First-grader Lindsey Wells considered each pencil stroke. She erased. She sounded out letters silently. She glanced over her shoulder at the alphabet.
Finally, she read what she had written:
“I like it at scool. I like centrs. My birthday is Oct. 15, 1997.” “I’m seven today,” she announced, with earnest, toothless charm. “How do you spell ‘years’?”
The Trent Elementary School first-grader is learning about reading and writing by creating a story about herself, always a subject of high interest.
Providing children with things of interest to read is strategy one.
Strategy two is providing a supportive audience.
As Lindsey wrote, her classmate Helen Buroker had their teacher all to herself for a good 15 minutes - plenty of time for her to read aloud “Are You My Mother,” the classic tale of the bird who loses its mother.
Talk to first- and second-grade teachers about just how those little darlings learn to read, and you’ll hear the word “strategies.” As in, reading independently “gives all the children a time to use their own reading strategies.” Or, “They can catch the strategies they’re ready for. Some might go right over their head, but the next time we come back to that, they may be ready for them.”
That’s Lynn Page talking. She is Lindsey and Helen’s teacher. Like other primary teachers across the Spokane Valley, she has built a toolbox that bulges with different ways to help students transform those 26 crooked and curvy lines into musical, magical language.
Strategy three might involve nursery rhymes. Hearing fluent reading is strategy four. That means mom, dad and child, at least 20 minutes a night.
Not only do strategies abound; so do programs. Federal money has funded Title I programs for years. Each district in the Valley has programs for “special readers.” In some first-grade classes, up to half the children leave the classroom every day for special reading help.
Yet, even with all the dollars that have been poured into reading programs, significant numbers of students are entering middle school and high school without reading at their grade level. Estimates range from 5 percent to 20 percent, according to school officials across the Valley. Those figures do not include special education students. At least two junior highs are starting remedial reading programs this fall.
But is there anything new under the sun when it comes to teaching reading?
Only the sense that no single method works for all children, and that different strategies will help different children read. So they read aloud - to their teacher, to their friends, into a microphone, while sitting in their teacher’s big chair, at home. They read silently at traditional desks, in comfy orange beanbags, sprawled on the classroom floor. They collect books and booklets, sometimes written by themselves, into “I Can Read” bags, giving them an arsenal of success stories.
The phonics-vs.-whole language war of a few years back has been settled. It’s a draw, teachers say. Children need both approaches. They must learn the sounds that letters represent; that means repetition. And a love of stories - the so-called literature-based approach - is a mainstay, as well.
In West Valley School District, elementary schools are trying out special reading-intensive classes for children who aren’t reading up to grade level. Teachers Tammy Henriksen and Pat Perrenoud have adjoining rooms at Pasadena Park Elementary School. Between them they have 30 first- and second-graders.
“It’s frightening that they didn’t learn to read” in first grade, Henriksen said. Now, reading is their goal, six hours a day. And Henriksen tells them so, straight out.
“That is your job, learning to read,” she said to her class of second-graders.
Nowhere does it say that a job can’t be fun.
All eyes are on Henriksen, waiting for the next flash card. The cards have simple words. Henriksen calls them “outlaw words.” In, on, yes, no, said, says, for, away, out, that, what. The rules of the game are simple. No one is allowed to call out the word until Henriksen snaps her fingers. Then, all 15 voices ring out at once. Well, almost at once. A few children are half a second behind. You can almost see their brain wheels turning: Oh, that’s what ‘what’ looks like.
One of the phrases in favor these days is a “print-rich environment.” Simply, lots of words to see. Words on the walls, words on the desks. In Page’s room, even her rocking chair wears a label.
Henriksen’s students each have an alphabet taped to their desk, complete with numbers 1 through 10. Even reminders about left and right.
Back in Page’s Trent classroom, her children have gone out to recess and she takes a minute to reflect on the challenge of getting every child reading.
“It’s a real balancing act,” Page said. “You want to support their learning and not push them on through and leave big holes in their learning.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)