Central Schools Students make impressive gains in reading

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As they read sentences together, Avery Fette and Zoe Armstrong place red chips on any digraphs they encounter. A digraph is a combination of letters that represent a single sound like the “ph” in telephone.

Central second graders give a “thumbs up” when a pair of words rhymes and a “thumbs down” when the pair doesn’t rhyme.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor



entral’s youngest students are snapping and tapping their way to stronger reading skills using a multi-sensory program that helps them make connections between sounds and words. 

The program, known as the Wilson Reading System, combines the rules of the English language with a unique method called sound-tapping. For example, if given an unknown word like “track,” students break it into sounds by tapping each part of the word with their fingers and thumbs. Knowing that “tr” goes together and that a short vowel sound comes before the “ck” sound, they correctly identify the word by tapping it out while making a sound for each tap.

Introduced in the 2014-2015 school year and now used with students in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade, the program has produced measureable and impressive results: 52 percent of kindergartners recently scored in the 85th percentile for reading, and 100 percent of fourth and fifth graders, who’ve been exposed to the program for a couple of years, have met the state’s benchmark for reading accuracy.

“Even though they may not be reading quickly yet, they know what to do to figure out difficult words when they come to them,” said Central instructor Liz Tuecke, referring to the older group of students.

The decision to implement the Wilson Program came after Central was identified as a “School in Need of Assistance” for failing to meet state reading goals on the annual Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Iowa Tests of Basic Development. That was just five years ago and Nick Trenkamp had just accepted the position of superintendent and elementary principal.

“Before I even started, I skyped with the elementary leadership team and we decided to be a pilot school for the state’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports,” said Trenkamp. “In our first year of the pilot, we quickly found out that our core instruction was not meeting the needs of the majority of our students and this led to our teachers being consumed with interventions to get students caught up. Around this time we also had some parent advocates sharing research on dyslexia. Our team decided to research curriculums that schools with low-test scores had seen success with and I also made contact with a dyslexia center. Both led us to an early literacy curriculum called Fundations.”

The Central team visited a Davenport school that had implemented Fundations and the Wilson Program. After seeing the program in action, Central purchased it and sent teachers to Chicago to be trained. Tuecke ultimately became certified in the program; a number of other educators have received training beyond the initial workshop.

The Wilson program is now part of the student’s daily classroom experience. Teachers in junior kindergarten through third grade have a daily 300-minute lesson plan based on the program. Kindergarteners and first graders get additional instruction. 

“Our success has been amazing!” Trenkamp continued. “We now have very few students in need of interventions, which has allowed for more team teaching and extensions for our students. We also have more support for the few students still in need of something a little extra.”

The program has also had a decided impact on the quality of student writing. Youngsters are using the sound-tapping system to include difficult words in their written work.

Central has readily shared its success with other school districts. Recently, a team of teachers from Decorah, when a part of the program has been implemented, visited. And elementary educators use an online group to discuss the program, and other topics, with teachers at Starmont, East Buchanan and West Central.

“It’s so good to have the opportunity to learn from each other how to strengthen things for our students,” Tuecke said.

Teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones seeing the positive results of the new reading curriculum. Wendy Walz, who has two youngsters at Central, can see the difference it’s making in her sons’ learning.

“I have two boys, one is a fourth grader and the other is a kindergartener,” Walz said. “For my fourth grader, reading is an on going struggle. The program is teaching him skills to use when reading.

“Where I have seen the most impact is with my kindergartener. It was introduced in preschool, reinforced in junior kindergarten and has continued into kindergarten. I can honestly say he likes to read and his favorite thing to do at school is writing.”

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