HillRAP: Direct, individualized literacy instruction to help struggling students succeed

Note: This article, by Molly Osbourne, was originally published 08/24/2018 on Education NC (EdNC – HillRAP: Direct, individualized literacy instruction to help struggling students succeed) and is republished below with permission.

Watsie and Will perform a fluency test as part of the HillRAP program at the Hill Center. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

“On your mark, get set, go!”

Will, an eager, confident second-grader, reads the words in front of him as fast as he can.

“Oh man, not quite,” his teacher, Anita Shore, tells him. “Tomorrow, okay?” she asks. “That word is brick. Are you good to do it again tomorrow, Will?”

Disappointed, he hangs his head.

“Want to try one more time?” Shore asks.

Will nods eagerly and gets ready to read his word list again. On his second try, he reads them faster and with more confidence, reaching his goal.

“Oh yeah, that’s how you do it!” Shore says. “Good job!”

Will is a student at the Hill Center, an educational nonprofit in Durham serving K-12 students who struggle academically. The Hill Center was founded in 1977 by George Watts Hill. Originally part of Durham Academy, the Hill Center became its own nonprofit in 1998. Today, the Hill Center runs its own school and summer camp, provides teacher training and tutoring, and works with North Carolina school districts.

The Hill Center specializes in teaching students with learning differences, but their programs are used to provide remediation and differentiated support for students across the state. They recently received funding through the state’s Read to Achieve program and the Mebane Foundation to train 400 educators in their reading program, the Hill Reading Achievement Program or HillRAP. In June, I had the chance to visit the Hill Center and learn more about HillRAP.


Anita Shore assessing her students’ fluency at the Hill Center. Molly Osborne/EducationNC


As Will moves to his reading comprehension work, Shore turns to the student next to Will.

“Alright, Martha, you ready?” Shore asks.

Martha reads through her list of words as fast as she can, only stumbling on a few of them.

“Very good!” Shore exclaims. “You reached your goal. You jumped from 64 to 72. That’s awesome on a review day!”

Shore is assessing the students on fluency with an activity they call “word attack.” Each student has a list of words that follow a certain rule. The students review the words with Shore and practice reading them until they can read the words fast enough and with enough accuracy to reach their goal. Depending on the students’ reading level, the lists start with identifying letters and sounds and progress up to multisyllable words.

After the students review their words, Shore gives them a test to see how many they can read accurately in a certain amount of time. If they reach their goal, they get to color in the number of words they read on a graph on their iPad, a way to visually track their progress.

Will colors in a graph representing the number of words he read accurately. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

HillRAP doesn’t just focus on fluency. Students also practice phonics and phonological awareness, vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension skills. These areas are integrated, so students see the same words during word attack as they do during spelling, vocabulary, and comprehension.

HillRAP is also highly individualized. Each student is on a different level, and working in a small group allows the teacher the ability to differentiate instruction. It is mastery-based, so students do not move on until they have achieved mastery.

“You saw the level of explicit direct instruction,” Beth Anderson, Executive Director of the Hill Center, pointed out, “and that is what the students really need and that is what doesn’t happen too often in general classrooms.”

Because HillRAP is so individualized and requires direct instruction, the program cannot be used for a whole group. Teachers must work with students one-on-one or in a small group, which means teachers and schools must intentionally schedule time to implement the program.

Krista Jones, a former Orange County special education teacher and current HillRAP trainer, used the program during an intervention block at her school. At some schools, literacy interventionists or reading teachers will pull groups to do HillRAP, while at others, classroom teachers will administer HillRAP during stations. Often, however, those teachers have a teacher’s aide or assistant who can help, Jones said.

Martha and Will attend the Hill Center half the day and then return to their normal elementary schools. However, the majority of students receiving instruction in HillRAP are in North Carolina public schools.

The map below details the districts across the state that are using HillRAP as of June 2018. The colors represent whether the districts have access to the iPad version (green) or are using the paper version (blue). The orange represents districts that have a mix of technology and paper versions.

A map of districts implementing HillRAP, color-coded according to technology. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Anderson is excited about the move from paper to iPads, although some veteran teachers were highly skeptical at first, she said.

“There are two things that really help the teachers. One is it cuts down significantly on the prep time for them and on the time managing the program in the class so they can really focus on instruction and get through more content,” Anderson said.

