Early Reading Strategy

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003

Target Setting and School Improvement

Effective schools, where students perform to the best of their abilities, are those that engage in systematic, continuous improvement in the quality of education and that ... have a clear, strong internal focus on issues of instruction, student learning and expectations for teacher and student performance... [In] a strong 'internal accountability system' ... there is a high degree of alignment among individual teachers about what they can do and about their responsibility for the improvement of student learning. (Elmore, 2002, pp. 20-21)

The standard that the Province of Ontario sets for reading achievement is the same for all students, regardless of their background, school, or community: to read at level 3 or above in each primary grade. Effective teachers know that different children will need help in different ways to achieve the standard and that, for some, the standard can only be achieved over time. They carefully plan instruction to set challenging but realistic goals, in partnership with the children, parents, and the school literacy team.

Setting targets has been shown to improve the achievement of individuals and whole schools in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia. Target setting leads teachers, administrators, and school boards to become active and vital participants in the improvement process.

Target setting in reading is part of a general strategy of school improvement. The target-setting process begins when teachers and administrators gather and analyse relevant data about children in their school. This analysis enables teachers and the school to identify areas where improvement is needed and to establish meaningful, specific, and realistic goals for future achievement. Targets are a necessary component of the school improvement plan.

Realistic target setting depends on the following:

  • Teamwork across grades. The groundwork for reading achievement in Grade 3 and beyond is set in the earliest grades. Schools are more likely to sustain improvement if they promote cross-grade collaboration and a collegial approach.
  • Effective data management. Teachers and school administrators must develop their skills in gathering and analysing student data so that their improvement strategies are based on a correct understanding of student results. This will enable them to make optimal use of all the available information and to identify direct relationships among student performance, classroom instruction, and assessment practices.

School- and Board-based Assessment

Internal accountability precedes external accountability and is a precondition for any process of improvement. (Elmore, 2002, p. 20)

The primary source of information about student achievement is classroom-based assessment and evaluation. Classroom assessment is described in section 3, in the context of effective reading instruction.

Assessing student work in relation to the achievement charts in The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Language, 1997 (p. 9) can help teachers, students, and parents better understand what children can already do well and what supports are required to improve their performance. This process encourages teachers and children to reflect, communicate, and work collaboratively in a partnership of learning. It also requires that assessment practices focus on reasoning or thinking skills, the organization of information, the communication of conceptual understandings, and the application of language conventions. Assessment data have value for individual students, but they can also be used at the school and district levels to:

  • analyse information related to student achievement;
  • reflect on the overall quality of student learning within the school and the strengths and needs of individuals and groups;
  • identify areas for improvement and set targets and goals;
  • plan strategies for achieving the targets that have been set.

Data can be analysed at one or more of the following levels:

  • at the individual level, by tracking student progress at regular intervals
  • at the class level, by tracking the class at regular intervals
  • across classes at the same stage or level of performance
  • across the primary division at regular intervals
  • across the school
  • across the district

In a whole school approach to reading instruction, teachers make a point of sharing their classroom assessment data so that they can compare classroom practices, adapt strategies, and plan for new resources and professional development, all with the aim of improving student achievement.

In some boards, schools have the benefit of board-wide assessment data, which have been gathered by using board assessment tools or by aggregating the data from teacher tracking records and provincial report cards. As well, some boards have district profiles and school profiles that place data in a geographic and demographic context. These board-wide data can help teachers and schools to analyse their students' progress in relation to schools that have similar or very different characteristics.

Teachers and administrators will recognize that, currently, some schools are more successful in teaching children to read than others. It is important to continue to review one's own school practices to see how they compare with those of more effective schools. Blaming socio-economic or similar factors for low achievement does a disservice to students, teachers, and schools. Research has demonstrated that schools can outperform predictions that are based on the background or prior performance of students. Schools make a difference.

Province-wide Assessment

The practice of large-scale improvement is the process by which external demands for accountability are translated into concrete structures, processes, norms and instructional practices in schools and school systems. (Elmore, 2002, p. 13)

In recent years, province-wide assessments of reading, writing, and mathematics, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), have become a source of provincial data to support improvement planning in Ontario education that is focused on school-level and system-wide progress and based on previous performance. Teachers and school principals discuss their school results with parents and the community as part of their effort to work collaboratively to improve results over time for all students, regardless of the school's starting point. EQAO results are taken into account when school improvement plans are developed.

