Literacy focus boosts reading skills
Houston, Texas
Michelle Healy
October 1, 2017

Many moving pieces are at work in Jennifer Rachal’s first-grade class. But her students at Montgomery Elementary in Houston have the system down pat. They waste no time getting started with the activities designed to build their skills in reading, writing, listening, speaking, and critical thinking—the essential components of literacy.  

Pairs of students sit in a corner softly reading to one another, helping their partner with an occasional unfamiliar or mispronounced word. A group of three sit at a table discussing ideas for today’s writing prompt — photos of birthday celebrations. There’s back-and-forth among the group about favorite ice cream flavors, favorite places to celebrate a birthday, and all-time favorite birthday gifts. 

In another area of the classroom, several students don headphones and listen to reading via e-books and computers, while others read independently. Still others do today’s “Word Work” lesson focusing on the sound that different letter combinations make. 

In a corner of the room, where she can see all this activity, Rachal, a 17-year-teaching veteran, sits at the center of a kidney-shaped table used for guided reading. She introduces some of the vocabulary—“swashbuckling,” “chaos,” and “spellbound,” for example—that this rotation of four students will encounter in Miss Smith’s Incredible Storybook. Then Rachal offers small group phonics instruction, draws connections between the adventures in this story and others the students already know, and pays close attention to each child as he or she reads aloud. Along the way, she offers comments, asks questions, and makes note of each student’s reading fluency, accuracy, and comprehension. 

With slight variations, this routine is repeated in every classroom on 178 campuses in the Houston Independent School District as part of its sweeping Literacy By 3 initiative. The goal: to have all elementary-level students reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

Pivotal third grade 

Third grade is widely viewed as pivotal in reading development. It’s the year when learning to read shifts to reading to learn. Studies have linked successful reading ability at third grade to long-term educational outcomes.

An Annie E. Casey Foundation-commissioned study of almost 4,000 students, for example, found that students who didn’t read proficiently by third grade were four times more likely than proficient readers to drop out of school. Living in poverty increased the odds: Low-income students were “three times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time than their more affluent peers; if they read poorly, too, the rate was six times greater.”

For black and Latino students, the combined effect of poverty and poor third-grade reading skills made the dropout rate eight times greater. 

Several studies have documented the low literacy level of both juveniles and adults involved with the criminal justice system.

“There's a disconnect for children that can’t read” that very often leads to difficulties throughout their life, says Grenita Lathan, chief academic officer for the school district. Houston is the largest district in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation with 215,000 students. 

The inability to read on grade level has “a snowball effect,” says Cindy Puryear, Houston’s director of elementary literacy. “The farther behind a reader becomes, the less likely (he or she) is to keep trying. Eventually, the task is simply too difficult, not to mention distasteful.”

Houston officials say that their district is not immune to the nationwide epidemic of low literacy, which is inextricably intertwined with poverty. Houston’s student poverty rate, based on free and reduced-price meal eligibility, is 76 percent.

Noted for its downtown skyscrapers and booming energy, biomedical research, and aerospace industries, Houston is a city made up of communities of wealth and of poverty, Lathan says. “But at the end of the day, we have a school district that is willing to do what’s needed for all the children.”

Support for the literacy initiative has been a common denominator across the city, says Board of Education President Wanda Adams. It’s been able “to incorporate everyone and get us all on the same page.” 

Early improvements

When Literacy By 3 launched in 2014, only 68 percent of third-grade students met the “satisfactory” passing standard on the reading portion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) results. Only 56 percent of African American third-grade students met the “satisfactory” passing standard (a 34 percent gap in comparison to white third-grade students in HISD). Just 68 percent of English language learner (ELL) third-grade students met the “satisfactory” passing standard (a 22 percent gap in comparison to white third-grade students).

A year later, improvements were already being seen: 70 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test, a two-point boost. Nearly 30 elementary campuses had double-digit increases, all signs that the district is on its way to meeting its goal of having 100 percent of third-graders reading at or above grade level by 2019. 

