Youth Literacy Project: Promising Practices

Promising Practices in Youth Literacy

The Youth Literacy Project (also known as the New School project) evolved a coherent and integrated set of practices that allowed the program to meet multiple needs of students. The following key practices were identified by staff and researchers as contributing to the success of the program:


Comprehensive and holistic approach

The model presents a comprehensive and holistic approach to teaching and learning that recognizes that literacy development goes beyond reading and writing and seeks to present academic content in ways that are relevant to youth. Art and technology are connected to other subjects and reading, writing and problem solving are emphasizes across the curriculum. Reading includes both intensive, strategy-based reading, as well as extensive, recreational reading (silent reading). Students are encouraged to become critical readers and writers, to challenge what they read and hear (e.g., through ads or television) and to express their opinions. Students in turn are challenged to think more deeply, read and write more attentively, and draw connections between subjects. Learning how to learn is emphasizes through both the use of learning strategies (e.g., question generating, summarizing, predicting and confirming, identifying challenges in learning, recognizing one’s progress) and of study skills (keeping track of assignments, time management, making full use of instructional time).

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Target youth with significant literacy issues

The program focuses on at-risk youth with significant literacy challenges who have been unsuccessful in other school options. Although the New School model is designed to cope with a broad range of behavioural issues, its primary focus is on youth who have reading problems that prevent them from succeeding in school. Because of the New School’s emphasis on literacy developments, students who suffer principally from behavioural or attitudinal problems, but who are otherwise literate are inappropriate for the program. They simply will not have patience for the program’s emphasis on remedial instruction. Likewise, youth who have neurological damage (such as FAS) that inhibits learning or behavioural control will not benefit from the program and will interfere with the learning of others. The materials and teaching strategies are designed to assist students who read from grade three to seven. Nevertheless some students who tested below grade three have been successful in the program and other youth who scored above grade seven were also able to benefit from the program. Recruitment should be flexible enough to accept students who may be somewhat outside the target reading levels but who have attributes that indicate a need for the program and potential for success. (High motivation is a positive indicator.)

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Safe and separate learning environment

For students to take on their learning challenges they must be willing to take risks. To take risks, they must feel physically and emotionally safe while in the classroom A supportive learning environment must include the staff and all of the students. This doesn’t happen naturally; it must be created.

Bullying, harassment, intimidation, or making fun of other students must be curtailed from the very beginning of classes. Controlling this kind of behaviour is a challenge for many students, most of whom are well practiced in these behaviours Initially, basic rules of conduct and the reasons for them are explained by staff. Soon, the students are asked to consider what kind of learning environment they want and to come up with their own set of class rules. The sooner students buy into a common set of desired behaviours and learn both self-control and how to assist other students to control their behaviours, the easier it is for them to learn and for teachers to teach.

Building positive behaviours cannot be done by edict. It takes a significant investment of time and consistent modelling by the staff as well as a deft non-confrontational hand in dealing with instances of negative behaviour.

Providing class in a facility that is removed from the traditional school is another factor to consider. Peer support for positive or negative behaviour is a significant factor in determining how studens will behave. A positive culture of engagement and appropriate behaviour can be developed in an isolated classroom, but it risks being undermined if the students mix with outside peers before and after class and during breaks.

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Committed and qualified professional staff

Whenever a group of high need students are aggregated into the same classroom, it should go without saying that specially committed and qualified professional staff will be required. The specific nature of those qualifications, however, is important to consider. Research at the New School and elsewhere indicates that harsh discipline, leading to suspension and expulsion, tends to increase aggressive behaviour in students and further breakdown of discipline. Patience and an ability to confront negative behaviour without resorting to yelling or harsh language are essential attributes for a teacher in this setting.

Close teamwork, in which the teacher aid or counsellor are available to work with a disruptive student, is another factor in maintaining classroom discipline while minimizing disruptive confrontations. Because of ever changing situations, these staff must have the authority to act individually and collectively to assist students as needed. For this to work well, the staff must be able to work collaboratively. The New School staff felt strongly that their non-hierarchical approach to planning and decision making was key to their ability to act appropriately and efficiently with students.