“The other thing that it does is it gives all of the data right there at their finger tips … You can log into a portal online that has reports and all kinds of things. In the public schools, we hear they are using these reports for IEP meetings, for setting and tracking goals, and for showing progress to parents and other teachers.”

The move online has also helped the Hill Center track where and when their program is being used. They can tell how long teachers and students are using the program, which allows them to better understand the data and provide coaching.

Additionally, the online version allows for the alignment between the different sections — fluency, vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension. With the paper and pencil version, teachers do not have access to texts that are aligned with the fluency, vocabulary, and spelling sections.

Will works on the comprehension component. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

An example of the vocabulary component. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Students can draw on the iPad to group words or letters. Molly Osborne/EducationNC

Currently, the Hill Center is training about 1,000 teachers a year. Not all of those are trained in HillRAP — they also train teachers in their programs HillMath and HillWrite. With the new funding, they will train approximately 400 literacy trainers from every district as well as roughly 23 charter schools.

Anderson stated, “[The literacy trainers] have been designated by DPI and by their districts as their literacy expert, so we are training them in HillRAP so that they understand what a high quality individualized Tier 3 intervention looks like.”

The funding does not mean that those trainers will go back and implement HillRAP in every school. As Anderson described, “They hopefully can learn those strategies and use those strategies as they are coaching and teaching and leading and developing their own district’s approach to support for struggling readers and literacy instruction.”

According to Anderson, the cost for the full certification, which includes training and observations, is around $3,000 per teacher. While the cost can be a barrier to participation for some districts, Anderson believes their program is competitively priced. Teachers come out of the training with a certification through the Hill Center and the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council.

As they roll out the online version, they will also charge a $250 licensing fee per teacher for the first time. “This has been all funded through philanthropy for the most part,” Anderson said. “We really need to find a way to get some earned revenue…[The fee] includes the app. It includes all of the comprehension texts, vocabulary, all of the data and reporting, access to the online portal that has online courses, resources, and a video observation tool. It’s the complete package.”

Anderson is optimistic that the demand will remain even after instituting a licensing fee because teachers and districts see the value in the program.

“The teachers love the program,” she said. “The teachers also love the mentorship and professional development.”

Note:  This story was written by Molly Osborne for EdNC and has been republished here with permission. 





Cognitive ToyBox – Data-Based Assessment Tool to Accelerate Progress in Early Childhood Literacy

By Jeanna Baxter White
Assessment of child progress, a National Association for the Education of Young Children program standard,  helps teachers to improve their teaching and enhances student learning. Currently, observation-based assessment is the most common assessment approach in Head Start and state-funded Pre-K programs. However, it is also time-consuming for teachers, who spend 
four to six hours per week writing notes on student development, transcribing the notes into a digital form, and then scanning for patterns to guide instruction.

Three pre-school teachers from the Davie County School system in Mocksville, NC were among the first to evaluate the efficacy of a new assessment system through a pilot program during the spring of 2018.

The pilot partner, Cognitive ToyBox, developed a research-backed, game-based platform that enables direct assessment of early language, literacy, math and social-emotional skills. Using a touchscreen device, students play one assessment game per week for an average of five minutes, and teachers have access to NC standards-aligned reports that support them in planning for instruction and for supporting individual student needs.

Data-Based Assessments – Accurate, Consistent & Actionable
“By making data collection easier and enabling teachers to utilize the data in real-time to drive instructional adjustments, we can help teachers focus on the things that matter most for a child’s success: high-quality interactions between teachers and their students,” said Tammy Kwan, the co-founder, and CEO of Cognitive ToyBox.

Ideally, CTB Assess will become a valuable tool in achieving the goals of DavieLEADS, the school system’s five-year early literacy initiative aimed at improving kindergarten readiness and increasing the percentage of students
reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

DavieLEADS is funded through a $2.5 million grant from the Mebane Foundation, which also brought the two organizations together. The Foundation supports collaborations and partnerships among educational professionals, business leaders, elected officials, and the community that help ensure that children have the opportunity to reach their highest potential.

