Why Johnny CAN read

Beaming into classrooms in North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas via webcams, literacy consultants at UNC have helped 58 teachers learn new ways to teach struggling readers in kindergarten and first grade — and helped 300 children learn to read. They are part of Targeted Reading Intervention, a program that aims to eliminate achievement gaps.

“Loud … south … town …”

Omari Williams is learning what spellings make the sound “ow.” He writes the words and reads them, one sound at a time: “lll … ow … duh.”

A first-grader at Northside Elementary in Warren County, N.C., Omari participates in Targeted Reading Intervention, an outreach and research program of UNC’s School of Education, Center for Developmental Science and FPG Child Development Institute.

Omari’s teacher, Patricia Williamson, and Amanda Bock, a literacy consultant in Chapel Hill, who participates in their session via webcam, offer plenty of positive feedback. “Omari, that was amazing!” says Bock, a doctoral candidate at the School of Education, after Omari reads a book brimming with “ow” words.

Targeted Reading Intervention helps children who are not learning to read via regular classroom instruction. And reading at this stage is critical. Later in school, it becomes the building block for learning other subjects.

In Targeted Reading Intervention, a child works with the teacher one-on-one for 15 minutes a day, four days a week, learning through cutting-edge teaching techniques, materials and ideas. The rest of the class receives a project to complete during the individual instruction. Every two weeks, after a session, the literacy consultant and the teacher discuss the next best strategies for the child.

“There’s no substitute for helping that teacher right there in real time,” says Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project and the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at UNC.

Once a struggling reader progresses to the level of the rest of the class, the teacher begins instructing another child one-on-one. Teachers come to Chapel Hill the summer before the program starts for training in Targeted Reading Intervention methods.

Targeted Reading Intervention is part of a National Research Center on Rural Education Support, established in 2004 with a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Additional grants brought the total to $17 million. School of Education faculty lead the program.

Since 2002, the UNC School of Education has garnered more than $51 million from public and private sources to study rural education and help low-wealth rural schools. Targeted Reading Intervention, which received $5 million, is a national model for delivering professional development to rural schools via webcam technology.

Researchers aim to continue Targeted Reading Intervention with a new $4 million grant from the Department of Education. With North Carolina’s northeastern counties, researchers also have applied for other grants to spread the program’s impact.

Matched with every Targeted Reading Intervention school was a control school, and researchers tested children at the school year’s beginning and end. Struggling readers receiving Targeted Reading Intervention scored an average of 10-to-13 points higher than struggling readers in control schools.

In addition, struggling and non-struggling readers together in Targeted Reading Intervention schools scored seven-to-10 points higher than corresponding groups in control schools. Researchers concluded that teachers gained insights from Targeted Reading Intervention that benefitted the rest of the class as well as Targeted Reading Intervention students.

At Northside, first-grade teacher Jabari White asks Jade Chase to move letter tiles on a white board to change one word into another. Jade progresses from “trick” to “track” to “truck” to “tuck” to “luck,” pronouncing each word, with each sound exaggerated.

“Very good, Jade,” White exclaims. “We need a high five on that one.”