Rescuing failing readers

Two students read for their teacher
Rheannon Sorrells ('04, '11M) asked for the challenge of teaching first-grade students fundamental reading skills, and she got help from her JMU professor.

How one JMU grad student, a professor and an elementary school faculty are removing roadblocks to literacy
By Harry Atwood (’87)

It is hardly a matter for debate: Illiteracy dooms people to failure while literacy breeds success. Reading is the cornerstone of a prosperous and democratic society. Yet reading statistics indicate that millions of American adults are poor readers or functionally illiterate. Unfortunately, finding a solution to the problem has been a matter of debate — fractious, protracted, political wrangling offering no resolution. Most troubling is that schools with a substantial percentage of students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds are often the very ones that find themselves in an uphill battle to meet educational objectives. It is as though poverty keeps literacy at bay. How can educators help the students who desperately need the boon of literacy to beat the odds and achieve success?

One JMU grad student, a professor and an elementary school faculty decided to find a solution that worked.

The Spark

Ressie Jeffries Elementary School, nestled into the scenic foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Warren County, Va., is like many other schools across America with a friendly office staff, hard-working teachers and administrators, and about 600 students harrumphing, fidgeting, singing, drawing, playing and undergoing the often amorphous experience of learning.

One of Ressie Jeffries’ dedicated teachers, Rheannon Sorrells (’04, ’11M), now in her seventh year of teaching, can still remember how great it felt to land her first teaching job right there in her hometown of Front Royal. It didn’t take long, however, for her to realize that her school was one in crisis. Like many such schools, Ressie Jeffries has a good number of students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds. Sixty-five percent of the students at Ressie qualify for free or reduced lunches. In 2008, 246 of the school’s 500 students tested below grade level in reading. In 2009 the school failed to meet Annual Yearly Progress — the benchmark by which No Child Left Behind determines whether schools are classified as succeeding or failing.

In 2009, Sorrells, who had taught kindergarten, second and third grade in previous years, asked to be given a first-grade class. "Having experienced up through third grade, I knew that many of our students were not reading on grade level," Sorrells explains. "First-grade is that critical year in reading instruction. I wanted that challenge, and I was overwhelmed by the various programs we used at our school."

Around this time, Ressie’s principal, Lisa Rudacille, was actively exploring new strategies for tackling the reading deficiencies at her school. One of those options was RtI (Response to Intervention) a research-based reading instruction method. Coincidentally, Sorrells, who was pursuing a master’s degree at JMU, began to hear about RtI in her Specialized Reading Interventions EXED504 course taught by education professor Allison Kretlow. One day after class, Sorrells approached her professor and asked what it would take to fully implement RtI at Ressie.

Sorrells did not quite expect the reaction she got from Kretlow. "She got really excited," Sorrells recalls, "and told me to let my principal know that if she needed any help to contact her." Rudacille jumped on the opportunity to harness some expert advice, and a partnership was born.

Response to Intervention

Reading deficiencies are a national problem. A majority of Americans read at the fourth-grade level, and efforts to combat this issue have resulted in some unintended repercussions. "Statistics have shown that a disproportionately high number of students in America are being labeled with disabilities," Kretlow says. That is especially true of minority males. "RtI grew out of this concern for the accurate identification of students with disabilities."

According to the precepts of RtI, much of the deficits in reading abilities have more to do with the methods of teaching instruction than with the innate abilities of the students. Implementing research-based, best-practice methods in teaching reading and focusing on the specific needs of each individual student is key to success.

Fundamentals of good reading instruction are not unique to RtI. What makes RtI different and so effective is the strategy of diagnosing students early and often, and determining how much support each student needs. A three-tiered method is then employed based on each individual’s needs; students with the most needs are provided with Tier 3 support, which includes more time providing intensive support to smaller groups (usually one to three students) and more work with the teacher.

Credit where credit is due

Ressie Jeffries’ implementation of RtI was in every sense a team effort. Experienced educators opened up to accept new theories and methods about improving instruction. Certain staff members would undergo specific training to become "coaches" who could assist teachers in the coming years and thus maintain the research-based best-practice methods promoted in RtI. Kretlow also mentions the help she received from JMU faculty colleague Christy Bartholomew. "Christy developed focus groups with all teachers three times a year, to talk with them about their perspectives, barriers to improving instruction and overall needs. This was incredibly instrumental in what I have been able to do with the teachers because I have been able to design all of the training to meet their individual needs versus the typical ‘top down’ training teachers receive from districts," she says.

The beginning of positive change

The current principal at Ressie Jeffries, Antoinette Funk, is proud of the progress made at her school since Kretlow’s introduction of RtI. "This year we have seen a reduction of students identified in our Tier 2 and Tier 3 programs," says Funk. "The percentages range by grade level, but in some grade levels we have seen a 50 to 61 percent reduction of students classified as Tier 3 readers. This is worth celebrating."

In fact, the work Kretlow has done at Ressie has been so effective that Warren County school officials have requested that she help implement RtI in all five elementary schools. That process has already begun as Kretlow and former Ressie principal Lisa Rudacille teach a Specialized Reading Interventions course to 20 teachers, Title 1 reading coaches and district instructional leaders in Warren County through JMU’s Outreach Center through the College of Education.

Beyond the strategies and statistics are youngsters who are getting the reading skills they need. Even as they work through drills and boost their reading scores, they’re not preoccupied with thoughts of future personal and professional success. They’re happy to bask in the sheer joy that reading offers.

Learn more in the Fall 2011 issue of Madison magazine about Rheannon Sorrells (’04, ’11M) and her work rescuing readers at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School.

Learn more about the JMU College of Education at

Published: Monday, August 1, 2011

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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