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Literacy curriculum developed by University of Delaware professor improves literacy outcomes and fosters equitable learning

In 2016, Delaware’s Seaford School District adopted the aptly titled Bookworms curriculum, an open access literacy program for students in kindergarten through grade 5 developed by University of Delaware Professor Sharon Walpole. Students’ love of reading grew rapidly, as well as their literacy achievement: the percentage of students achieving proficient scores on the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessment jumped from 32% in 2015 to 53% in 2019.

Now, there is even more evidence that Bookworms improves literacy outcomes and fosters equitable learning opportunities. In a new study published in Scientific Studies in Reading, University of Delaware Associate Professor Henry May, UD alum John Strong of The State University of New York at Buffalo and Walpole present a rigorous evaluation of the curricula, analyzing the achievement of 8,806 students in grades 2 through 5 across 17 schools in a rural Mid-Atlantic district. May and his co-authors found that Bookworms significantly and positively impacted student literacy achievement by the end of fifth grade, with gains compounding over time.

“This study provides evidence that Bookworms, a comprehensive literacy curriculum that emphasizes high-volume reading of grade-level texts and the use of evidence-based instructional practices, produces positive effects on student achievement for students with a range of initial reading achievement,” said May, director of the College of Education and Human Development’s (CEHD) Center for Research in Education and Social Policy.

A distinctive approach to reading

Conceived by Walpole and her late colleague, Michael McKenna of the University of Virginia, Bookworms has become a national example for innovative, equitable and outcomes-driven English language arts (ELA) curriculum. Bookworms uses full-length fiction and nonfiction children’s books rather than excerpts, incorporating 265 whole books and emphasizing daily reading.

“The biggest challenge for schools new to Bookworms is that its design is so different from traditional curriculum materials,” said Walpole, who specializes in literacy education in CEHD’s School of Education. “It’s not harder to teach the Bookworms way, it’s just different. There is so much more reading and so much more challenging reading, but students and teachers rise to the challenge.”

Bookworms is also unique in its instructional routines. All students — including those who have struggled with reading — read books selected for their grade level. Bookworms supports these students using teaching routines based on research in literacy instruction.

“The texts in the Bookworms curriculum are engaging to the students, and the level of pride when students complete an entire novel is very fulfilling,” said Becky Neubert, now principal of West Seaford Elementary School. “Each year, we learn more and more about how to teach children to read so our learning, as well as the students’ learning, is ongoing.”

Bookworms teachers also provide specific attention to skills development. In addition to shared reading and ELA instruction to build grammar and writing competence, students engage in small-group, differentiated skills instruction. During differentiation, students may practice phonemic awareness and word recognition, complete fluency work or participate in even more engaged reading depending on their needs.

Evaluating Bookworms

To evaluate the impact of Bookworms, May and his co-authors followed seven cohorts of students across three school years using a comparative interrupted time-series design and assessed achievement using Measures of Academic Progress reading scores. By modeling each student’s growth curve, the research team was able to estimate the change in students’ achievement trajectories corresponding to the implementation of Bookworms.

They found significant positive impacts. For example, Cohort C started fourth grade about 1 point behind Cohort B’s scores at the beginning of fourth grade. By the beginning of fifth grade, after Cohort C had experienced Bookworms for one year, Cohort C’s scores caught up to and even passed Cohort B’s average score by more than 0.2 points. This translates to a difference of more than 1.2 points in annual gains.

May and his co-authors found that Bookworms was especially helpful for students who struggled with reading. Students who began third grade with relatively weaker achievement experienced more growth than those with average achievement, and those with average achievement experienced more growth than those with the highest achievement.

The researchers’ data also suggests that the impacts of Bookworms for students qualifying for special education services are larger each year than for other students.

“Using only instructional routines from the broad sciences of reading and writing really matters for the achievement of groups of students whom we have often left out,” said Walpole. “I am proud of the results for students with disabilities in our recent study.”

To avoid conflict of interest, Walpole contributed to the descriptions of the Bookworms intervention and context in this study, but did not influence the study design or results. All activities related to study design, data management and statistical analyses were led by May.

To learn more about CEHD research in literacy and language, visit its research page.

Article by Jessica Henderson. Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase.


About Henry May

Henry May is director of CEHD’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy (CRESP) and an associate professor specializing in evaluation, measurement and statistics in CEHD’s School of Education. May’s primary areas of expertise include methods for program evaluation, experimental and quasi-experimental design, causal inference, multilevel modeling, longitudinal analysis, item response theory and missing data theory.

About Sharon Walpole

Sharon Walpole is a professor specializing in literacy in CEHD’s School of Education. Walpole designs and studies the effects of professional development on instruction and achievement in literacy. She works with literacy coaches, reading specialists and administrators to build school-wide systems to support teachers, especially those for children at risk. She has extensive school-based experience designing and implementing tiered instructional programs.


Literacy, Language and Evaluation Faculty at CEHD

May and Walpole’s research complements the work of CEHD faculty studying literacy, language and program evaluation including Ann M. Aviles, Steve Amendum, Christina M. Budde, Martha Buell, David Coker, Stephanie Del Tufo, Valerie Earnshaw, Ralph Ferretti, Roberta M. Golinkoff, Myae Han, Rachel Karchmer-Klein, Allison Karpyn, William Lewis, Charles A. MacArthur, Adrian Pasquarella, Kristen D. Ritchey, Sanford R. Student, Carol Vukelich, Josh Wilson and the many researchers working in CEHD’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy, among others.