Working with a group of four first-graders Monday at Hartwood Elementary School in Stafford County, national reading guru Dr. Jan Richardson was engaging but business-like, kind but expecting prompt obedience.
Writing the word “want” on a small display whiteboard, she erased a letter and asked them, “What’s missing?”
After some consideration, 6-year-old Madison Covington ventured, “The letter ‘A’?”
“Right! Good Job! Everyone look at me and spell ‘want,’” Richardson said briskly.
They did, and immediately she instructed each student to use their tray of block magnetic letters to spell out the word on their own white boards.
Richardson continued working with the students, radiating energy and praise. At three other work stations in the same room, Hartwood teachers and paraprofessionals led similar four-student groups, focusing on different aspects of reading success, from word recognition and writing to comprehension and flow.
In education circles Richardson is a celebrity. Her “Next Step Forward” reading program, first introduced in 2015, has been adopted by thousands of teachers nationwide and is promoted by Scholastic Corp., the biggest U.S. distributor of educational and reading materials.
Now Richardson has developed an intensive, short-term reading intervention program for students who lag behind their grade average in reading ability. Called Reading Intervention for Students to Excel, or RISE, Richardson has been conducting research and working with co-author Ellen Lewis, a former teacher in Fairfax County, to write a book on the program, to be published by Scholastic in July.
Hartwood Elementary has been piloting the new program since the beginning of the school year and will be featured in the book.
“This is a special school,” said Lewis, who has traveled from Fairfax to Hartwood frequently since August to facilitate and oversee the pilot there.
“The staff are risk takers and active learners and they have administrators who are engaged and dedicated to improvement,” she said. “We’ve been working in classrooms all over the country and I’m telling you, it’s very rare that you see all the elements come together to make such a laboratory of reading success.”
Richardson has experience teaching every grade level K-12, as well as undergraduate and graduate students in college. With her husband in the Air Force, they moved frequently, and have lived in Virginia three different times over the years. Now Richardson is based in Wisconsin, but her work takes her to schools throughout the United States.
The RISE program, for first- to third-graders, and RISE UP for students in grades four and five, is very concentrated—one hour a day for six to eight weeks of focused instruction catered specifically to the needs of the individual students.
“In my experience and research I saw children condemned to a life sentence of being in a remedial reading class,” Richardson said. “Our goal is to get these kids back up to their class’ reading level, and keep progressing at that level or higher.”
Hartwood reading specialist Leslie Lausten said they’ve had about 100 students cycle through the program since the beginning of the school year.
“The kids love it,” Lausten said. “It’s very interesting to them and really moves them forward, it keeps them engaged and busy building solid reading skills.”
Richardson said schools in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties have been piloting the program for several years, as well as schools in eight other states. In Tennessee, more than 1,000 students in grades 1-7 have provided Richardson with the data collection needed for her book.
After 28 days of RISE instruction, Richardson says, students on average are making a six-month gain. But even better, they don’t slide backwards, as students frequently do after other intervention programs.
“We’re finding that 90 percent of students who go through [RISE] will reach and stay with their grade’s average reading level,” Richardson said. “Ten percent will need to repeat the cycle, but even they will escape the cycle eventually.”
Hartwood principal Scott Elchenko said teachers have definitely noticed accelerated progress as the program has been implemented.
“We’re seeing students move up in a couple weeks rather than from year to year,” Elchenko said. “And once they’ve graduated out of the program, back in the classroom, they are maintaining that higher level.”
Communication between teachers, paraprofessionals and specialists and the students themselves flows smoothly since the school is also using Richardson’s “Next Step Forward” guided reading program, which uses the same terminology and skill-building.
“We’re all on the same page with each child’s progress since we have a common language and references as we work with them,” Lausten said. “It gives us all better developmental tools and helps us know what to do with different levels.”