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Ligonier Valley Middle School teachers implement new literacy program

| Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 9:04 p.m.

The importance of reading goes beyond language arts classes, according to Ligonier Valley Middle School Principal David Steimer.

“Research shows that sound development of literacy skills has a profound impact on learning in all content areas,” Steimer said.

This school year, making that impact will be emphasized more than in past years.

Middle school teachers are learning new strategies through the Penn Literacy Network, a professional development, curricular enhancement and school reform program that emphasizes reading and writing in all classes.

“It's implementing literacy strategies in all content classes,” Steimer said.

Penn Literacy Network, which is based in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, offers seminars, workshops and other events where educators can learn how to improve reading and writing in all classes, such as math, science and social studies.

Ligonier Valley literacy coach Amy Brown and instructional technology coach Janine Vallano attended a Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching conference in 2011 during which PLN Director Joseph Ginotti gave a presentation about the program. Brown appreciated the program's alignment with the goals of Pennsylvania's common core standards.

“It enhances what is already in place (in our school),” Brown said.

By way of funding from the state Department of Education, Brown, Steimer and teachers Matt McNickle, Eric Vogelsang and Kristin Kuhns attended PLN training at the Intermediate Unit last year. They learned about several techniques for engaging students in their reading in content classes, such as a five-tier writing process called Collins writing. They received instruction on the importance of rereading, annotating, researching topics related to a text and encouraging discussion between students.

“It just takes everything we're doing to a deeper level,” Brown said.

At the start of this school year, Brown and the other teachers who received training met with middle school teachers to present PLN's suggested strategies so they can start using them in content classes for grades six, seven and eight. They will hold training sessions throughout the year.

Brown said after attending the training sessions with teachers, she can tell the program is well-received.

McNickle, who teaches English 8, Writing Workshop 8 and Language Arts 7, finds the strategies have helped him add diversity to his teaching.

“I think that I have an opportunity to work with a wider variety of learning styles than I have in the past,” he said.

One of the strategies McNickle has employed is the Collins writing system, which increases the expectations for writing across five types of writing, gradually enhancing students' understanding and skill level.

McNickle recently used the first type, “quick response,” with his seventh-grade class. Before reading a text, he asked students to quickly write three things that frightened them or made them nervous. This practice prompted students to make connections between the purpose of the list and content of the text.

“They're immediately starting to think as they read the text, ‘Why did he ask me to write about that? What is the connection between this and what we are reading?'” he said.

“He's getting them interested and engaged before they have the opportunity to read the text,” Brown said.

McNickle likes to do quick, “partnered” thinking and sharing, a technique that allows students to hear how others interpret a text.

“Not everybody thinks the same way,” he said. “It's interesting for kids to see what kinds of connections can be made.”

McNickle said PLN training taught him ways to “de-mystify” the reading process for students who might not understand reading as readily as others by encouraging them to be more active.

“We have students who come to us as very strong readers, and it's intuitive,” he said. “It happens naturally for them. For a lot of kids, there's something mysterious about reading. They want to know what the steps are. They want to know how to do it better. I think in the past, our answer to that has been, ‘Read more.'

“I think what PLN trainings have done is they have given us some very specific strategies we can use that I think kids can apply immediately and then right away see some clear benefits to doing it,” McNickle said.

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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