Building-wide emphasis on reading gives East Coloma-Nelson a lift

State releases its assessment of school districts, noting the gains made by Rock Falls elementary school

ROCK FALLS — At East Coloma-Nelson Elementary School, even the physical education teacher pitches in to help with reading comprehension.

At EC-N, teaching English is a building-wide concern. It showed in the latest district assessment data released Thursday by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Last year’s third-grade class saw a 17.1% increase in English language arts scores — meriting mention in a report issued by the state superintendent of schools.

For EC-N Superintendent Christopher Lensing, the decision made a few years ago by the district’s board of education to provide more language arts learning materials and increase professional development opportunities for teachers helped immensely.

“How do we improve reading instruction in our classroom?” was the question asked when they started this process.

“All of our staff has been working exceptionally hard on reading instruction,” Lensing said.

The key was maintaining that during the pandemic. The district hired more people to scrub down classrooms, do all the cleaning required to stay open and let the teachers stay focused on teaching.

East Coloma-Nelson has 220 students, 39% of whom are categorized as coming from low income settings. Attendance at the school last year was 96%.

“When you keep kids in school, it pays dividends,” Lensing said.

And even when there were situations requiring remote learning, the staff kept at it, he said. “We reached out to kids that weren’t logging on. We reached out to families. We made home visits. It was a whole community effort.”

That’s where the PE teacher came in. With kids doing PE remotely, it gave that teacher time to assist others in the English instruction.

Another instruction method that has taken hold is “closed reading.” It involves reading a nonfiction article closely, setting it aside, then making notes on what was just read. That has boosted understanding.

Part of the approach is making an early assessment of every student in the district, identifying that student’s strengths and deficiencies, and then give the teachers latitude to customize their instruction.

Students of similar skill levels are grouped together.

“You see where our deficits are and gear your instruction early on,” Lensing said. “How do they read? If it’s choppy, we’ll focus on that kid’s fluency. We have some that read like a charm, but at the end they don’t have understanding, so we boil down on comprehension. Targeting.”

Lensing admits, it’s a lot of work. “It’s easier to teach down the middle and move on,” he said.

Finding where and how kids read, and giving them a push, whether they are at the high end or the low end, has made a difference.

“It’s a strategy that helps kids,” he said. “Make sure we’re hitting the most important aspects. It’s starting to show.”

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.