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Courtenay school’s program boosts kids’ reading skills

Queneesh Elementary team using evidence-based strategies
Vice-principal Debra Fullerton goes over an exercise with Grade 1 students Kenzie Gurney (left), Aria Pendak-Jefferson, Nash Wallace and Bella Leone. Photo by Mike Chouinard

In a matter of weeks, students at Queneesh Elementary went from thinking “I don’t read” to seeing themselves as readers and getting smarter.

The reason is an intervention by the school to boost the literacy skills of kids in primary grades, as teachers themselves were learning new ways to teach reading.

“It’s not an art, it’s a science,” principal Kyle Timms says.

Along the way, the school had some guidance, bringing in Heather Wilms, the district’s reading intervention teacher.

“She’s worked with a lot of different schools,” he says.

With support from the school district, they also brought in a curriculum support teacher to assess where the students were in terms of reading, especially as staff had noticed something wasn’t quite right in terms of some students’ abilities to read at grade level.

“We noticed it last year that kids were really struggling,” Timms says.

One of the challenges is getting families to spend more time reading and less on screens, while shutdowns through the pandemic only added to this challenge.

“There’s less time spent reading and talking,” he says.

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The school conducted assessments in September. Vice-principal Debra Fullerton, who has a background in reading, has played a key role in the effort, as the school has been working with staff to help them learn about ways to improve reading skills. She, Wilms, Bernadine Courage, Karen Szkwarek and Robin VanHolderbeke formed a support team for the project.

A lot of the work centres around phonemic awareness, or the ability to work with individual sounds in spoken words and examining how the sounds go together.

“It’s not just talking, it’s moving letters, it’s playing games,” Timms says.

On a recent morning at Queneesh, Fullerton works with a small group of students in a room, going over words on how the sounds blend, with students working at their own level.

“This is just one of the strategies,” she says. “They are all evidence-based strategies for literacy.”

In one exercise, the kids work with tile boards made up of letters. In another, they do word letters, changing a letter in a word to make a new word. At one point, Fullerton writes the word ‘trunk’ on a whiteboard and has the kids break down the sounds they see in the word.

“It’s a lot of manipulating of sounds and letters,” she says.

The program is not simply about literacy or even general academic success but is also tied to students’ feelings about being in the classroom and their ability to self-regulate behaviour.

“They are happier and calmer in class,” Timms says.

The final assessments will be in May, but the school is already seeing the difference the program has made over only weeks for so many of the young students in terms of their abilities and self-esteem.

“Now they’re engaged and trying to learn,” the principal adds.

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Students use tile boards to work with letters and sounds. Photo by Mike Chouinard