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.