Madison Rhodes used to stare at her homework, frustrated and fidgety. Understanding what she was reading seemed harder than crossing the monkey bars.
But when the third-grade student at Alachua Elementary joined the Winning Reading Boost program this year, she quickly overcame her frustration.
Winning Reading Boost is a 90-day intensive reading program designed to bring students who are below their reading level up to speed. The University of Florida College of Education’s Lastinger Center developed the program with Sue Dickson, a career educator and creator of the popular phonics program Sing, Spell, Read, and Write. Pinellas County piloted the program before Alachua County introduced it in 2016.
In the program, second- through fifth-grade students spend an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes a day learning phonics songs and sounding out “pseudo words” – like “pite” – as a stepping stone to sounding out real words like “kite.” By memorizing letter sounds, writing in brightly colored workbooks and singing to rap songs about letter relationships, they practice the skills needed for reading fluency.
Lisa Langley, the Lastinger Center’s coordinator for Winning Reading Boost, said that this reading fluency program is pivotal in students’ success. The 36-step program pairs no more than 15 students in groups that guarantee a student-teacher ratio of about 3:1. If there are enough volunteers, Langley said, they strive for 1:1.
“You’re changing their lives by teaching them how to read,” she said. “Winning Reading Boost can open so many doors for these students.”
Charri Rhodes, a former preschool teacher and Madison’s mother, said it was like the skies opened when her daughter began Winning Reading Boost.
“One week into Winning Reading Boost, and there was a light in her that I had never seen before,” she said. “All of a sudden, she was sounding out words and picking chapter books, begging to read after dinner.”
She said Madison previously had been involved in a Title 1 reading program at Irby Elementary. That program, Rhodes said, only further frustrated Madison when she couldn’t keep up with her friends’ reading speeds. Frustrated, Madison began to act out in class.
To test the effectiveness of the Winning Reading Boost program, instructors conduct a 20-minute assessment of each student’s phonics, reading fluency and oral fluency before and after the 90 days in the program. The aggregated results for 189 students from eight schools that have employed Winning Reading Boost show that the overall pre-test score of 330 out of 450 rose to a post-test score of 428. These tests focus on students’ understanding of phonics and reading, not reading comprehension.
Though the results from the program since its launch in Alachua are encouraging, Langley said, it is constantly at risk of being defunded. When the budget was cut for Winning Reading Boost last year, the program relied on a small rainy day fund and large donations from Dickson and Linda Fuchs, wife of UF President Kent Fuchs.
Linda Fuchs has supported the program since its inception and volunteered in the classroom when the program was at Metcalfe Elementary. She says the program is invaluable, with its small class sizes and “fast-tracked but nuanced” approach to instruction.
The Lastinger Center sites recent findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that only 37 percent of fourth-grade students were reading at the appropriate level, saying it underscores the need for a program like Winning Reading Boost. Similarly, according to a 2009 study by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 20 percent of Floridians older than 16 lack basic reading skills.
Langley has tried to secure more funding for the 2019-2020 school year by inviting Florida politicians like Rep. Chuck Clemons, Rep. Clovis Watson Jr. and Sen. Keith Perry to observe a Winning Read Boost lesson at Alachua Elementary. Fortunately, Langley said, everyone she has invited has seen the merit of the program.
Perry, during a visit on February 22, crouched down to a student named Rashad and asked him about Winning Reading Boost. Rashad’s summary of the program as a fun time during the school day where he reads and sings songs made Perry chuckle and hand him his business card “for down the line.”
The Lastinger Center has contemplated creating a lighter, less prepackaged version of the program that comes at a lower cost. Winning Reading Boost could be made more accessible to Alachua County elementary schools that haven’t used the program before by electing to train teachers who are accustomed to working with smaller groups of kids, like special education teachers and reading coaches, and convincing the district to cover the cost of workbooks.
While Alachua and Myra Terwilliger Elementary are currently the only schools using Winning Reading Boost, Lake Forest, Metcalfe, Rawlings and Idylwild Elementary have used it in the past.
Langley said supporters of the program would love to implement the program at all schools, but the district’s “shoe-string budget” won’t allow it. At roughly $2,000 per student, expansion of the program to more schools in Alachua County would be costly.
Having seen Madison’s success, Rhodes wishes every elementary school had this program available for every child who needs it.
“I hear every day about kids that are struggling to read and getting held back from advancing grades,” she said. “But I don’t have that fear for my daughter anymore because of (this program).”
Alachua Elementary Principal Heather Harbour is adamant about continuing Winning Reading Boost at her school. She hopes the district continues to provide funding so more students like Madison can benefit.
“We’d love to continue to provide these struggling readers with exactly what they need to become successful readers,” Harbour said. “We’re giving them a lifelong skill that can never be taken from them, and that’s invaluable.”
When asked what she wants to be when she’s older, Madison is torn between being a Harvard and a Yale graduate. With Winning Reading Boost, either might be possible.