary. Top to bottom: Kasie Allen, Cortney Brendel, Cheryl Smith and Karen Allmen.

Because the lessons build on each other, to see the greatest returns, parents must ensure their child is in school every day so they do not miss any lessons. Students will progress much more quickly as they gain more confidence with subsequent lessons.

Karen Allmen, a learning coach and Reading Recovery teacher at Schickler Elementary, was also in attendance at the cluster visit. She said that observations, such as this one, can lead to breakthroughs.

“Even finding that teeny-tiny next step, we have to identify those things,” she said.

After the session, the coaches come back together to debrief. They identify strengths, weaknesses, areas of improvement and next steps. Weidinger also produces a detailed profile of the student’s activity and how to best modify teaching to increase achievement.

When Caleb is done in a few weeks, he will have a stronger base from which to achieve. He will be equipped with a self-extending system that will guide him.

“Because of what he knows, he’s going to be able to continue on his journey,” LeBlanc said. “We’re all rooting for him.”

To learn more about Reading Recovery, visit ReadingRecovery.org.

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