Currently some boards and schools use EQAO's Education Quality Indicators Program (EQUIP) and other demographic information to better understand the school context and to locate other schools with similar profiles. This information enables boards and schools to build collaborative networks for sharing improvement plans and instructional strategies, developing materials that address the specific characteristics of their student populations, and finding ways to sustain progress.

In Ontario, EQAO assessment results are used to track trends and patterns of improvement in all schools. Results are also considered when allocation is made of additional provincial funding for resources, professional development, and additional supports to some schools experiencing extraordinary challenges.

Teachers and administrators should be familiar with a variety of valid and reliable reading assessment techniques, including holistic, analytical, and performance-based tools. Provincial assessment provides a snapshot of student performance at the end of the primary division; ongoing assessment provides continuous feedback on student achievement in reading during the early school years.

Ontario school boards, especially the French-language school boards, have come to depend on EQAO for some of their reading assessment needs. Because French-language school boards do not have access to a large variety of reading assessment tools, they focus most of their attention on the EQAO assessment. However, this limits them to an analysis of data from Grade 3 and beyond. Because early diagnosis of reading difficulties is as essential in French as it is in English, it is very important for French school boards to develop a range of diagnostic assessment tools.

Teachers should find evidence of a reasonable alignment between classroom-based assessments and external assessments. If they do not, results should be analysed, so that, where possible, discrepancies can be addressed. EQAO observations and suggestions should be considered during this analysis.

Improvement Planning

The purpose of an accountability system is to focus the resources and capacities of an organization toward a particular end. (Elmore, 2002, p. 23)

EQAO requires that all schools and boards have improvement plans and update their plans annually. Targets for reading, and plans for achieving them, should be part of the overall school improvement plan. Boards and schools should use a breadth of data on reading and set short-term goals for each grade.

The following questions can help principals and teachers to set priorities as they develop or review their school improvement plans:

  • Are all curriculum reading expectations being addressed?
  • Are all the components of effective reading instruction being implemented in the classroom? (See the Framework for Effective Early Reading Instruction on page 12.)
  • What types of reading assessment tools and strategies are being used? How often? How is the information about reading assessment tools and strategies being collected at the classroom and school levels?
  • Are teaching and learning approaches appropriate? Are assessment results used to inform teaching practice on a continuous basis?
  • Are provincial documents and data from EQAO results being used effectively?
  • Are children making slower progress in one area than another (e.g., reading comprehension versus fluency)? Are some groups of children making slower progress than others?
  • How is reading being taught in the content areas (e.g., in social studies, science, or mathematics)?
  • Are there strategies that could be applied to further motivate at-risk readers to want to read?
  • How are partnerships with parents being developed and maintained so that consistency and support at the school and home levels are provided?
  • Have all relevant factors been included in the school plan?

See figure 2 for a list of Key Factors of School Improvement. Principals and teachers can use this as a checklist when developing, reviewing, or revising their school improvement plans.

Figure 2. Key Factors of School Improvement
High expectations
  • Promote attitudes and beliefs that focus on achievement.
  • Set targets for the school, grades, classes, and individual students.
  • Monitor progress towards these targets.
  • Aim for high achievement in later grades by setting intermediate steps in the earlier grades.
  • Encourage students to be independent in their learning.
Quality of learning and teaching
  • Organise limited numbers of groups for effective use of teachers' time.
  • Use direct teaching of groups or classes and structured lessons.
  • Identify clear aims for a block of teaching and share these with students.
  • Match tasks, activities, and resources to achievement levels.
  • Focus on the development of skills and pace of work.
  • Provide opportunities for active learning and questioning and productive homework tasks.
  • Ensure good assessment and recording practice, good-quality feedback to students, and clear identification of next steps in learning.
  • Track students' progress, using a range of assessment evidence, in order to identify needs for support and challenge: diagnostic, formative, and summative; holistic and analytical; performance-based.
School management
  • Use "whole-school approaches" led and supported by staff.
  • Identify staff development needs and provide for these.
  • Use cooperative teaching by staff where possible.
  • Monitor classroom practice and implementation of policies.
  • Monitor students' progress across the school and in every class.
  • Provide opportunities for networking and collaborative practice among teachers.
  • Design action plans that are specific, achievable, and relevant.
Parental involvement
  • Provide information about curriculum.
  • Support parents in helping their children's learning.

Note: From Raising Standards – Setting Targets: Primary Schools Support Pack: Taking a Closer Look at 5-14 Attainment in Primary Schools, by the Scottish Office, 2000, Edinburgh: Author. Adapted with permission.