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Capture the Power of Reading

June Ganter

Illinois Youth Center (I.Y.C.) Pere Marquette, a special library serving approximately 80 youth in the Department of Corrections, introduced the Accelerated Reading Program as part of a Library Services & Technology Act grant awarded by the Illinois State Library. The Accelerated Reading Program provides books with a wide range of reading levels and the software that allows students to take a multiple choice test on a computer to determine how well he understands the book he has read. Immediate feedback in the form of a grade and points earned, depending on the length and difficulty of the book and the number of correct answers, encourages the students to read more and increase their reading skills.

The FY99 LSTA grant awarded to our special library came as a pleasant surprise. The hours of planning, writing and rewriting the application were hours well spent. The Accelerated Reading Program has provided a unique tool to assist students in improving reading skills.

Preplanning and Ground Work

How do you motivate a teenager who reads very little or very poorly to read a book, to understand what he reads and to learn to enjoy the process? If a youth checks out a book, how can you tell if he actually is reading it or if he is comprehending what he has read? This has been a challenge for many years as the library staff deals with young men (ages 13 - 18) committed to the Department of Corrections. When the Accelerated Reading Program information became known, it was viewed as a possible way to help the students become better readers and increase their enjoyment of reading.

The Accelerated Reading Program is a simple 3-step process: (1) Choose a book and read it. (2) Go to the computer and take a multiple choice test. (3) Get immediate feedback in the form of a grade and points earned depending on the number of questions answered correctly and the length and difficulty of the book.

When I brought the idea of this program to the school principal, he encouraged me to investigate the possibility further. I also discussed the idea with Ms. Thea Chesley, Coordinator of Library Services for all of the libraries in School District #428, Department of Corrections. She agreed that this program would be a valuable tool in improving reading skills and that it could have a real impact on the role of the library at the institution.

I spoke with parents and teachers whose schools had used this program and was impressed by their enthusiasm and positive comments. Representatives from the Perma-Bound Company were contacted by telephone and extensive literature, demonstration disks, and estimates of cost for the initialization of the program were received. A representative from the company met with the principal and myself to explain in more detail just how the program could be implemented. Information was shared with teachers at the facility who were very receptive to the proposition. Two of the five teachers had previous experience in other schools with this program.

As detailed planning of minimum requirements to successfully launch the Accelerated Reading Program as part of our library service began, it became evident that, although the program would definitely be beneficial in establishing good reading habits and improving skills, it was too expensive to be purchased with library funds. Neither the school nor the institution budget had funds that could be allocated for this purpose. Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grant could be the source that could rescue this very worthwhile project.

Project Plan

THE GOAL - Using technology to motivate students to read quality books at an increasingly higher level of understanding and instill in them a greater enjoyment of reading.

* June Ganter, Library Associate, Illinois Youth Center Pere Marquette, Grafton, Illinois.

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THE OBJECTIVE - The expected outcome of the introduction of this program is that reading levels of students participating in this program will be increased to a greater degree than those students who have not participated. Records of past and present students will be available for comparison.

In reviewing the long range plan for the use of Library Services and Technology Act funds, goal #3 seemed to best apply to the project. The structured reading program, Accelerated Reading, encourages students to choose literature based books, to evaluate their comprehension, and to gradually increase their skill and enjoyment of reading. Since all students are given reading tests when they arrive and when they leave I.Y.C. Pere Marquette, any advances in reading skills can be measured and documented.

Why I.Y.C. Pere Marquette residents need this program.

The population of I.Y.C. Pere Marquette consists of approximately 80 male delinquents, aged 13 to 18. Their duration of incarceration varies from 3 months to 2 years or more. During this time they attend regular classes and earn grade school or high school credit. Older students may earn a GED.

The population at Pere Marquette is continually shifting as students move in and out of the system but the statistics that reflect their high-risk status remain constant. Some of those statistics are

Minority students             73%
At or below poverty level            70%
From broken homes             80%
Addicted to drugs and/or alcohol             35%
Spec. Ed. Behavior Disorder             25%
Spec. Ed. Learning disabilities            35%

The library service is a vital component to the educational and recreational program, providing a link to the world outside the institution. Although some students are already avid readers, many are practically non-readers, achieving reading levels well below their grade and age level. Since these residents do not have access to the type of motivational and structured programming available at public schools and libraries, the Accelerated Reading approach would be uniquely valuable and effective.

Program Activities

The 3 simple steps to the Accelerated Reading Program and the reasons I believe they would work for these boys are as follows:

Step 1 - Choose a book from a list and read it.

A selection of 200 new books with reading levels ranging from 2.0 to 12.9 would allow all boys, regardless of reading skills, to participate equally.

Step 2 - Take a multiple choice test on a computer (in library or designated classroom)

This easy-to-use system assures the teacher that the student has actually read the book. It requires no extra work for the teacher but supplies him with valuable information on the students reading progress.

