Increasing engagement: A school revamps its reading invervention program

January 22nd, 2013

We’d like to think that it happens we just don’t hear about it — a Stenhouse blog post planting a seed in a teacher or principal’s head. Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Wisconsin and he shared with us how he re-thought his school’s reading intervention program after reading a blog post by Peter Johnston. Matt will be back in a few months to share the results of the new program.

Increasing engagement

For a while it was popular in educational circles to talk about “time on task”. In some circles it still is. But, as many have noted, children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?

– Peter Johnston, Knowing Literacy

My school faced a dilemma last spring: The grant for our after school reading intervention had run out. The loss of funding would also affect our A.M. and P.M. study centers. Many of our students and families utilized these services to get extra academic support and to provide supervision for children whose parents worked early or late. We had a captive audience in those who attended, but no resources left with which to captivate them, or so I initially thought.

As I prepared our final report for the grant, I noticed a pattern. Students who attended the structured, computer-based reading intervention after school did not make gains when compared to their peers. However, students who attended the morning and after school study centers, with minimal educator support, showed more growth than their school peers. It was a small sample size, but results nonetheless.


Around the same time, I came across Peter Johnston’s post “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement” on the Stenhouse blog. In it he describes a study he conducted with Gay Ivey in a secondary classroom. Students were given edgy fiction and few expectations, other than to read the books and discuss them with classmates. They took control of their learning, selecting texts based on their interests and communicating with each other about what they read. Subsequently, their tests scores went up and their social and emotional well being improved.

This post was the proverbial manna from heaven. Along with Richard Allington’s suggestion in Schools That Work for the principal to help facilitate the morning center, we had a possible answer to our problem. Some of our Title I funds were allocated to support two staff members two times a week to facilitate the after school book club for 4th and 5th graders. At the same time, I shifted the schedule of an English Language Learner aide so she would come in an hour earlier to catch the students in the morning. Even though all of this programming was to be hosted in the school library, we did purchase some high interest texts from a local book store. Total cost for this year-long program: Approximately $3000.

So how have we reduced instruction and increased engagement?

A greater variety of literacy resources are available. For example, students can listen to books on tape, practice their letters and writing using art supplies, and select any text they find interesting.

In both the morning study center and after school book club, we strive to provide choice in books. Some guidance is provided by staff when they appear to have a tough time finding their next read. However, for the most part we stay out of the way.

We have created an inviting, cozy environment to allow kids to chat with each other while reading their books. Whistle chairs, foam shaped like an upside down whistle and covered with a leather case, are an example of a purchase we made to help create this climate. Educators need to give kids permission to read, both with our words and our actions. By doing this, we let them know that it is okay to just sit around and enjoy a book while at school.

As well, they like writing book reviews on bookmark cards. They are propped on the front of the respective book and displayed on a designated table for others to check out. These students are now seen as readers and writers by their classmates. At this age, peers’ perceptions are students’ realities.

One hiccup we have noticed is the inconsistent attendance of a few of our 4th and 5th graders after school. To address this, the staff and I have discussed ways to leverage technology to increase engagement. One idea is allowing students to connect on Edmodo.  It is a safe social media tool for schools to share and discuss their learning. This would allow students to write their thoughts and questions about what they are reading for a broader audience, as well as read what others have posted.

At a fraction of the previous year’s costs, we have developed a literacy intervention that engages students and has the potential to increase students’ reading abilities at a faster rate than prescribed programming. At the same time, departing from past practices is a scary proposition for us as educators. It means giving up the spotlight and allowing student learning to take center stage. Teachers and principals, myself included, sometimes think we can control student outcomes. This naturally leads us into trying to control the learning at times. Yet it is an open and curious mind that learns best. We can facilitate this mindset by increasing engagement in students through thoughtful instruction and sharing our enthusiasm for reading.  And isn’t engagement the reason we read and learn anyway?

Entry Filed under: Reading

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julie  |  January 22nd, 2013 at 10:47 am

    It’s absolutely awesome to read about the changes Mr. Renwick made. Engaging kids as readers is one of the most powerful “teaching” we can do. I also have been challenged and inspired by Peter Johnston’s work.

  • 2. Increasing Engagement | R&hellip  |  January 22nd, 2013 at 11:21 am

    […] post is also featured on Stenhouse’s blog. For a while it was popular in educational circles to talk about “time on task”. In […]

  • 3. Laura Wallin  |  January 25th, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Wow! We all need to think about this mini case study. Are we taking the enjoyment out of reading by over emphasizing instruction at the expense of enjoyable reading practice?

  • 4. Rose Cappelli  |  January 25th, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring post! I particularly like the book review idea on the front of the book. Kids seem to be influenced by their peers more than anything else.

  • 5. Betty Crenshaw  |  January 26th, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Where did you get the Whistle Chairs?

  • 6. Amber Garbe  |  January 27th, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Matt, thanks so much for sharing a practical, purposeful, and (underline this word) enjoyable reading intervention. Are you collecting data? Like Ivey’s work, Stephen Krashan’s book Summer Reading also documents amazing rates of reading growth through a self-selected/book conversation environment.

  • 7. Matt Renwick  |  January 29th, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    The whistle chairs were purchased thought Highsmith, which is now Demco out of Madison, WI.

    We are measuring the intervention’s effectiveness through multiple measures in fluency, comprehension and total number of words/pages read. Data has already been collected in the fall and winter. It might also be wise for us to survey the students’ engagement level in reading through a questionnaire.

  • 8. Questions Readers Ask Oth&hellip  |  March 3rd, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    […] the school day in the afternoon and after school twice a week. It was designed this year based on a post from the Stenhouse […]

  • 9. Beth P  |  August 10th, 2016 at 7:16 am

    3+ years later, I’d love to hear an update! Did you find success with this method in your school building? Do you continue to run a similar program? Thanks!

  • 10. Erin H  |  January 17th, 2017 at 1:08 am

    Hi, I’m hoping you can tell me or share a link with me where you purchased your whistle chairs. I had those in my classrooms growing up in the 1970’s. As a teacher, (kinder this year), I have been looking online for several years and your blog is the first I found what I remember the chairs as. I would love to get some for my classroom. I’m excited to have found at least a picture of the chairs and now hopeful that someone can lead me to where I can purchase them!! Thank you I hope that you will email me.

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