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Teachers talk the science of reading

Staff writer

The way reading is taught in elementary schools has changed.

“We have so much more information; it’s almost scientific,” Peabody-Burns Elementary School Title I teacher Michelle Gossen said. “It used to be more of an art.”

Title I is a federally funded program schools with 40 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunches qualify for the program. But, the program provides instruction to children struggling in reading and math across all economic backgrounds. Title I is also not associated with special education.

A student’s progress is tracked with data gleaned from test scores throughout the year.

Denise Brown, an educational consultant at Smoky Hill education center, examined testing data for each student Thursday with all teachers at HES, to help them see where their methods are succeeding and how they can improve.

The way that teachers; and specifically Title I teachers like Gossen; teach reading is by focusing on different areas of reading development.

Gossen guides students through a series of steps.

The first step is analogical awareness. Exercises here include rhyming and breaking down the sounds of words. The second step is phonics. Gossen works with students on word-row patterns to help students learn other words.

The next step is trying to help students memorize certain sight words, words like “the” for instance. Then Gossen works on fluency, which is the recognition of punctuation and the way punctuation can change meaning.

Comprehension — retelling the story, cause and effect, and character development — is the last step and requires all of the student’s previously acquired skills.

Some teachers break down different areas of reading among themselves. Jean Brunner and Carol Hanschu, Title I teachers at Centre Elementary School, have different specialties. Brunner specializes in fluency — trying to increase the number of words a student can read — while Hanschu focuses more on phonics. Brunner said that this division keeps them from hammering the same points with the same students.

When a breakdown occurs in this reading hierarchy, a student struggles.

It is the job of Title I teachers including Gossen, Brunner, Hanschu, Ellynne Wiebe of Hillsboro, Shannon Cooper and Cindy Vinduska of Marion, and Mary Schmidt of Goessel — to diagnose the origin of a problem and try to correct it.

“You put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Cooper said. “‘What am I not doing to help?’”

The system does work, especially when Title I teachers can diagnose a reading problem early, but each Title I teacher has a different version of a success story.

Gossen talked about a student she worked with at a young age who is now one of the smartest students in his class.

Wiebe said that it is a joy whenever she gets to see a student raise a reading level.

Brunner said that she has had children struggle early on but soar later.

“They’ve grown by leaps and bounds,” she said. “I’ve seen some kids go up 20 or 30 words (per minute) maybe as much as 40 by the end.”

To help with this difficult task of teaching children struggling to read, Title I educators teach small classes of students. The largest class that Schmidt teaches is six students. The class sizes for each teacher usually average about four children per class. Title I teachers don’t get a lot of time with students — Schmidt teaches 30-minute classes — but they teach all of their students every day.

Title I teachers find that the focused instruction, and a class of peers at a similar learning level, allows students to be more comfortable and confident.

Another key factor that each teacher acknowledged was early detection. They said that a reading deficiency is much easier to correct when a student is in kindergarten or first grade compared with fourth or fifth grade.

With the Multi-Tiered System of Support, a reading program that every school in Marion County uses, the progress of each student needs to be monitored regularly.

Brunner and Hanschu monitor students’ progress weekly as well as with testing at the beginning, middle, and end of the year.

Data is the tool that allows teachers to keep track of a student’s progress and validate, or question, their teaching techniques. Data is gleaned from test scores and has become very important.

Brown closely examined this information Thursday with all teachers at Hillsboro Elementary School. Brown held hour-long meetings with two teachers from each elementary school grade — kindergarten through fifth — Hillsboro Title I teacher Wiebe, and Hillsboro Elementary School Principal Evan Yoder.

The focus of these meetings was charts that Brown constructed comparing the beginning-of-the-year test scores and midyear test scores for each grade.

Brown, who performs this consulting service for schools all over Kansas, praised the teachers because no students in the first or second grade had fallen from a level meeting their grade reading level to a score bellow benchmark. Brown also went through signs that worried her about students who continued to struggle. She advised teachers to work on exercises in the areas where students didn’t test well.

For example, a student who was struggling with oral reading fluency needed to continue echo reading with a classmate — the classmate reads a passage and then the student rereads what was just read.

The success stories for students are the reason that every Title I teacher continues perform their job, but sometimes successes can be seldom and come in smaller packages.

Cooper and Vinduska mentioned a child who could not name a letter without singing the alphabet song and now he has no problem with his letters.

Schmidt mentioned that she recently had a young student read a whole sentence aloud for the first time.

“She just looked up at me and was like, ‘whoa,’” Schmidt said. “It was pretty exciting to see the ‘light bulb’ go on in her head.”

Last modified March 4, 2010

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