Rotary club assists high school in reducing literacy gaps

By Darren Lum

Haliburton Highlands Secondary School teacher Rebeka Borgdorff said the school’s literacy initiative has the ability to change lives with a $4000 donation from the Rotary Club of Haliburton.

Money will be used to pay for books resources and teacher training.

The initiative addresses challenges observed around reading and comprehension.

“We were noticing a decline in skills and abilities and wanting to address that issue” Borgdorff said.

“We just found it was low. It was not where it should be. It was not at grade level for a lot of our learners. Not all but a lot of them. Primarily in our applied or college stream and lower and so we just wanted to find some ways to continue to measure that but also close gaps.”

The school used the LLI program or Levelled Literacy Intervention program which was primarily used at the elementary school level and presented to the school by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board.

“Once you level a student and know the grade level they’re working at you start them there rather than giving the class the exact same text or exact same program. They’re all at their own level and therefore working at their pace in order to close their own personal gaps” Borgdorff said.

The program was used last year with all applied and college level students in English which accounts for close to 60 per cent of the student population she said.

The literacy gap for some students posed a challenge to learning.

She said if a student is at a Grade 5 reading level and a play such as Romeo and Juliet is at a Grade 10 level then students were likely to disengage misbehave or become frustrated.

“So we’re now trying to find maybe even the same text title like Romeo and Juliet that’s written at a lower level with simpler vocabulary but the same storyline so that we can still talk about the same teen issues and attack it from the same kind of thematic or literary points of view but with a language that is more accessible to them. Not that we want them to stay there and stagnate there but if we at least bring them up and they engage then we push them a little further by raising that bar as far as the content and the vocabulary” she said.

Much of the reading material for LLI was elementary school age focused so more reading resources were needed for teen learners. This initiative also includes reading mentors for students who will learn about the importance of literacy beyond the confines of a classroom.

“It’s a life skill and not just an English class skill which a lot of them tend to think: once I’m out of here I’m never using this again. So just trying to deconstruct that misunderstanding” she said.

Academic stream students can also benefit. If there are struggles observed a benchmark test can be conducted and then evaluated for what help can be provided Borgdorff said.

Rotary president-elect Jim Joseph presented the $4000 cheque with other members of the service club last week. He said the club was happy to help and didn’t realize there was a literacy challenge for students until after the teacher came to speak to the club a year ago. He welcomed Borgdorff to provide an update following this semester. The money is part of a matching dollar grant by the Rotary Foundation.

Joseph is the chairman of the club’s vocational committee formed “to increase the aspirations of our communities youth in context to education skill sets and jobs” Rotarian Brian Nash wrote in an email.

As part of the literacy initiative the school started the pilot-program Read Up this semester.

Students from Grade 9 to 11 will work on phonics fluency – reading aloud vocabulary building reading and comprehension and developing silent and independent reading. Students who have dyslexia will also be identified and assisted with this offering.

“The course is very focused on strictly reading not a traditional English class where you also have writing poetry or media. It’s specifically reading and all of those branches of reading. Essentially giving them a whole full period a day where they can be successful to start gleaning some tools and strategies hopefully they can apply in their other classes” Borgdorff said.

Earlier this month she had all her students taking the Read Up course read a passage in front of their peers  while standing.

“They all did it. It nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful because they just … you could see the fear and the risk taking but they felt so accomplished at the end and it’s something we take for granted that’s as simple as reading a paragraph off a page but because they had worked on it all week long with feedback with help with practice with a peer with myself. Just that ability to feel like ‘I can do this.’”

Borgdorff hopes this effort and implementation could be an example for other schools.

“This is not just a Haliburton thing. This is a trend not only across Trillium Lakelands but across Ontario and I would beg to suggest elsewhere because of the trends in our society as far as our approach to literacy as a whole. We [as a society] like texting and short-forms emojis and such so we’re losing a lot of the quality of our language and so now we need to figure out what are we going to do with that and how do we still help our students be literate” she said.

Close to half of all Grade 10 students in Ontario reported last year that the most frequently read materials outside school were websites email or chat messages and blogs and the most frequently reported type of writing outside school was on social media or texting according to EQAO.

Borgdorff said progress could be made more quickly with a broad approach.

“But our goal our dream is to see if the science teacher took an interest or the history teacher or the geography teacher took an interest in that reading level. ‘Let me look at this textbook that I have and teach from. What level is it at? What should I accommodate in order to meet that student’s need and what could I do to make that work? What resources could they make use of that would help close those gaps?’ If we were all doing it in that sort of unified approach with a collective efficacy we would see that much better results and faster” she said. “Because it would be coming at them from all ends as opposed to just English class.”

She said this is a goal of the staff and the school but it will take time for everyone to learn whether it’s the students or the teachers. “It’s just one of those things that is going to take time” she said.