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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Public Schools overhauls reading, writing program

In Debi Maher’s Roosevelt Elementary School third-grade class, Isaac Siegel learns to write the letter B during a cursive writing exercise assignment on Monday. (Colin Mulvany)
In Debi Maher’s Roosevelt Elementary School third-grade class, Isaac Siegel learns to write the letter B during a cursive writing exercise assignment on Monday. (Colin Mulvany)

A dip in reading test scores among younger students is driving Spokane Public Schools back to basics.

The state’s second-largest school district will begin teaching cursive writing again, for example. Students will read much more nonfiction work. And there will be a renewed emphasis on grammar and vocabulary.

The new language arts approach will support the Common Core curriculum, which is the national K-12 learning standard to be fully implemented in Washington by 2014-15. Common Core emphasizes fundamentals in math and language arts and accelerates that instruction by as much as a grade level.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said the district is “about average in our math scores. Where we need work is in language arts.”

Only 57 percent of the district’s fourth-graders are passing the statewide writing test, compared with 62 percent statewide and more than 80 percent in the Mead School District. Spokane is slightly below the state average in reading, but scores higher than East Valley School District as well as the Tacoma School District, a similar-size district with a poorer population than Spokane.

Nationwide, about two-thirds of fourth-grade students read below levels that are considered proficient, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 18 percent of students from poor families are proficient in reading.

Redinger thinks the changing requirements in reading and writing, combined with a lack of materials to support the changes, is one reason student scores have slumped.

Spokane Public Schools is looking at a variety of options to improve.

Redinger wants to bring back cursive writing because studies show it helps with memory retention, brain development, fine motor skills and creative writing.

At the same time, she recognizes keyboarding as an essential skill. Common Core standards will expect a sixth-grader to type three pages in a single sitting.

Third-grade teacher Debi Maher introduced cursive to her students this year but only spends about 30 minutes on the topic each week. Handwriting isn’t one of the topics students are tested on, so class time spent on it has dwindled over the years.

“Children will see cursive most of their lives, and they won’t be able to read it if they don’t learn it,” Maher said. “Keyboarding is really what they will do most of their lives; many of them already have cellphones and they’re learning that way.”

The district has already adopted a new handwriting curriculum for kindergartners, which will be expanded into first grade next year.

Called Handwriting Without Tears, it “focuses on the letters and the structure of the letters, where you practice each letter over and over,” said Steven Gering, the district’s chief academic director.

Through this program, cursive is taught starting at the end of second grade.

And, that’s just one of many small adjustments being made, district officials say.

One of the biggest changes is a significant increase in the use of nonfiction or informational books, Gering said.

Across the country an average of 15 percent of the books used in elementary schools are nonfiction.

Starting next fall, that’s going to jump to about 50 percent or higher.

“It’s really bringing nonfiction back into the classroom as an essential part of learning,” Gering said.

Balboa Elementary School second-grade teacher Bonnie Banicki is testing one of the possible curriculums to bring about that change. The Core Knowledge Language Arts program uses social studies and science texts to teach other skills.

“The kids in my room can tell you about the Indus River, the Himalayan Mountains and a little bit about Hinduism and Buddhism,” Banicki said. “They can tell us what makes a folk tale; infused in that is phonics and spelling and word study and the foundations that they need.”

She added, “I think the part that I love is how much it integrates everything: reading, spelling, vocabulary.”

Another big idea is the return of grammar education in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, Gering said.

“Only the basics of grammar were being taught in the class, now it will be a lot more about parts of speech,” Gering said.

A program being field tested in several grade levels at Adams Elementary School has a strong emphasis on grammar, teacher Beth Nye said.

Like Banicki’s curriculum, it integrates reading, writing, spelling and vocabulary into the lessons, but it uses a weekly theme, such as, “Why would someone want to raise money for a cause?”

Each week includes targeted vocabulary because research shows that vocabulary “is one of the key ways to improve student learning,” Nye said.

Along with the emphasis on nonfiction texts will come an emphasis on fact-based writing, Gering said. That could be a tough change.

“It used to be opinion-based and now it will be fact-based, such as ‘Here’s what the author said and here are the three clues that led me to that conclusion,’ ” he said.

Although some of the new programs have already launched, he noted, “there’s still a lot of work to do.”

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