A year ago, Brian Martin was reading at a sixth-grade level and struggling to understand the newspaper. The Shadle Park High School junior now picks up fantasy novels for pleasure and is considering going to medical school.
Martin credits his learning curve climb to Sue Stookey’s experimental reading class at Shadle Park, which gives at-risk students a kick start.
“It’s like I was in the sixth grade a year ago, and now I’m in the 11th,” said Martin. “It’s like I took six grades in one year.”
Three years ago, Stookey, a special education teacher, realized the teaching style she uses for reading in her classes would work with regular students. Successful on the most challenged kids, why couldn’t it work on others?
“Show me a kid who can’t learn - anyone,” said Stookey. “They can be taught to read.”
She is one of a few area teachers to bring the direct instruction into regular classrooms. Many teachers dislike it because it is seen as uncreative, according to Gonzaga University education professor Betty Williams.
Direct instruction says reading is a mechanical skill, like memorizing multiplication tables. Grammar, word comprehension and vocabulary are mastered through repetition. Lessons are scripted.
That approach differs from the less structured, more intuitive style used in most regular classrooms.
Most students learn to read under the theory that reading “can be as natural and effortless as learning to perceive and produce speech,” according to a research study.
The 21 students in Stookey’s afternoon reading class are hand-picked. They are not students who have been diagnosed with a learning disorder, but rather students who, for a variety of reasons, have reading skills far below the norm.
They are placed in small groups - often one-on-one - with Gonzaga University and Eastern Washington University students training to be special education teachers.
For students like Martin, who have slipped through the cracks, Stookey’s class can be the one they wished they’d always had.
Martin said he needs repetition to be able to visualize what he reads. Teachers frustrated him for years by expecting him to automatically picture his reading lessons.
“In a way, I’m mad at the school district because, if I had this class before, I wouldn’t need to be here now,” said Martin.
Stookey gives up a planning hour to teach the class, and even hawks cookies and muffins to pay for the $15 reading books because the school doesn’t have much money budgeted.
The results have been startling.
One student jumped six reading grade levels in a semester. But others take the class for a semester and are no more enthusiastic about reading than they were before.
Linda McGlocklin, a first-grade teacher in Mead’s Evergreen Elementary, uses direct instruction because she has found “that students learn more and quicker.”
All her first-graders read by the end of the year, and several are in third-grade books. Tests scores have gone from bell curves to J-curves, she said.
“Lots of kids will learn regardless of instruction,” said McGlocklin. “But I was really concerned about the ones that don’t.”
Williams, the GU professor, is an advocate of direct instruction. Because of state and federal mandated changes, Williams thinks teachers like Stookey will have the freedom to experiment with alternative teaching methods.
“It emphasizes teaching more in less time,” said Williams. “It is very fast paced, very highly researched, very directed. Direct instruction is a bit like businesses.”
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