For Mike McKenna, what began as a small partnership to help increase the literacy skills of elementary school students in Georgia has turned into a collection of work with international implications.
“This is the most important project I’ve ever been involved in,” said McKenna, Jewell Professor of Reading in the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, who has been involved in reading education for four decades.
McKenna is referring to a massive, open-source database of reading lesson plans and resources for teachers, aptly named “Bookworms,” which he and Curry School alumna Sharon Walpole of the University of Delaware created.
Bookworms is a free, online program for elementary school teachers to use as their reading and literacy curriculum – a curriculum that research has shown to be more effective than conventional approaches, McKenna said. Many of the materials are specifically designed for teachers to support students who need extra help.
“Creating this database of lesson plans was initially part of a smaller project on which we partnered with the Georgia Department of Education,” McKenna said. “As part of our involvement, we created an online resource for teachers in the project. But from the very start, the idea was to make it available to anyone.”
Before the team knew it, the website had soared in popularity with regular visits from 150 countries.
“I suppose it’s a bit ironic that what I consider the most important project of my career was unexpected,” McKenna said. “It has been remarkable how such a small project has turned into one with such far-reaching impact.”
McKenna and his team recently received a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will allow them to expand and refine what is available on Bookworms.
“Learning to read requires mastery of a wide variety of skills,” McKenna said. “For example, students are learning phonemic awareness, word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Each of these is a unique. but interrelated piece of the literacy puzzle.”
The content of Bookworms aims to increase students’ ability in all of these areas through three general types of lesson plans, all of which are designed to be highly interactive.
One group of lesson plans focuses on listening as the teacher reads aloud a book that is slightly above grade level. An interactive format provides many opportunities for students to pause, ponder and predict. The goal is to build vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension proficiency through exposure to lots of complex texts. Each read-aloud concludes with a short grammar lesson in which the teacher guides the class in exploring two exemplary sentences selected from the book.
A second type of lesson plan in Bookworms involves “shared reading.” Here, students are paired and each pair given one book containing grade-level text. The pairs of students then read and re-read the book together, focusing on fluency, word study and spelling. An unexpected benefit of this sort of lesson is that it cuts book costs in half.
The third type of plan is intended for small-group work. A few simple assessments allow teachers to quickly group students with similar skill needs, deliver the instruction they need and then flexibly regroup them every three weeks. These lesson plans are highly targeted and developmentally sequenced.
McKenna reports that research findings comparing Bookworms with conventional instruction have revealed a clear advantage for Bookworms. In a study involving one of the poorest districts in the South Atlantic region, the researchers found that students experienced remarkable growth after Bookworms had been implemented. They placed either first or second among all participating schools in comprehension growth, and they outperformed their age peers prior to implementation at every grade level, 3-5.
“This is exactly the encouragement we need,” he said. “Our hope with the new funding is to continue to build a reading program that is both effective and free. It’s hard to beat a combination like that!”
Specifically, the researchers will spend the next two years improving the scope and quality of the program as they continue to work directly with teachers in Georgia.