For students who cannot 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, officials are trying to solve that problem with a software program that gives students 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 opportunity 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 so that all 15,330 third-graders in the county could use the software for the next three years. The money was donated by private companies.
The software, developed by New Jersey-based 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.
"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," Gauch said.
Ilene Rosenthal, president of strategic initiatives at Achieve3000, said the program boosts student interest in current events and in reading newspapers.
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."