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Progressive discipline – Restorative action

The concept of progressive discipline proved to be essential for the success of the program. A rigid “one strike and you’re out” zero tolerance policy can lead to counter-productive antagonistic confrontations that often result in the termination of a student who greatly needs the assistance of the program. The New School evolved a zero tolerance but progressive discipline process that did not accept anti-social and destructive behaviour but allowed students to grapple with their issues through counselling and coaching and reintegrate more positively back into the class community.

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Small classes

Maintaining small classes (20 or fewer) is critical for the operation of the class. All of the students enrolled in the New School face significant multiple challenges to learning, while regular school classes may have only two or three students with similar needs (and potential to disrupt the classroom). These students often require individual attention. Class ratios of more than ten students to one teacher strongly decrease the likelihood that adequate and appropriate learning opportunities can occur.

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Team teaching

Two teachers (or a teacher and highly qualified aide) in the classroom at one time are required. The model uses a “soft discipline” approach in which one teacher can attend to the discipline support needs of individual students while the other teachers leads learning activities. A single teacher is too often drawn into confrontations with students just to retain control of the classroom Two teachers are also required for working with students in groups (necessary for differentiated instruction) and to deal with contingencies that require a teacher to be out of the classroom.

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Full-time counsellor

A full-time counsellor (case load no greater than 40) is required to assist students with short-term crisis management and long-term social and emotional development. The research indicates that many of the students suffer from highly turbulent lives, family instability, violence and substance abuse – all of which interfere with their ability to focus on their school work and develop productive behaviours. Because the students are highly impacted by their families, it is important for the counsellor to also provide referral information and advocacy for families trying to access the social support network.

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Collaborative case management

Collaborative case management is an essential component of the program model. New School staff met weekly for two to thre ehours to discuss student progress and challenges and develop strategies to assist individual students who were having academic, emotional or behavioural problems. The teachers and counsellor coordinated their activities to provide a consistent and clear message. Without this time to review progress and develop action plans the program would not be able to cope with the many challenges faced by the youth. Given the time required for case management, the need to meet with parents and students individually, and the work required to prepare for the program’s rich instructional model, it is highly recommended that one day a week be set aside for these activities.

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Two year program

A two year program is required to overcome the multiple deficits faced by the students. Not only must they learn how to read and write, but they must learn background information and basic academic skills they missed by not attending classes, not paying attention, or by not being able to read the material they were given. Moreover, a significant amount of work must be done in developing study skills, self-control, empathy for others, personal resiliency, and the ability to work in groups – all important indicators for success. And of course they must learn the academic subjects required for graduation and moving on in school.

Initially, the New School tried to accomplish much of this in one year. It proved impossible. When students were given an opportunity to attend for another year, a majority of them and their parents accepted the opportunity, thus extending their high school careers for another year. Although we initially thought that it might be difficult to recruit for a two year 10th grade program, it has not turned out to be so. The young people who come to the New School realize that they are not going to complete high school unless they are in a program that can build essential skills and give them the opportunity to catch up with their peers.

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Full Day Program

Although during its first three years the New School demonstrated substantial success in engaging youth, keeping them in school, fostering social and emotional growth, building literacy skills, and creating active readers, the students and staff never seemed to have enough time to fully address academic subjects or to provide enriched learning experiences. This was in large part because the program operated on a half-day schedule. Students were in class approximately 12 hours a week, less than half the hours of students in the standard school program. This gap was mitigated somewhat by the New School’s intensive instruction schedule and its focus on essential content, but the students still needed more contact hours with teachers.

Students began attending for a full day schedule in September 2005. Having students attend at least 24 hours a week is critical if the program is to address the multiple social-emotional-behavioural issues, remedial needs and academic subjects needed to prepare students to complete high school.

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Explicit instruction

Explicit instruction in a group format in all topics in the curriculum is essential. Student must not only be told to read about a topic, they must be taught how to read the text. They must not only be told how to behave in class, they must be shown how to gain control of their anxiety and antagonism.

