Innovative method bridges literacy gaps in schools

Teaching model improves literacy by focusing on reading, writing as necessary basic elements of a child’s education.

Petah Tikva school 370 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Petah Tikva school 370
(photo credit: Courtesy )
About three years ago, when she was told she would have to learn a whole new teaching method for her class, Petah Tikva school teacher Bruria Brayman was skeptical. She was worried about how effective this new approach would be and how it was going to affect the slower learners in her class.
Today, she speaks of the change with great passion. “I could sell it to anyone, it works!” she said, smiling.
“The kids love to read, and they write a lot; I couldn’t believe it at first!”
The teaching model in question was invented at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York 20 years ago and was originally designed for New York City’s public schools, starting with some in Harlem. Its goal is to improve literacy by focusing on reading and writing as the necessary basic elements to a child’s education.
The model was then expanded nationally in the US and is today adopted by various schools internationally, including in Jordan at Queen Rania’s schools.
The Israeli Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI), in partnership with Teachers College, the Education Ministry and local governments, brought the system to Israel five years ago, and it is now operating in 18 schools in six different cities: Netanya, Petah Tikva, Bat Yam, Tel Aviv, Or Yehuda, Rishon Lezion and Kfar Yona.
Its focus is to promote literacy and bridge the significant gaps that exist between children from different schools in Israel, a problem that was recently apparent when the results of the national Meitzav exams became public just weeks ago.
The ICEI, which has decided to focus on elementary schools with a high concentration of Ethiopian pupils, appointed a literacy coach in each school to oversee the implementation of the program.
Twice a year, teachers and literacy coaches from the 18 schools gather for training, generally conducted by a representative of Teachers College from New York, like coach Shanna Schwartz, who was leading the instruction this week at Yigal Alon Elementary School in Netanya.
“Don’t ask the child about the book he read, ask him what he is doing to be a strong reader. We need to focus on the reader, not the specific book,” Schwartz told the room full of teachers and school officials who took notes as she spoke on Monday morning. Later, she went into a classroom and demonstrated the method on the children in an hour-long lesson that the teachers could observe.
Each classroom participating in the curriculum is equipped with items that facilitate the model, such as the teacher’s desk shaped in a half-circle, which makes it easier for the teacher to gather with small groups within the class. Each class also has an assembly area where the children gather with the instructor for class discussions, one of the model’s predominant activities.
The classrooms also each host a library of 600 to 1,000 books categorized into colored baskets, by reading levels.
The children, who are told what number reading level corresponds to them, select stories accordingly.
“We believe that children will learn to read by reading and by discussing and writing about a text,” Schwartz said.
“Not all reading work is about the word level, we believe that it’s about thought. We’re balancing working on thinking about text, using the print in text, and also on reading with fluency and expression – it is all part of communication,” she added.
Don Futterman, head of the ICEI said the program will allow teachers to give children “a love of reading and writing” through individualized instruction.
“This is a program designed to change school cultures, to turn around underachieving schools and make them schools of success and high expectationsm,” Futterman told The Jerusalem Post. “We try to improve teaching – because I think that’s really the key.”
He explained that while the center targets schools with Ethiopian children because of its original commitment to this community, the program is not specifically developed for them; it is “actually one of the few programs that works with immigrants and high-poverty areas, and at the same time can help highflying kids advance without holding them back.”
To involve parents, who are often illiterate, the schools also employ a mediator who is in charge of linking the school with the students’ families.
“These disadvantaged parents are often considered as a burden to be managed rather than a partner to really help their kids learn. I think they have to be partners, because most of the kids’ lives are actually outside of school, so they need that reinforcement at home,” Futterman said.
When implementing the American system in Israel, adjustments had to be made in order to fit the local culture and language, but Schwartz said the core of the model remained the same: “Methodology, and how humans learn, is not really that different whether you are a child or an adult, and it’s not really that different in different cultures. Comprehension is comprehension, and understanding a book is like understanding a human being,” she told the Post. “It’s been exciting to see that what we talk about to children in New York City or Ohio is not really that different than what we talk to children about in Paris or in Netanya.”
School teacher Odelia Golkerove, who attended the training at Yigal Alon on Monday, said that since implementing the teaching method, she has noticed quite a change in her classroom.
“I feel that I enter the classroom ready, with a precise plan for the day, and I’m more focused,” she said.
“I can also maximize my time in the class. Before, I used to have to move in the classroom frantically, and everyone used to pull me from every direction. Now, when they know what the routine is, they are more independent. This way, I am more calm, more available to give them personal attention,” Golkerove added.
She said she also noticed that her pupils strongly enjoyed reading and writing: Some have even asked their parents for books as birthday gifts, and others have started writing in a personal diary.
“In the age of iPhones and computers, that is a really amazing thing to me,” Golkerove said.
The ICEI today hopes to expand the program to more municipalities across the country and eventually to middle schools as well.
“Ideally, the Ministry of Education adopts this as the lead program,” Futterman said. “It changes teaching, it changes children’s lives.”
He added, “I wish my kids had learned to read and write this way, too.”