Compared to past literacy efforts, this one stood out to the school board—and not just because of the initial $9 million funding request, Adams says. The plan covered “manpower, the materials that are needed, books to support it, and professional development around our teachers to make this a successful program. That’s why we had the big buy-in.”

That buy-in was repeated at the middle school level last year with the launch of Literacy in the Middle and the launch this fall of Literacy Empowered, the high school component. Screening data show that only 39 percent of ninth-graders read at or on grade level, “very much mirroring what we knew about our middle school students, says Annie Wolfe, secondary curriculum and development officer.  

“We're reaching our elementary students, but we still have a literacy crisis, Lathan says. “We have a literacy crisis in our middle schools, and also most definitely in our high schools.” 

Literacy By 3 is a “common framework, an approach” to teaching the interwoven components of literacy, says Lance Menster, elementary curriculum and development officer. What sets this “balanced literacy approach” apart, he says, are the individualized assessments taken of each student during the year to measure reading level and growth, along with the alignment, resources, and support that have been provided. 

Among those resources: a massive influx of 2.3 million books over a two-year span for grades preschool through 5. Each elementary classroom received a personalized library of some 300 texts for students’ use at school and at home and developed to address each student’s reading ability with sufficient range for growth throughout the school year.

 In addition, each campus was outfitted with a bookroom of text sets, organized by Lexile level, for use in small-group guided reading instruction.

Before adding the libraries, “we had classrooms in HISD that really didn’t have any books other than the basal reader,” says Puryear.  “And what we know is that the more books that students have access to, the more they're going to read.”

Literacy deserts

Like food deserts, literacy deserts are common in low-income communities across the U.S. Research led by Susan B. Neuman of New York University found that only one age-appropriate book is available for every 300 children in low-income areas compared to an average of 13 books for every child in middle-income households.

In some places, “you literally cannot put your hands on a book because there's not a public library, there's not a bookstore,” says Mechiel Rozas, director of secondary literacy for the district. In those communities, schools must be the source where students can be exposed to and have access to a wide range of high-quality, engaging texts and literature, she says. 

In Rachal’s classroom, large plastic food storage bags hold the books that each individual student has selected from the classroom library for reading in class or at home. When they finish those books, they “Go Shopping” for new selections. “Choice is one of the most important factors in getting students to read, and getting kids to read for pleasure,” Puryear says. 

At the start of the school year, students learn the art of choosing a book that is slightly challenging but not too challenging, the so-called “just-right” book “to avoid frustration or lack of growth,” she explains. 

The Literacy by 3 framework is used in teaching ELLs, says Faye McNeil, principal of Montgomery, a school that is 68 percent Hispanic. That’s slightly higher than the district average of 62 percent. Nearly 30 percent of district students are Limited English Proficient (LEP); 8 percent are learning English as a Second Language (ESL). 

“We always start with the students’ native language” when teaching reading, McNeil says. “We use the ESL instructional block as an opportunity to bridge Spanish into English.” Thus, “many of our young learners are (learning to read) in English and in Spanish.”

Teacher support 

Teacher training and support has been and continues to be a crucial component of Literacy By 3, Puryear says. “To go from doing a very teacher-directed, whole group, basal-driven instruction for reading, to going to a more individualized approach that's based on individual assessment, was a huge shift.”  

“The First 25 Days,” the district’s blueprint that helps teachers with everything—from arranging the Literacy By 3 classroom and workstations; to introducing the concept to students a day at a time; to building their confidence, stamina, and independence within the framework—is particularly beneficial, Rachal says: “By the fourth and fifth week, you’re really letting them spread their wings.”

The long-term result is that Houston students are operating more independently in the classroom, collaborating more with classmates, and most importantly, embracing a world of literacy. “And that's really what it’s all about,” Puryear says. “That we're creating children who are not just growing for right now, but they are growing to be readers for the rest of their lives.”    

Michelle Healy ( is associate editor of American School Board Journal.