Student with severe reading challenges cannot learn well primarily from text-based materials. Short lectures, multimedia, and hands-on learning are more effective approaches. Consequently, alternative programs that use self-paced learning materials are not appropriate for the New School students. Although students can benefit from one-on-one tutorial instruction, there are insufficient resources to use this approach primarily. Moreover, there is significant benefit to be derived from working in groups of various sizes.

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Learning how to learn

The students must be taught how to learn. This includes strategies for organizing materials, focusing on assignments, coping with distractions, reading varous types of text materials, and avoiding distractions in school, at home, and from friends.

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Project-based Learning

Project-based learning activities are an important component of the program design. They provide alternative ways to engage topics that do not rely principally on reading. The minimal class time during the firs three years significantly curtailed these activities. Nevertheless, the weekly art class, which took up nearly one-quarter of the schedule was almost entirely designed around project-based learning. A variety of other technology-based projects were integrated into various other curriculum activities.

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Social and emotional development

Social and emotional development is as essential as learning basic reading and writing skills. Many of the kids who entered the program exhibited lack of self control and aggressive behaviour. Others were highly introverted and had difficulty relating to others. Violence had been a significant factor in many of their lives.

Their inability to relate well with others combined with low self-esteem inhibited both their own learning and that of others. Explicit instruction, modelling (cognitive apprenticeship), and a variety of activities related to building empathy with others, controlling angry and disruptive impulses, and building a positive lifestyle are essential requirements for ensuring the opportunity to learn.

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Creative activities

The creative arts (visual, performing, literary) offer multiple ways for students to experience success while they build their literacy skills. Consistently high attendance on “art days” is evidence of engagement. The arts also offer opportunities to engage all of the curriculum topics in creative and meaningful ways that reinforce more traditional learning experiences.

During its first three years, the New School used a model that focused on the visual arts taught by one or two instructors. While this offered a valuable experience for students, we believe a broader exposure to multiple arts and other professionals artists would be valuable. The weekly three hour art class at the New School consumed nearly 25% of the in-class time. Given the overall limited class time this level of commitment is hard to justify. However, given the nature of the art projects, allotting fewer than 2.5 hours (the actual length of involvement) would have been difficult as well. With a full-day schedule, three hours a week for arts activities seems like a reasonable and positive allocation of time.

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Technology integration

As with the arts activities, the use of technology in the classroom was seen as both positive and negative during the study period. The main classroom was set up with a data projector and surround sound system to facilitate visual presentations using video, PowerPoint and the Web. It was also intended to allow projection of projects created by students on computers that were available on the periphery of the room. However, this network function was never accessible.

When the technology worked well, it ws clearly an asset; when it did not, it was frustrating to students and staff alike. We believe the use of technology in its various forms can play an extremely valuable function in facilitating instruction and allowing students to conduct research and work on class projects. Key to success is to have computers and a network that are powerful enough to do the job required and (this is essential) technical support to keep everything running at top capacity.

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Assessment and data

Assessment and data tracking are critical components of operating the New School model. In order for data collection to be valuable and cost-effective, staff must have sufficient time to review the information and use it for planning instruction and support. Effective ways for collecting and processing data must also be used.

Among the data collected at the New School, a standardized reading assessment (the Woodcock Reading Test) was perhaps the most important. It provides information on how well students deal with sub-components of reading, such as vocabulary, decoding, work recognition, comprehension. This test is administered uniformly three times over the student’s two year period. The test results provide key information to assist in addressing specific learning needs of the students.

Other forms of data (demographics attendance, academic performance, and student outcomes) are collected and reviewed by staff both to indicate progress and to document performance. Other measures that are useful to the New School staff include information on the social and emotional development of students (self-efficacy, social responsibility scales) that are used in individual counselling and group activities. Data collection and processing at this level will likely require availability of dedicated clerical support.

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Transition assistance

Transition assistance and follow-up are critical to helping students find appropriate options for continuing their education after completing the New School program. This activity was shared among the staff and involved extensive coordination with counselling staff in other district programs. In addition, providing some form of support and counselling (follow-up meetings with graduates, a study group or an open door for informal support) for students as they get used to a new school environment are important.

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