El Dorado // Project W.O.R.D.S.

The Challenge

Last year, a group of teachers and administrators at El Dorado Elementary School decided to dive deeply into their student reading progress data. The teachers had a suspicion that the phenomenon known as “summer slippage” (when student academic progress stagnates or declines) was a major force in the lives of their students who had made measurable reading gains during the school year.  They decide to use a design thinking process to understand and tackle this challenge.



The high expectations goal of having all students IMG_5055read at or above grade level served as the catalyst for the school’s innovation and design process.  The team began the design process by first stepping back from their close up perspective to understand the challenge and possible solutions from multiple points of view. The teachers and administrators wanted to move away from obvious solutions and think broadly and creatively: What have we tried in the past that didn’t seem to work? What do other schools do about this problem? What are some of the assets and strengths we have in our school community that we can leverage to address this problem?

The team examined the data and they were surprised to learn how much summer slippage had an impact on their lowest level readers; in some cases students would lose 35-40% of their reading comprehension gains between May and September. The El Dorado student body includes approximately 80% students of color (African American, Latino, Pacific Islander), 30% English Learners and more than ¾ of the students qualify for free lunch.

 Additionally, a significant number of these students reside in public housing. They then reviewed the breadth of evidence in the field that suggested that low income students can experience as much as two months reading
loss over the summer break. *



Following their research, El Dorado’s team synthesized their learnings to understand and prepare to tackle the challenge.  They were determined to reverse the summer slippage trend at the school and ensure that all students, especially those who are traditionally underserved, were cultivated and encouraged to become year-round IMG_5028readers. Nicki Thornton Street, a teacher and lead designer of the El Dorado QTEA Innovation Award project summarized the extent of the challenge,  “Looking at our trend data at El Dorado during the last two years, we have seen a summer slippage in the range of 35 to 40%. Our goal is to eliminate the summer slippage and see each El Dorado student begin the year, not catching up to where they were, but forging ahead to be fully ready to learn the new grade level standards.” 


The team also learned from their Discovery Phase that the issue of summer reading slippage couldn’t be addressed simply by giving students more class time in the summer; they needed to develop a holistic approach that would include parents, the community, and CBO partners. These became critical features of their prototype.



One of the main tenets of design thinking is that it is never too soon to move from the ideation stage to the prototype phase.  Prototyping, diving in and trying out solutions even if they aren’t going to be 100% perfect, is the way we learn to test our assumptions and strengthen our solutions. The El Dorado team knew that effective prototyping always keeps the user (in this case, the student and parents) front and center iIMG_4261n any solution. In the summer of 2014, the team piloted their early version of the W.O.R.D.S.(Working On Reading During the Summer)  project with 16 students who received leveled literacy intervention instruction.  The teachers used data from this prototype and were astounded to find that 15 of the 16 students in the sample group either retained or were above their end of year reading level*.  


The El Dorado staff knew that they had the seeds of a potentially powerful reading intervention program and they rolled up their sleeves and got to work designing a detailed plan, finding resources, and putting their plan into action on a large scale for summer 2015. A primary goal of the prototype and testing phase was to build capacity with teachers and students in order to accommodate more children in need of literacy support in the upcoming summer.    They designed the summer program using the principles they recognized when they defined the challenge..  As a result the W.O.R.D.S project holistic design included these elements:


Instruction: 6 weeks of summer reading instruction for students in K, 1st, and 2nd grade.

Collaboration with R.O.C.K to ensure deeper alignment of literacy practices in the already existing extended day and summer enrichment programs

Communication with families before, during and after the summer W.O.R.D.S. program, contact the family members a minimum of 3 times throughout the summer. Parents were asked to sign a commitment form to ensure student participation and consistent attendance

Monitor student reading behaviors and progress throughout the summer and into the following year

Partner with classroom teachers so that they are aware of student participation, reading scores, and areas for continued student growth


What did the W.O.R.D.S. summer classroom look like?

Teachers used a variety of targeted balanced literacy instruction four times per week throughout the six week-long summer session. The project focused intently on two components of balanced literacy:

1) Community Building Through Literacy: Daily interactive read aloud where students observe and practice proficient, grade level, reading through books in various genres and connected to the summer program weekly themes.  (20 minutes)

2) Meeting Students Where They Are: Daily small group guided reading instruction at each student’s end-of-year Fountas and Pinnell reading level.  (40 minutes)

3) Train the Trainer Model: The two El Dorado classroom teachers  were joined by two staff members from the R.O.C.K. for the daily interactive read aloud, thus learning the literacy routines followed so they could incorporate these routines during the year in the extended day program

4) Sharing at Home: After each guided reading lesson, students took take home the book to share and practice with family members.


The Results

The 2015 inaugural W.O.R.D.S. program enrolled 32 students. The test scores and reading progress for the students who participated were given an end of summer running record from the Leveled Literacy Intervention kits.  When compared to their end of year (May) Fountas & Pinnell score, 11 students’ reading score increased and 18 students’ reading scores remained the same out of the 30 students who were present to complete the assessment.  The teaching and administrative team ended the summer with a concrete list of project strengths and challenges.

Success of Project W.O.R.D.S:

  • Meeting with students in small groups was a rare chance to provide consistent, personalized attention to reading
  • Teachers were able to listen to students read with greater frequency than during the school year because the time spent with students was regular and concentrated (4 times per week)
  • Teachers able to design lessons with word work, reading and writing.  Connecting pieces of literacy in the classroom.
  • At the end of the summer, the school had a celebration/share with family members.  Students shared what they did, strategies they worked on, and read to and with their family members.  Students also created a reading plan with their family for the rest of the summer.  They also received books and a star chart to keep track of their reading for the rest of the summer.  



Reflections & Looking Ahead

In addition to applauding the results and highlighting the assets of the program, the El Dorado team asses
sed areas to improve upon:

  • Inconsistent attendance.  Though parents signed a commitment form, student attendance was not as consistent as the team anticipated.  
  • 6 week program feels  short and it can be hard to develop lasting relationships with the students
  • Next year the teachers will administer a running record assessment on the first day of program to gain more information and start to develop relationships with the students.


The El Dorado team of design thinkers are intently focused on using their observations and reflections for the next round of discovery (research), defining, and doing (prototyping, and implementation), and they hope to have the opportunity to run project W.OR.D.S again in the summer of 2016 with their new findings and realizations in mind.


*“While many students show some loss in reading skills over the summer months, low income students experience an average loss in reading achievement of more than two months” (Cooper).

***Fountas and Pinnell reading leveled reading assessment.


Research Behind Project W.O.R.D.S.

  • Mraz, M. & Rasinski, T.V. (2007).  Issues and trends in literacy:  Summer reading loss.  The Reading Teacher,60(8).
  • Pinnell, G.S. & Fountas, I.C. (2009).  When readers struggle:  Teaching that works.  Portsmouth,NH: Heinemann.
  • October 2012 Fountas & Pinnell reading scores were compared to May 2012 reading scores for 1st-3rd  graders.  I noticed that a large number (over half) of the October reading scores were the same as or below the end of year May scores.


    • Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your site?

      My blog site is in the exact same area of interest as yours and
      my users would certainly benefit from a lot of the information you present here.
      Please let me know if this okay with you. Thank you!

    • I am interested in using the LLI program for during summer school intervention. I would love to talk to you further about the steps you took to put this program in place and the modifications you will be making for this coming summer. Thank you!

    • Our district is considering the use of LLI for our Summer School Program. I would love to learn more about the steps you took to put LLI in place and the modifications you will make for summer school this year. Thank you so much!

Leave a Comment