Opotiki Primary School

Tony Howe discusses the strategies used at Opotiki Primary School to improve students’ reading and physical fitness.

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We agreed on the reading assessment methodology we would use in our school. We wanted to make sure that, as much as possible, we were doing it scientifically - that we were all doing it the same. So it was right down to the little things, like how long you pause for before telling them a word. We did that as a staff then I worked with each class teacher. We modelled it together and I observed them, then we went ahead and finished off each class. And to save them time I actually did the analysis of each room.

The results were not positive: kids were not making the progress we'd hoped for. On average they were making .72 of a year's progress in a year at school. And if you do that for 8 years you can see that you're going to be about 2 years behind your chronological age.

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Māori in mainstream

I worked quite closely with Ted Glynn from Waikato University, and Mere Berryman through the School Community Iwi Liaison Project and realised that we didn't have programmes that were proven to work with Māori students in mainstream.

After looking at the specific needs of our students and what programmes were available to meet those needs, we ran with HPP (Hei Awhiawhi Tamariki ki te Panui Pukapuka), an oral language programme which prepares students to begin the reading process. We included PPP (Pause, Prompt, Praise) and TARP (Tape Assisted Reading Programme), all of which had been proven to work well with Māori in mainstream.

The cost of Reading Recovery could be anywhere between $1400 and $2000 per student, depending on how long they stayed on the programme. By employing tutors, we could put students through these programmes and get some quite amazing gains for around about $170 per student.

In other words, for the same amount of money we were spending on Reading Recovery, we could put 40 or 50 students through different reading programmes. So if we wanted to reach the masses, which a school like us needed to do, we had to look outside the square, do things differently.

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Train reading tutors

We had three teacher aides in the school in 2001. Their role was to assist teachers and, truthfully, they were doing a lot of mundane things that weren't really benefiting the students - photocopying, making the paints, etc. We said, "If they're here, let's train them so they are going to help the students improve their achievement levels." There was huge resistance at first from the classroom teachers because you're taking away something. That didn't go down well.

The skill programme, which really HPP, PPP, and TARP were part of, relied upon parent volunteers. Now, I had tried that for many years in a number of schools, and it works well for short periods of time but people often run out of goodwill, or their circumstances change. I'm not saying that volunteers are not good - they certainly are. But long term I don't think that's the answer.

We decided to redefine the roles of the teacher aides and employ a fourth. We trained them in the tutoring procedures used for PPP, HPP, and TARP. They were also trained to do the pre- and post-testing of all students, thus freeing up classroom teachers.

Once the training was completed, we set aside a classroom and got the reading programme underway. The programme caters for all students, from the brightest to the ones who are struggling the most. So there's no stigma attached. Everyone's going along to be extended beyond where they are. And you get buy-in from teachers, the parents and from the kids.

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Boost comprehension

We soon found that we were getting our structural reading levels up but we weren't getting that higher order thinking. Kids had excellent recall - finding information in a text and regurgitating factual things - but when we asked the kids, "Why did this apply?" and whatever, they weren't even attempting them.

Our two RTLBs (Resource Teachers Learning Behaviour) spoke about a programme that they'd been trialing in schools called Three Level Guide. They were quite confident that it really did give kids a boost in their higher level thinking. So we trialed it and were blown away by the results. I honestly wouldn't have thought that it would have made such a difference to their comprehension.

We've got a resource room here that we think would be the envy of most schools. We've spent tens of thousands of dollars per year on getting it up to scratch and there are boxes of graded readers with high interest level. Teachers grab these boxes, take them back to their rooms. So every kid in their class has got something they can engage with in meaningful reading. And it works.

And by having all of the graded readers when the kids go to reading, little Johnny no longer goes and picks a book five years above his age; he knows his reading level. We just put the reading ages there - you're 8 and here's the 9 year old box - because it's a far simpler system.

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Support and praise

Leadership is about, at some stage, stepping back and letting others take over with new enthusiasm and new ideas and letting them go forward. It's hard though. It's like you put so much of your life into it and at some stage you've got to say, "Well okay, I've done my bit now". And you can see them faltering at times and you want to say, "Oi, come here, this is how you do it." But you can't do that and it's hard.

There's been a total buy-in by the teaching staff because they've seen the success of it. They know that roughly a quarter of the school population at any one time are getting intensive help. So while those students are at the reading programmes, they don't have to give them the intense one-on-one. They can concentrate on the other three quarters that are behind.

The teachers are now really reflective about what they are doing in the classroom and discussing and looking for better ways of teaching reading. We've done this but how could we do it better? Where to from here?

Teachers know they are making a difference. And when you know that you can make a difference, you feel good. Winning the Multi Serve award in 2003 was probably the best PD you could have for a staff because it made everyone think, "Hey, we're making a positive difference for our kids and others are recognising it. We are doing this well."

It's nice to get a pat on the back and some recognition that your hard work is appreciated, but it wasn't just the reading programmes that got that sort of result, it was the school wide programme. What happens in that reading programme was just a part of it, because only a quarter of the kids from the school are on it at any one time. So the types of results we are getting cannot be explained just by the reading programmes. It has to be improved classroom practice.

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Confident, fit students

Our kids feel pretty good about themselves now. They know they can read - and read with success. That's probably the greatest thing. Historically our kids at the end of eight years of primary school were two years behind, on average.

In 2001 the data showed that just under 20 percent of our year 8s were reading at or above their chronological age. Three years later it's now the reverse, with 80 percent reading at or above their chronological age.

One goal back then was that our kids would make a year's progress in a year at school. Currently they've been making 1.4 years progress each year for 3 calendar years, which is 4.2 years progress in 3 years. Historically that would have taken them about 6 years. So you know they're feeling good about that. Their parents are also feeling good about that because they are informed of their progress.

Although there's still quite a wide range, it's made it easier for the teachers, not having classes that have a totally illiterate person up to a 14 year old reading age.

Reading is a favourite time of day now. It's not seen as "Ugh, reading". It's now a favoured subject. And the kids feel good when you give them something, "Yeah, I can read that." They're confident. They're on task and engaged. They can use the Internet and read across all their curriculum areas. I think that's what it is. Because if you're not literate, you can't do maths, you can't do social studies, you can't use the Internet, you can't use encyclopaedias.

We've got a little girl who moved up from the coast and, as she was on our very first intake three years ago, she was put on HPP and her reading was 5.4 years. She's now reading at 14 years plus. In 3 years. She would be our greatest success in terms of gain.

Last year we introduced healthy lunches and we looked at our PE and fitness programmes. In looking at targets and goals for 2004, we were still concerned about a number of inactive and obese students. So this year we decided to trial a fitness programme for a group of 10 students three times a week, using a recently retired policeman at a local gym.

It's all around getting them to be active through play as opposed to building big muscles. It's to get them to enjoy and feel comfortable about being active and hopefully, as they become more active, they lose a bit of weight.

The kids did a self-esteem test about what they thought of themselves and what others thought of them. I just about cried reading some of the things they said - the boys in particular. I just didn't think that these kids felt so little about themselves. They thought they were useless, unimportant failures.

There's one kid whose dad's a pig-hunter and he can't go pig-hunting with dad because he's too big. He's missing out on sharing time with dad because of his size. So his goal is to be able to walk firstly 5 kilometres, then 10 kilometres and go pig-hunting with dad, which is neat.

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