CORCORAN — A middle school will be starting a new program next month aimed at improving students’ reading levels.

Starting in November, the majority of John Muir Middle School students will be participating in a Web-based reading program called Reading Plus that focuses on improving students’ reading comprehension, vocabulary, word tracking, length of time they can read at one time and more.

“We’re excited to bring it in,” said Principal Dave Whitmore. “A lot of times, we have kids that act out because they feel they cannot read well. This allows them to work at the level they’re at and gets them to improve gradually.”

Whitmore said English Language Learners will also be participating in the program. Students who already have high reading levels will be exempt.

At the school, students are given a period each day set aside specifically for reading outside of their English classes. Whitmore said it will be during this period that students will use the program on their iPads. All of the students in the school have the devices.

Whitmore said students can access the program outside of the dedicated reading period as well, including at home if they want.

Whitmore said the school will send out a link to the Reading Plus Web page, where the students can log in and start using the program. Students are given a selection of texts to read, but Whitmore said informational materials will be emphasized over literature.

“When they get a job, they’re going to be reading things like informational documents, so we want to prepare them for that,” he said. “We’re trying to find things that will be interesting to them, like texts on skateboarding or dinosaurs.”

All material in the Reading Plus program is aligned with the new Common Core standards, which focuses on critical-thinking skills and career and college readiness.

As students read and finish a text through the program, it changes the vocabulary complexity, word count and sentence length of the next set of texts the student can chose from to make sure they are being continuously challenged and increasing their reading capacity.

After students finish a text, they are asked questions to test their reading comprehension and critical-thinking skills. Students can also be provided writing prompts after reading in which they must craft an argument about something relating to the material they just read.

For students who struggle with reading for a long period of time, there are also stamina activities to help them improve.

One activity splits up a text into several sections that vary in length. Students start with reading the small section and work their way up until they can read at least 2,000 words in one sitting.

“Unfortunately, not all of our students all come with a good reading ability,” he said. “A lot of them struggle with reading. Many of our students can’t read very fast and don’t have the stamina to read for very long.”

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In the new state computer-based assessment students took for the first time this spring as part of the new standards, only 11 percent of students in the Corcoran Unified School District were proficient or higher in English, according to the California Department of Education.

With the previous state test, the Standardized Testing and Reporting assessment, only about 40 percent of John Muir students ranked proficient or higher in recent years.

Whitmore said seeing a lot of the students struggling with reading convinced him to look into bringing the Reading Plus program to the school.

Whitmore had previous experience with the program when he worked as an assistant principal at Golden West High School in Visalia before becoming principal at John Muir.

“In an intervention program, we used it and found a lot of success with it,” he said. “Knowing that it worked, I brought the idea to our admin team here and sent them over there to see how it works.”

Whitmore said that while he was at Golden West, he saw students average a reading growth of 1.7 grade levels per semester through the program.

As part of a three-year contract with Reading Plus, the district will spend about $23,000 for the program, paid for through state funding.

Whitmore said he is looking forward to seeing how students react to the program. He said one of his favorite things about having it is that it is tailored to each student and allows the school to provide more personalized learning.

“We’re trying to find ways to raise their reading levels so they can be successful,” he said. “We have to find better ways to do it. They need to be better prepared.”

Many of the school’s English teachers are reacting positively to the new program. One such person is sixth-grade teacher Adrian Rivera. He said he’s excited to see the program in action.

“From what I’ve seen, it seems like a good program,” he said. “I like the idea that we can get readers from below basic to basic or beyond in eight months or a year. Whatever growth I can get in these students’ reading scores is great.”

Rivera said it’s important for the school to invest in improving students’ reading levels, as he said it affects everything else.

“If they can’t read at a basic level, they can’t do math problems or just about anything else in school and beyond,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create better readers. We need these kids to be proficient in reading.”

Whitmore said that while there is a possibility the program could be implemented at some of the other schools in the district, he said they’re waiting to see how it goes at John Muir first.

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The reporter can be reached at 583-2429 or jluiz@hanfordsentinel.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @JosephL_HS.

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