For students who are unable to read at their grade level, the moment when teachers pass out assigned reading can be embarrassing. Some kids get to read texts with complex plot lines, lively sentences and cool covers, while others cringe as they are given thinner books with simpler words, clipped sentences and decidedly uncool covers.
The result, educators say, is that not all students are discussing the same topics in class, and underperforming students struggle to find the motivation to improve their skills.
In Prince William County schools, officials are trying to solve this problem with a software program that gives students their own private e-mail accounts in which they regularly receive news articles they must read for class. But the stories' sentence structure and vocabulary are modified to each student's skills, allowing everyone in the same grade to discuss -- and be evaluated on -- the same topic.
More important, educators say, the customized news stories give students at all levels a greater chance to improve their reading comprehension, which is vital for meeting state and U.S. benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Last month, the Prince William County Public Schools Education Foundation voted to spend $250,000, which was donated by companies such as Zeiders Enterprises of Woodbridge and BB&T bank, so that all 15,330 third-graders in the county's school system could use the software for the next three years.
The software, developed by a New Jersey company called Achieve3000, is also used in some schools in Fauquier and Prince George's counties and in the District. The company's program for high school students is being used this summer by about 300 rising freshmen in Prince William.
Pamela Gauch, Prince William's associate superintendent of instruction, said she and other school officials discovered the software a few years ago at a conference for elementary school principals. They were looking for a program to boost third-grade reading scores on a national assessment test, although the county was meeting the benchmarks on the state Standards of Learning exams, she said.
"Our reading scores [on the SOLs] have been flat for the third grade, but they have not been poor," Gauch said. "All the research says that if a child isn't reading on their grade level by the fourth grade, the odds of the child developing good reading skills are slim."
The need to bolster reading is even more paramount because so many students in county schools don't speak English as their first language, she said.
Ilene Rosenthal, president of strategic initiatives at Achieve3000, said the program boosts student interest in current events and reading newspapers.
"One of the reasons that students like this program so much is that they get such a steady diet of fiction," Rosenthal said. "But, of course, nonfiction is what they'll be working with in most jobs."
For example, in a third-grade class, one student might be reading at the seventh-grade level and another at the first-grade level. They both would receive via e-mail a news story written differently but about the same thing, such as how Connecticut legislators recently voted to ban the sale of soda and junk food in school cafeterias.
That story for the third-grader reading at the first-grade level would begin: "Some kids are too heavy. Connecticut wants to change this. It made a new law. What does the law say? It says schools cannot sell junk food. Then kids will not be so heavy."
For a student reading at the seventh-grade level, it would begin: "In an effort to curb childhood obesity, Connecticut has become the latest state to ban junk food in its public schools. Opponents, though, say the new law won't have much of an effect on obesity rates."
Darci Whitehead, the principal at Porter Traditional School in Woodbridge, said when she saw the program being demonstrated at the conference a few years ago, she was immediately drawn to its potential. Because principals in Prince William have control over their budgets, she spent money on the software when she was head of Montclair Elementary School in Dumfries and brought it to Porter last academic year.
"My son has a learning disability, and it was frustrating for him to have to read these baby words when he could talk up a storm," Whitehead said. The program "motivated him and got him interested in reading and what's going on now. It made sense, and it made connections to him."