Narrowing the Literacy Gap

What Works in High-Poverty Schools

Barone, D. M. (2006). Narrowing the Literacy Gap: What works in high-poverty schools. New York, New York: The Guilford Press.

This thought provoking book focuses on a 7-year study of 16 children in a high-poverty elementary school. Barone explored students' literacy learning and instruction. The students featured in this book came from low-income homes where home literacy was not a priority. The research began when the students were in kindergarten and concluded when they graduated from sixth grade. By the end of the study there were a total of 13 children. Barone's goal in this research was to share the stories of the children, teachers, and their school. Her hope was to provide information for other's who work with similar children to learn ways to support student learning, understand obstacles to learning, and the importance of the teacher in the classroom in relationship to student learning.


Howard Elementary has a history of low test scores. The school enrolls about 600 students. The majority of the population is Hispanic (68%) and about 87% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The following are the endeavors implemented by the the school to raise student achievement: a balanced literacy program, blocked instructional time, professional development on ELLs, READ 180, Reading Recovery, two literacy coaches, and extra support for struggling readers.

Barone made the following conclusions at the end of her 7 year experience with the students and teachers at Howard Elementary. "First, teachers matter", (Barone, 2006). Second, even though schools may have all of the essential elements in place for student success, they still may not see progress in student learning as measured in standardized tests. In order to see improvements, literacy instruction needs to be consistent. According to Barone (2006), one teacher said students tend to regress in reading and writing over the summer; therefore, during the school year students need to grow at least a year and a half in order to reach benchmarks. Third, teachers at high-poverty schools must find ways to get to know the students' families, and encourage them to visit and participate in schools. In other words, teacher's must not focus on the demographics of their students. Teachers need to understand that a student's academic limitations are not a direct result of their home or neighborhood. Fourth, schools with a high number of ELLs, must find ways to value parents and bring them to school. This is a difficult task due to language barriers. However, if teachers begin to make contact early in kindergarten by inviting parents to visit and share books with them to help them create at-home libraries, children will see the valuable connection between school and home. Lastly, Barone began to see the complexities of learning to read and write in a high-poverty school as a result of this study.

Barone's Reflections on Student Learning During the 7-year Study

  • Children learned to follow directions
  • Instruction was not meaningful
  • Little conversation between students and teachers
  • Minimal support for ELLs-no real accommodations
  • Teachers focused on the alphabet and sound-symbol instruction
  • No opportunities for students to explore reading and writing
  • Parents were not encouraged to become involved in academic learning

First Grade

  • Focused mostly on decoding skills
  • Small group guided reading in six different ability groups
  • Shared reading, independent reading, and read-alouds
  • Word wall to develop sight word knowledge and support spelling
  • Teacher-directed journal writing
  • Directed oral language activities

Second Grade and Third Grade

  • All of the above plus the following
  • Comprehension of informational and narrative texts
  • Social Studies and Science were taught through reading
  • Writing workshop
  • Continued to build on student's decoding knowledge
  • High expectations for all students

Fourth Grade
  • Whole-class literacy instruction
  • No attempt for small group differentiated instruction
  • All students engaged in the same selection in the basal text
  • Vocabulary instruction related to basal selection
  • Later in the year some teachers added reading groups; however, students read the same novel and there was little or no time for discussion
  • Independent Reading with Accelerated Reader books followed by quizzes
  • Daily Oral Language where students corrected sentences
  • Wrote in preparation for state writing assessment
  • Only one of the three teachers made personal connections with students and had high expectations which contributed to student success

Fifth and Sixth Grade
  • Both grade levels blocked
  • Instruction was organized across the grade level
  • Routines, academic, and behavioral expectations were consistent for all teachers
  • Teachers informally assessed their students and regrouped students based on current literacy and math knowledge
  • Daily read-aloud
  • Spelling practice daily
  • Daily journal writing and a variety of other forms (stories and informational reports)
  • Basal texts were used, but book club groups were the used frequently
  • Students responded to other students and/or teachers in a literature log and had daily conversations about literature
  • Accelerated Reading program used daily

*Watch the video below for a preview of a guided reading lesson. The video is of Jan Richardson, Ph.D., a literacy consultant and author who earned her Ph.D. studying struggling readers. In the video she is working with second graders introducing them to a new text.

Early - 2nd Grade


Narrowing the Literacy Gap 3 by cbwilson98

Meet the Author

Diane M. Barone is Professor Literacy Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. In her role at the university, she teaches courses in early literacy, diversity and literacy, and qualitative research. She is currently Editor of The Reading Teacher. She has served on the IRA Board of Directors, won the John Manning Award for Service to Public Schools in 2010, and served as Editor of Reading Research Quarterly. Her research interests center on young children, especially in high poverty schools, and how they develop in literacy. Her most current study followed 16 children from kindergarten through to Grade 6 to document their literacy growth. She has been an editor of Reading Research Quarterly and has written numerous articles, book chapters, and books. Some of her recent books include Reading First in the Classroom with Joan Taylor and Darrin Hardman, Literacy and Young Children: Research-Based Practices with Lesley Morrow, Teaching Early Literacy: Development, Assessment, and Instruction with Marla Mallette and Shelley Xu, and The National Board Certification Handbook. She is also Principal Investigator for Reading First in Nevada and serves as a member of the board for the International Reading Association.
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Designed by: Caroline Wilson