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Reading Comprehension Study Aimed at Getting Cross Creek Charter Students to Think Deeper

“Are you thinking about your thinking?” For students at Cross Creek Charter Academy, a National Heritage Academies (NHA) school, the question is part of a program that aims to improve their reading comprehension strategies.
 
Kristin Scherkenbach, a K-5 academic specialist, and Jennifer Kidd, a fourth-grade teacher, signed up for a professional development program called Ignite Engagement that encourages more engagement with children and studies the book by Ellin Oliver Keene “Engaging Children: Igniting the Drive for Deeper Learning.”
 
Ignite Engagement, recently named by the Michigan Department of Education as a promising practice, gives students strategies to improve their independent reading comprehension. This begins with “metacognition,” or the process of making students aware of how they’re using these strategies.
 
That the study coincided with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student learning made the topic of engagement even more important than they could have realized at the time.
 
“Reading strategies has been around for a long time, that is not new,” Scherkenbach said. “But the intentionality of it and trying to connect it to student independent reading, we're trying to make that more concrete for the kids.”

Why Reading Comprehension Is Important
Kidd and Scherkenbach were accepted into the program in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic altered their plans in the spring 2020. They stayed connected to the program and resumed the study in fall 2020, but things looked much different with virtual meetings.
 
With the foundational learning of the program complete by the 2022-23 school year, they were encouraged by Keene to create a research project to determine if a certain type of instruction can bring change around a problem. They chose to focus on students disengaging from books.
 
Scherkenbach said she noticed a significant percentage of children, as much as almost half, struggling to stay engaged with books. Their hypothesis: That explicitly teaching children thinking strategies will lead to deeper comprehension and more authentic engagement while reading.
 
“I had been noticing in students the problem of picking up a book and reading it, but either not really understanding what they’re reading, or picking up a book, reading a few pages and putting it back on the shelf,” she said. “During independent reading time, they would have a book out in front of them, but from their eyes, you could tell they're not actually reading. They’re pretending to read, or they're looking around the room. They’re very disengaged from the reading that they're doing.”
 
Cross Creek has outperformed the local district for 13 years with students participating in NHA schools’ English Language Arts lessons and Read Alouds to cultivate a positive relationship with reading, but Scherkenbach felt the study would instill a strategic approach for young readers.
 Cross Creek student reading
Cross Creek students have been using metacognition strategies to improve their reading comprehension.
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“A student would read through a book independently and not understand the book,” she said. “While skills and instruction are important, during the independent reading portion of class, kids need to understand how to solve the problems they encounter when they’re reading independently instead of just plowing forward, seemingly unaware that they are even experiencing problems. That's our driving force behind the project.”
 
The pre-assessment had students read a passage followed by questions asking what they were thinking about as they read and what problems they had with the article. Nearly all of the students said they had no problems or misunderstandings after reading a nonfiction article about the Florida Everglades, which gave Scherkenbach pause.
 
“As an adult, I read the article, and I had to reread a couple sections because I couldn’t quite understand what was happening, and I’m a very voracious reader,” she said.
 
Keene has worked with Kidd and Scherkenbach since 2018 and flew in from Colorado to visit Cross Creek in November to model a lesson for teachers. She has visited the classroom several times, stressing strategies such as monitoring for meaning, when students listen to their inner voice while they read.
 
The Results: Showing Improvement
Toward the middle of the school year, Scherkenbach asked one-fourth grader to talk about what they were thinking after silently reading a few pages. The student recalled and applied the term “metacognition” to the exercise long after hearing the term from Keene. Other students Scherkenbach is working with through intervention curriculum are giving more detailed responses of their thoughts instead of copying a sentence from the book.
 
The students were assessed on a five-point scale in the pre-assessment and post-assessment. Their grades in trimester 1 were an average of 2.39, and 2.55 in trimester 2. Scores on the preassessment for thinking aloud were an average of 2, and 2.5 in the post-assessment. Scores on preassessment for monitoring for meaning were an average of 2.3, and 2.5 in the post-assessment.
 
With the study in the post-assessment stage, how to proceed is still to be determined. Scherkenbach is hopeful that some of the lessons can be incorporated into curriculum and be shared with other Cross Creek teachers.
 
“We are pleased to see growth but know there is more work to be done,” she said. “The students are very used to taking assessments that require them to answer multiple-choice questions. The strategy assessments we are administering require a much deeper level of thinking. We know our work is not done but believe the time we are investing into teaching these strategies will lead to higher student engagement.”

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About Cross Creek Charter Academy:
Cross Creek Charter Academy is a tuition-free, public charter school in Byron Center, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes 99 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit nhaschools.com.


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