Reading Intervention in a Digital World: Q&A With Elmira City School District

Reading Intervention In A Digital World

There's no denying that the prevalence of digital technology has impacted student learning across disciplines, including reading intervention. What was once initially taught primarily in print has evolved to enable teachers to analyze real-time data to direct learning, better understand striving students' needs and growth, and engage this population of learners.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of System 44, HMH's foundational reading intervention program for Grades 3–12, I chatted with Jay Hillman, Director of Educational Services at the Elmira City School District in Elmira, New York, and he help gathered responses to our questions from teachers who work with him. Below, you can find their combined insights into how reading intervention has evolved in the past two decades as well as advice to maximize student outcomes, ensure a growth mindset, and more. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Jordan Friedman: How have you incorporated growth mindset into your literacy intervention program goals?

Elmira City School District: It’s important to emphasize to students that hard work pays off, and practice means progress, which is what having a growth mindset is all about. The System 44 program itself celebrates growth along the way. Our students are able to set individual reading goals and manage their growth independently. Once they move up a level, they meet a goal, and their next goal is to keep leveling up. Success with anything requires commitment. If you commit to this program, your students will also commit, and you will see results that are undeniable.

We truly believe that the relationship striving readers build with reading in many cases is one that involves pressure, stress, and anxiety, which is the absolute opposite of what we want. This was the exact relationship that one first-grade teacher worked to make sure his kids avoided; however, many of them had a fixed mindset about reading and their own ability as a reader as a result. With System 44, the software eliminates that piece—it’s engaging and encouraging, and it allows students to blossom at their own individual pace. The software troubleshoots and notices areas of struggle that even a highly trained ear or eye may miss. It naturally fills gaps, and the students feel the payoff and feel successful almost immediately, which keeps them engaged and excited about reading for the first time in their life in many cases. Using a program that tracks student progress is important to encouraging a growth mindset.

JF: How do you measure growth mindset in the reading intervention classroom?

ECSD: Growth mindset is the easiest measure of all. We can see growth mindset, we can hear growth mindset, and we can feel growth mindset within the walls of the classroom. Growth mindset is the face of an engaged learner—focused, driven, on task. Listen and you will hear it—you will hear engaged learners interacting with the software, books, and skill work. You will feel it when they celebrate a completed book. You will feel it when they celebrate a level. You will feel it when your students are focused on the learning, interacting with the lesson, and giving effort, even when it’s challenging.

The students also enjoy seeing, feeling, and hearing it. They see their growth clearly on our individual student growth charts, the sticker chart in the back of the room, and a separate chart system we have for reading goals. When our students finish a book and task sheet in the independent reading center, they get to mark off their individual Reading Goal Chart, work toward meeting their goal, and set a new goal once met.

JF: How have intervention programs such as System 44 evolved or changed over the years?

ECSD: The biggest change we have seen with System 44 in our school structure is the transition from desktops to laptops to now iPads. Our learners have the need to be more mobile and to work and learn in flexible spaces, even within the classroom. The iPad and 1:1 devices allow for that.

JF: On that note, how do you think the rise of digital technology in general has impacted literacy intervention?

ECSD: The software component is the hook! It’s the special secret ingredient of the program that makes it so great. Without the technology piece, it would be a neat reading program with interesting books and skill strands that benefit and complement reading instruction, but the software ties everything together, engages the learners, focuses the learning, and measures needs and growth much better than our eyes and ears ever could.

JF: How can assessment data be used to modify and enhance instruction in your school district?

ECSD: Easy-to-navigate and relevant data easily measures reading ability and progress very well. Kids can also self-assess and self-monitor their progress, which is beneficial, especially when it comes to them maintaining a growth mindset. After looking at data, we can use daily informal instruction with small groups of students on the rug in a classroom, and we allow learning to take the lesson wherever it is needed based on what the data says. If a reteach is in order, we reteach. If kids are ready for a greater challenge, we challenge. The students can also peer partner during this time and practice cooperation, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas and thoughts as well as build understanding of concepts. With System 44, the program alone does all the grunt work for us, which is why we appreciate the data collected and received from the software.

JF: Can you give us one or two examples of your student success stories? What do you think made these students so successful?

ECSD: In September of the 2018–2019 school year, one ECSD teacher met the sweetest, quiet, shy, timid, and academically low little girl in third grade who really only had the confidence to have a book read aloud to her. The third-grade teacher knew immediately that this was someone who most likely hadn’t had good reading experiences in primary and definitely would have some gaps we would need to fill. We immediately kicked off our year with System 44 during the second week of school.

What we saw in the beginning was a little girl who whispered into the microphone of the software, asked for help with most every learning task that was in front of her, and struggled to find the enjoyment of reading in general as it seemed to cause her anxiety. She was continuously exposed to scaffolded grade-level material while advancing her basic literacy skills. By the end of the first few weeks of using the program, and more importantly, by the end of the first marking period, we truly met a completely different child. She was reading aloud, tackling any book she desired, setting and achieving goals head on (without prompting), becoming more independent on every level, and writing in her journal or reading her goal books every opportunity she had throughout the school day. By January, she had gone from a BR Lexile level to a 558 Lexile level. She clearly began believing in her own ability as she finally had the proof that she could be (and was!) a great reader.

Our second success story is that of Gregory. He is an autistic student who on Day 1 was proud to proclaim to any and all within proximity (or who would listen) that he hated reading! He was rather proud to state his distaste for reading. So, when we introduced System 44 and the structures of System 44 in our walk-to-read model, Gregory wasn’t thrilled (and he reminded us of this many, many times within our ELA block).

But after he began System 44, his entire relationship with reading changed. Gregory became visibly excited about reading—in part due to the combination of small-group and whole-group instruction—and he was feeling successful as a reader and more engaged with the learning. Gregory too began the year as a BR reader, and by January, Gregory was at a 495 Lexile level. Gregory’s only complaint at this time is when he has to log off of the software—we heard many grumbles and growls!

Both Rylin and Gregory are now READ 180 students. They were ready for the transition, they are excited about the content, and they absolutely love it! And so do we!

JF: What type of involvement do you have with parents of intervention students and the outside community?

ECSD: The students are encouraged to share each goal celebration with their families. At parent-teacher conferences, we too go over what READ 180 and System 44 entail and look like. We also use and share the data that System 44 offers to clearly show the growth that a child has made. Parents seem to be excited with an appreciation of the program; however, it is their child’s newfound confidence and love of reading that they truly are the happiest about.

JF: What tips do you have for other districts/schools to strengthen that at-home connection?

ECSD: We recommend that other districts and schools share the details of the reading intervention programs with their families and really use the data the program provides to showcase their child’s growth. With that said, my greatest conferences are those where the child also attends. We encourage students to share their own successes and experiences with the program, as this seems to make the most lasting impact to both the child and parents. Once parents see the relationship their child has built with reading and the confidence they have as a reader now, they too are more apt to share in the love of reading at home.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Learn more about System 44, our foundational program for striving readers in Grades 3–12.


Looking for ways to advance the literacy skills of all students in your district, including children living in poverty, English learners, and children with disabilities? Learn more about how HMH can help you achieve the goals of the Comprehensive Literacy State Development, a five-year federal discretionary grant awarded to 13 states.

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