Mebane Partnership with 4.0 Schools Continues to Pay Dividends
Foundation President, Larry Colbourne, learned about Cognitive ToyBox through a grant to New Orleans-based 
4.0 Schools, a non-profit incubator that finds, trains, and invests in passionate people solving the most critical challenges in education. He recognized its applicability to the preschool portion of DavieLEADS which has ultimately led to a serendipitous partnership between two programs the Mebane Foundation supports.

“The goal of funding 4.0 Schools was to gain access to great educational thinkers across the country,” Colbourne said. “We hoped to find entrepreneurs with ideas that align with our mission and we believe we have done so with Tammy (Kwan) and Cognitive ToyBox.”

Colbourne shared the program with Peggy Nuckolls, director of preschool programs for Davie County Schools, and Stephanie Nelson, preschool collaborative teacher for Davie County Schools.

Standards Aligned Data by Student, Class, and District
Both Nuckolls and Nelson quickly recognized CTB Assess’s potential for creating consistency and increasing reliability in assessments throughout the county’s public and private NC Pre-K classrooms, particularly since it aligns with the standards used by preschool teachers across all settings.

“We saw its value as a universal and less subjective measurement tool that could truly focus on the child’s ability versus what the teacher thinks the child can or cannot do, erasing any potential bias,” Nuckolls said.

“Data can be pulled by student, class or district. This is helpful for administrators as well as teachers who can take student data and sort children by skill mastery which aids in putting children together in small groups to focus on different skills and objectives. After talking with Tammy (Kwan), we decided to give the platform a try.”   

During the pilot, the school system met with Kwan each month to provide feedback on what worked about the platform, and what could be improved to better support their program.

“Participating in the pilot program has been great,” said Nelson. “Tammy has continuously asked, ‘What do we need to tweak? What do we need to change? How can we make it better? She isn’t afraid to make changes.’”

Tam Hudson, Felicia Myers, and Josey Redinger, who used the platform in their classrooms for three months, found the platform user-friendly and appreciated the additional data.

“My Kids Love Cognitive ToyBox” – Engaging and Interactive
“My kids loved Cognitive ToyBox,” said Redinger. “It was engaging and interactive. It provided an opportunity to work on their own at their own pace and also an opportunity to work alone with me. I enjoyed it for the same reasons. I also like how the reports gave me some insight into their abilities and helped me to group them in learning activities!  This also helped me to complete student assessments for GOLD checkpoints.”

Hudson said, “By looking at the results, I was able to use the information to lead my teaching in large group and small group instruction. It is a quick picture that gives me a clear idea on what areas a child may need extra time with us to master a skill/task. My students loved it. They thought of it as a game!”

Both teachers found that the platform’s leveling of students across language, literacy, and math reflected their own understanding of students levels.

Their evaluations correlated with the other anecdotal assessments received by Kwan who said that one pilot teacher shared that in observing four to six children in math at a time, she sometimes “missed kids.” In comparison, Cognitive ToyBox gives her access to “super individualized” data on how each child is doing. Moreover, several teachers shared that having an additional source of data was incredibly valuable. In one case, a teacher had assumed that a child who was behind in language was also behind in shape recognition. Through the platform, she was surprised to learn that the child had mastered all of her shapes. In another case, the platform provided an additional data point for the instructional team to use to recommend that a child be screened for a language delay.

Cognitive ToyBox Expanding to All Public and Private Davie County Preschools for 2018-19 School Year
Pleased with the overall results of the pilot, Nuckolls is looking forward to introducing the CTB Assess platform to all of the NC Pre-K classrooms, both public and private, across the county this fall. An
$18,000 grant from the Mebane Foundation will provide both the software and the technology needed to support it.

“It is our goal to support and invest in our teachers,” Nuckolls said. “This platform will help them to become better at what they are already doing and more consistent in our assessments across the county. This platform will take out subjectivity and allow for more reliable measurements. The implementation of this project will allow us to walk closer to our goals in DavieLEADS.”    

“It’s been wonderful having Larry (Colbourne) as part of the continuous growth for the LEADS program,” she added.  “As a funder, he isn’t just handing out money, but is invested in the true measurement of what we are trying to build which speaks volumes.”

Although delighted with the response so far, Kwan said Cognitive ToyBox is continuing to refine the technology to ensure that it is the most beneficial assessment platform available. “We aim to show that classrooms that use our platform are better supported through data, leading to improved school readiness and third-grade reading rates.”