Empowering Students with Executive Functioning and Readability Skills
Readability Matters sat down with Katie Arpin, an educator with 11 years of classroom experience. She specializes in literacy, has curriculum development experience, and holds master’s degrees from the Teacher’s College of Columbia University and Sacred Heart University. She told us she started teaching to empower students to show up as their best selves with both curiosity and confidence.
We met Katie two years ago when she was a Learning Specialist for Riverdale Country School while working on the 2019 Readability study Towards Readability Individuation: The Right Changes to Text Format make Large Impacts on Reading Speed. Recently, Katie founded Arpin Academic Coaching providing services in NYC and online. Her practice focuses on helping students find confidence and independence in their learning, using a personally curated toolbox of strategies. As part of her methodology, Katie incorporates Readability into her work as she has seen the tremendous value of personalized text formats.
Katie, we understand you are undergoing a career transition; tell us about your new venture and why you are passionate about literacy.
Yes, I am pivoting in my career starting this fall. During the pandemic, I realized how important 1:1 coaching is for students and teachers. Beginning this fall, I will be launching my own academic coaching business focused on supporting students with reading, writing, and executive functioning.
As a learning specialist, I have worked with hundreds of students in a 1:1 setting and recognized the power of coaching students in specific skills and strategies that support their learning needs. Not one size fits all. That being said, hearing students in the past say, “I give up,” “There is no point because I won’t do well,” or “I’m just not a good reader” truly upset me. There must be a better way to approach teaching than to end up with students in this headspace.
My passion for literacy comes from years of navigating how to make reading and writing an enjoyable and accessible experience for my students.
Most students’ learning happens through reading, so why are so many students feeling so overwhelmed and apprehensive when it comes to literacy? I believe it starts with the approach, like I said, not one size fits all. Using new tools and a method of building on strategy work that I created over the past few years has pushed me into a new corner of education where I can help my students feel successful and independent when they sit down and open a book or put pencil to paper.
We met you through our work with Adobe and their readability research. How did you take your new exposure to readability solutions into the classroom?
Yes! What an exciting project. I have always been conscientious about how I structure my lessons. I am a firm believer in the “I do/we do/you do” approach or gradual release of responsibility (GRR). As educators, we can’t assume a student knows a particular skill as soon as they walk through the door. However, after my work with Adobe, I started to be very mindful about not only how I structured my lessons, but the way in which I presented them in formatting text. For example, a huge block of text explaining what to do on a project will not do any good for a middle schooler with attentional or reading comprehension difficulties. Instead, I started to be more mindful of text font, use of bold, italics, and underlines, and the amount of text on a page. I started to utilize strategy lessons to show students how to break down an assignment paper that was one big block of text to help them access the assignment and information as sometimes they missed instructions or key details due to formatting. By the end of the year, I realized that most of the students benefited from this approach of text formatting. From a teacher’s perspective, it was great to see how this simple change made such an impact.
Tell us about working as a reading specialist over the last year as classrooms shut down and teaching and learning went online.
Where to start! First, I wish I could give every educator out there a gold medal for this past year. It was not easy, and I know teachers did their absolute best with a short turnaround time to adjust to the world of online learning. Teaching completely remote was difficult for the kids, too, especially with managing all materials on a digital platform. Big obstacles I had with students were a) organizing digital materials on their drive, and b) sustaining energy and attention to reading that was mostly online. There was definitely some anxiety around the amount of reading on a page or for homework (what middle schooler doesn’t feel this way at some point?), but I started to make my readings and assignments formatted to ease the stress of how much they saw on a page by adding line spacing, breaking up text into chunks, increasing font size, and using bolding and underlining to draw attention to information. This alone seemed to decrease stress. Not being able to sit down and walk them through an assignment was the obstacle, so reformatting was my solution for being a remote teacher….and it worked!
We see adults take responsibility for their reading experience; they pinch and zoom, change the default font or text size, all to support better reading. How does this work with a younger population? How do you encourage students to take responsibility for their learning?
To be honest, most of it is a mindset. I think that this applies to kids and adults alike. I was an English teacher for middle schoolers, and an adult education teacher back in my early teaching days.
During the first week of class, we set up systems for organization, routines, expectations, etc., and the first assignment was always a short response to an article or a story we would read that I knew all students could succeed. Now, this was not a “giveaway A,” they still had to complete the assignment and show me they read the article, but the purpose was for every single student in my class to start the year with confidence. To start the year with a mindset, “Yes, I can do this. I can be successful in English.” From there, I taught lessons and eventually study strategies through a gradual release of responsibility to ensure a systematic approach to instruction where students could actually use the skills in their day-to-day learning without me directing them explicitly all of the time.
When you are consistent and come with an approach that gives students the chance to watch, try, then do on their own, they take responsibility because the confidence is there. I am so proud of my last group of students for taking learning into their own hands. By the end of the year, they were using their skills to support their reading and learning on their own. Kids are resilient and want to do well. We just have to give them the tools so they can thrive.
Do you have student stories that you would like to share?
I love teaching students how to create their own tools for writing. For one assignment, students wrote an argumentative essay based on a unit in one of their academic classes. Many felt overwhelmed by the directions, so I asked them why? “We don’t know where to start,” many said. So we worked together on how to start. And the first step to any assignment is…you guessed it, to READ!
I created a lesson using GRR to show the students how to break down assignment pages from a block of text into separate sections using line spacing, bolded font, reformatting of text size, and tables to create a graphic organizer to ensure each of the steps in the assignment was completed. It seems simple, but just this idea of reformatting and having the skills of reformatting text on their own was a hit! As I mentioned before, confidence is key, and multiple students said how this breakdown and reformatting helped them visualize and internalize the assignment in a way they could tackle it independently.
My purpose as an educator is to help students reflect and build on their reading and study habits to move forward as confident, independent learners.
There are many tough days, which we all need to go through to become stronger and more resilient, but the days of success and pride make all of those struggles worth it.
 The gradual release of responsibility (GRR) model is a particular style of teaching which is a structured method of pedagogy framed around a process devolving
About Katie Arpin: Katie Arpin is an educator based in NYC with 11 years of classroom experience in public and private schools. As a former English teacher and current reading specialist, she specializes in literacy, has curriculum development experience, and holds master’s degrees from the Teacher’s College of Columbia University and Sacred Heart University. This fall, Katie will continue working with students in her academic coaching business using evidence-based strategies to support reading, writing, and executive functioning. In addition, she will continue to incorporate Readability into her work with each student to support their comprehension and reading accuracy. Learn more about Arpin Academic Coaching.