Step 3 - Receive immediate feedback and rewards

Instant feedback to the student rewards careful reading with a passing grade and points earned. The points that he earns can be redeemed for motivational items. All students who participate in the program will be eligible to receive certificates or other types of recognition for reading accomplishments. Reports generated by the software can be sent to parents or included in school records.

Promotional and Recognition Activities

Incoming students will receive information on the reading program during orientation. All students will be encouraged to participate.

Bulletin Boards and postings of activities will keep all residents and staff informed. Reading lists will be distributed to classrooms and dorm areas.

Recognition Programs will be scheduled on a regular basis to honor reading achievements, presenting awards and certificates to those who have earned them.

Details concerning this program will be submitted to the institution's information officer for possible publication in local and Corrections periodicals.

Project Feasibility

This project had a good chance of being highly successful for these reasons:

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Accelerated Reading would enhance and complement the school program which has in place a system of individualized lesson plans.

On-site training from qualified representatives of the Perma-Bound Accelerated Readier Presentations will be available initially for all staff involved in the program. Follow-up training sessions and consultation are also part of the program.

Recently purchased computers for the library and school will guarantee the availability of enough computers to accommodate the equipment needs of this program.

Yearly budget would allow the purchase of some additional titles and computer disks to continue and expand the initial program.

Funds for additional motivational and incentive items could be obtained from Library or school budgets, or by request from the Institution's Residential Benefit Fund.

Partnerships and Community Involvement

A correctional institution is a community in itself. Any activity that affects the behavior, self-esteem, and well-being of the residents has an effect on every person in that community. This program was planned to create a positive image for the library and generate an atmosphere of enthusiasm for libraries in general. If goals and objectives are reached, administrators would take notice and it is a clear possibility that this program or a similar one will be adapted for other facilities that serve youth.

The project was planned so that volunteer tutors from Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey and Principia College in Elsah would find this program valuable in assessing the needs of the students and assist them in their efforts to raise reading levels.

The ultimate benefit to the community is the fact that the young men who actually develop good reading habits and skills will be better equipped to lead productive lives when they are released and less likely to return to the Department of Corrections.

Goals and Objectives

The project goal was to use technology to motivate students to read quality books at an increasingly higher level of understanding and instill in them a greater enjoyment of reading. The goal has been accomplished in most areas:

Using technology - All students, regardless of previous experience with computers, became adept at the procedures used to access the Accelerated Reading Program tests. They also gained a basic knowledge of how data is stored and organized and the way that computers can generate many different reports from the same data.

Read quality books - The books used to introduce Accelerated Reading at this institution were carefully chosen to respond to the particular needs of this population. Grade and interest level were definite factors but the quality of the material was equally important in the selection process. Award winning children and young adult literature titles, classics - old and new, and fiction dealing with a diversity of people, problems, and experiences.

Increasingly higher level - Many students who were poor readers participated in this program. Initially, even the lowest level tests were difficult for them to pass. Teachers and library staff were very supportive of these students and encouraged them to choose another book and try again. Soon, those who persisted, were not only passing the tests, but were getting 90 and 100%. When a student was reading level so that his skills would increase.

Greater enjoyment of reading - The accomplishment of this goal was, by far, the most satisfying aspect of the project. Students exhibited an enthusiastic response to this program from the beginning. I noticed behavior that was contrary to the usual attitudes our students have about books and reading. Some actual comments from some of these students will be a part of this report.

THE OBJECTIVE: To demonstrate by test scores the improvement in reading and comprehensive skills of students who participate in the accelerated reading program.

Test scores - Because of the short time period during which students participated in this program, it was impossible to analyze the data available. The educational staff is currently gathering information on each students reading progress and a means of tracking students progress is now being developed.

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PROGRAM ACTIVITIES

As soon as notification of the grant award was received, the activity of implementing the program, CPR: Capture the Power of Reading began. The library books and software that was needed for this computerized system of reading management had been selected already. The purchase orders were done quickly and the possibility of a good incentive program that could help our students would soon be a reality.

A publicity campaign to acquaint students and staff of the introduction of this new program was put into motion. A pamphlet which gave a brief description of the program and the advantages of joining the "CPR Team" was designed for distribution to students. When the program was fully implemented these pamphlets would be part of the incoming resident's orientation to the school program. A bulletin board in the library announced that a new reading program was "COMING SOON!" Newspaper articles referring to our small but unique library appeared in the nearby community of Alton and in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. These articles were also displayed prominently in the library and information about the grant was forwarded to the media representative at our facility. Later in the year, the Department of Corrections publication, "Perspective," published an article concerning the awarding of this grant.

The next step was the scheduling of training for the teachers to give them a working knowledge of the details of the program. The first session was scheduled in the first week of July. By that time, the software had arrived and been installed and some of the 200 new books that had been ordered were delivered and processed.

