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Jorge, a special education student at Thomas W. Keller Elementary, often instigated fights with his classmates. “He just wasn’t interested in school,” said his third-grade teacher, Sandra Hotcaveg. “He was only interested in doing whatever it took to agitate me and his fellow students.”

But his swagger hid a deep secret: The young boy struggled to read. He could only read five words per minute when he entered third grade, and his reading comprehension consisted of three words: “and,” “the” and “on.”  
 

Slightly more than one-third of U.S. fourth grade students score below the basic achievement level in reading.
-The Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center

Unfortunately, Jorge’s story is all too common in the nation’s classrooms—and stories like his can have far-reaching repercussions. Low literacy levels can dramatically damage academic self-concept and, if not addressed, Jorge’s inability to understand words and sentences threatened to seriously undermine his life.

A foundational part of many careers, reading is critical to maintaining good health, becoming financially literate and being a well-informed citizen. It is also a fundamental skill that prepares students for academic success in other reading-intensive subjects such as science and social studies. Yet many K-12 teachers struggle to help students­ understand written text, especially those who come from low-income households, have a learning disability or speak a language other than English.
 

That dynamic is now changing, thanks to an innovative research-based approach called Intelligent Tutoring for the Structure Strategy (ITSS) created by Dr. Kay Wijekumar, a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture in Texas A&M University’s College of Education and Human Development. Her work focuses on improving reading literacy in K-12 schools. “My goal is to ensure every child in our global society has an outstanding opportunity to succeed by providing them evidence-based instruction in all their subjects,” she said.

Reading the Signs

Wijekumar struggled with reading as a child. She excelled at math—regularly earning perfect marks—but would score 75-80 on reading tests. “I was always tripped up by the language. The same logic that I applied in math never worked in reading,” she said. “I would read something and see all the possible answers. I’d think, ‘That sounds right’ and then, ‘This also sounds right.’ I’d get so confused that I’d pick the wrong one, always.”

In college, she studied engineering and computer science before pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology. “I wanted to concentrate my Ph.D. on what people were thinking when they were using computers,” she said, “but then I started understanding how important reading is.” Her unconventional background underscores her unique approach to reading. “I enjoy the logical part of math,” she said, “and I decided to apply that same kind of logic to reading.”
 

The ITSS software program assists elementary students in understanding what they read in content areas such as science, social studies and current events. (Illustration by Harry Campbell.)

ITSS, a software program that is supported by administrator and faculty professional development, offers a different paradigm to assist elementary students in understanding what they read in content areas such as science, social studies and current events. “We applied a text structure to learning so that when we teach children how to generate main ideas and summaries, we show that there's a logical relationship among ideas when you’re reading,” Wijekumar explained. “This is a much more powerful way of generating main ideas, summaries and inferences than the old-fashion way of reading it again and again.”

This approach—which emphasizes several different text structures, including comparison, problem and solution, cause and effect, and sequence and description—is especially important for students in fourth grade, who often experience a significant decline in reading comprehension because they struggle to process, understand and remember text in content areas. These texts, which don’t rely on plots or characters, differ drastically from the stories they typically read in earlier grades.

Wijekumar and her team currently work with 100 schools across the nation to systematically implement the software program. Teachers and campus administrators attend regular professional development workshops on how to implement its instructional strategies, while the software provides frequent updates on student progress so that teachers can identify areas where reinforcement is needed.

A Recipe for Success

One of the software’s early successes came in Brownsville ISD in South Texas. Wijekumar and her team began working with some of the district’s schools on a reading comprehension improvement plan in 2015. One of those schools was Keller Elementary, which enrolls 550 students in Pre-K through fifth grade. Approximately 80% of these students are bilingual. The neighborhood campus, which is in an economically disadvantaged area of Brownsville, also serves large populations of English as a second language students and special education students.

The school regularly hovered in the high 70s on the state’s annual accountability ratings, but Javier Garza ’23, the school’s principal, was driven to see those scores improve. “The performance for Keller was good, but it was just under the radar,” he said.

43 million U.S. adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. Of those, 8.4 million are considered functionally illiterate in English, which means they cannot understand the meaning of simple sentences.
-Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies

Keller initially implemented the ITSS system at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels, totally changing the school's method of teaching reading. During the first year of implementation, the school’s administrators and teachers received a programmatic overview as well as professional development on the ITSS model. “Dr. Kay and her team were completely available to us at any time and participated in our collaborations,” Garza said. “They were responsive to any questions that my dean, my teachers or I had in terms of the program and the software we were using.”