By mid-July a few students had shown some interest in participating in the new program. The lure of prizes and certificates was enough to convince them to check out a book and take a test. Unfortunately, quite a few of the students tended to ignore one of the basic elements of this exercise. That was the fact that they actually had to READ A BOOK. Although the importance of reading the book carefully had been stressed, it was fairly obvious that the first attempts at passing the tests had failed because the students thought they could guess at the answers correctly with little or no reading.

Since the computer generated tests give instant results, I was able to observe the student's reaction when he learned that he hadn't passed a test - sometimes getting only 1 or 2 correct out of 10 questions. The reaction was usually a mixture of amazement, indignation, and amusement. These clever young men who usually can bluff their way through and survive by their wits with very little effort were taken down by a mere machine! I had warned them, "You must read the book and pay attention to what you are reading or you will not be able to pass the test." I was afraid that they would give up the whole idea once they had failed a test but I was so wrong about that. After failing so miserably on a first test the student would most often be challenged to try again. "Okay," they would say. "I'm getting another book and I bet I'll pass the next one." And wonder of wonders, they usually did! After 20 years of trying to convince reluctant readers to read a whole book, it was suddenly happening on a daily basis.

The Accelerated Reading program has now been used at I.Y.C. Pere Marquette for about 5 months and it has become the first step to better and more enjoyable reading for many. A lot of the youth at this facility have never experienced even average success in any part of their schooling so far. For them to excel in a structured reading program is remarkable to them. To reinforce even the slightest advancement in reading habits, a system of rewards has been devised.

It Pays to Capture the Power of Reading

Perhaps the key factor to the accelerated program is motivation. It is only common sense to realize that the more you read, the better reader you become. Convincing an uncooperative, uninterested teenager that he should try to better himself in any way is a huge undertaking.

Finally, after several failures, one of the boys read a book, took a test and passed it! I could not praise him enough. I showed the student how to print out a report, generated by the software program, which would show all the pertinent information on this first achievement. The report included his name, the title of the book, his score on the test, and how many points he had earned, depending on the difficulty and length of the book. He was given 2 copies of this report, one for himself and one to present to his Language Arts teacher. All of the teachers had agreed to integrate the reading program into the individualized lesson plans for the students so that they could receive credit for every book they read - as long as they passed the test on that book.

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To further encourage participation in the program, the principal of the school worked with me to emphasize the accomplishment and recognize the effort put forth by the reader. Every morning, before the bell rings for the first class, the students are assembled in the courtyard for the Pledge of Allegiance. Any announcements are also made at that time. The first time a student passes an accelerated reading test Mr. Morgan, the principal, announces to the group, that a student has earned an award. He asks that student to step forward, compliments him in a very sincere way, and presents him with a membership packet which includes an attractive colorful personalized certificate, a new folder for this and future awards and reading reports, and a list of all the prizes and the points needed to acquire them. Mr. Morgan shakes his hand, the assembled students, teachers and security staff give him a round of applause. It really is a very good way to start the day.

The instant feedback of scores on tests, the printed reports of progress, and the various certificates and accolades bestowed on participating students helped to escalate the interest and enthusiasm for the reading program. The full cooperation of the educational staff contributed to its success. Even the security staff, who normally do not become involved with any school program made comments about the fact that so many students were actually reading books.

In closing, statements by some of the students demonstrate the importance of the Accelerated Reading Program and the library:

"...First of all I like the Accelerated Reader Program. After reading a book, you take a test to check your comprehension of the book.

Secondly, you can read books worth so many points. You can buy pencils and colored pencils. You can also buy cards to send to people.

Thirdly, it helps you refresh your memory so you can learn how to remember the book.

Finally, these are the three reasons why I like the I.Y.C. Pere Marquette library."

"I like going to the library because I enjoy reading books. In fact, it's my favorite subject. I especially like the library because it has a wide selection of books and all the books I've read were interesting and helps my time go faster...With a little help from Mrs. Ganter in choosing books, I've earned over 150 points in the Accelerated reading program. I'm not the type to ask for help but Mrs. Ganter is so nice that when I'm having trouble looking for something, she offers me help and encourages me to read harder books. I took her advice and I've past [sic] the hardest test here!..."

"...I like accelerated reading because it tests you on how much you've learned from reading and it gets you ready for your future references and things come along easier for the road ahead of you..."

"...The reason I like going to the library is because of that reading program. That's a fun idea to read a book, then take a test on a computer. Whoever thought about that was a smart person. At least it's not that boring in here. It's good that we have something to do to expand our reading ability so that when we get out of here we will be more interested in reading. That's the reason I like going to the library."

"...The library here at Pere Marquette is a great learning source for those that are locked up. We can't get out and go to the library ourselves. It's a good chance for me and the rest of the kids here to read and accelerate in our reading habits. The library gives some of us a positive change. It's something to take back to the outside world..."

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