Keller began to fully implement the ITSS model during the 2016-17 school year and quickly saw a difference. “That first year of implementation, we soared with our outcomes,” Garza said. “In all of the tested grades, we jumped 10 points, going from a 79 to an 89 overall. We transferred the ITSS instructional approach into science, social studies and writing so it became a campus-wide expectation.”

The following school year, Keller extended the ITSS model to the third-grade level and saw its Texas accountability rating jump to an A. “Teachers who use the format that Dr. Kay has created find that their students can really grasp it,” Hotcaveg said. “Reading comprehension becomes more concrete and less abstract. That concreteness is so beneficial to the lower achievers, but it also benefits the higher achievers because they get the gist of it and zoom on above.”

Keller’s success in implementing ITSS is having ripple effects across the district. The principal at Keller’s feeder middle school quickly noticed the difference in incoming sixth-grade students’ preparedness. “He’s asked, ‘What’s going on over there?” Garza said, adding that the middle school’s reading scores have also climbed since Keller started implementing the ITSS model.
 

Dr. Wijekumar's ITSS software is revolutionizing the way children learn to read. (Photo courtesy of the College of Education and Human Development.)

Keller began to fully implement the ITSS model during the 2016-17 school year and quickly saw a difference. “That first year of implementation, we soared with our outcomes,” Garza said. “In all of the tested grades, we jumped 10 points, going from a 79 to an 89 overall. We transferred the ITSS instructional approach into science, social studies and writing so it became a campus-wide expectation.”

The following school year, Keller extended the ITSS model to the third-grade level and saw its Texas accountability rating jump to an A. “Teachers who use the format that Dr. Kay has created find that their students can really grasp it,” Hotcaveg said. “Reading comprehension becomes more concrete and less abstract. That concreteness is so beneficial to the lower achievers, but it also benefits the higher achievers because they get the gist of it and zoom on above.

”Keller’s success in implementing ITSS is having ripple effects across the district. The principal at Keller’s feeder middle school quickly noticed the difference in incoming sixth-grade students’ preparedness. “He’s asked, ‘What’s going on over there?” Garza said, adding that the middle school’s reading scores have also climbed since Keller started implementing the ITSS model.

Turning a New Page

Wijekumar’s work is supported by the College of Education and Human Development’s long-standing philanthropic partner, Houston Endowment, Inc. The nonprofit, which invests strategically to assist school systems in effectively educating all students, has funded the Houston Endowment Inc. Endowed Chair in Urban Education that Wijekumar currently holds and created another endowment to support the college’s Center for Urban School Partnerships, which Wijekumar leads.
 

Her work has proven so meaningful that she will have a major role in the college’s new Literacy Initiative, which will expand the work of its Reading Clinic. “This clinic brings very customized instruction for children who otherwise would not pass elementary school,” she said. “We’ll be providing a series of training programs for schools across Texas.”

The initiative will further extend her work in supporting children with autism while also providing more statewide teacher resources to support reading and writing literacy. Additionally, the ITSS software will expand to offer more pure science resources, so that every grade level will have science content that meets the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test as well as the necessary support to help students read and understand science.

Wijekumar’s commitment to helping children learn to read is rooted in her concern about illiteracy’s far-reaching consequences for students like Jorge. Fortunately, the ITSS software changed his academic trajectory. As his reading comprehension increased, those around him noticed a profound change in his demeanor. “His entire attitude improved,” said Hotcaveg. “He was no longer slouching at his desk and complaining, but instead sitting up and ready to work.”

Jorge’s improvement soon caught his family’s attention. “His mom asked me what I was doing to make him want to come to school,” the longtime teacher said. “She also stated that he was actually doing homework, which she had never seen him do.”

By the end of the year, Jorge could read approximately 25 to 30 words per minute and also understood what he was reading. “He achieved a masters level on his STAAR test, outperforming most of my other students,” Hotcaveg said proudly.

Both Garza and Hotcaveg credit Wijekumar and her team with playing a critical role in helping Jorge and other Keller students experience this type of academic success. “Dr. Kay has a servant heart and is passionate about what she does,” Garza said. “She just wants to do what’s best for kids and wants our students to be successful in life.”

To support the college’s literacy initiative, contact Jody Ford ’99, senior director of development for the College of Education and Human Development, below.

Contact
  • Jody Ford '99

  • Senior Director of Development
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • Call: 979.847.8655

Make Your Impact

You can support Dr. Kay Wijekumar's work and help children improve their reading skills with a gift to the college's Literacy Initiative fund.