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Teachers try new reading methods

They enter their first-grade classrooms wide-eyed, freshly scrubbed and full of hope.

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

They enter their first-grade classrooms wide-eyed, freshly scrubbed and full of hope.

They understand that they are there to learn, and, with all the energy of a room full of 6-year-olds, they are ready to do just that.

Their teachers, however, see the bigger picture. If just one lesson falls through the cracks, if just one building-block in the monumental task of learning to read is misplaced, the whole tower could come tumbling down – and another student will struggle for the duration of his academic career, possibly never catching up, educators say.

It’s a responsibility Bonnie Collinsworth has never taken lightly in her 33 years of teaching.

"You start with a lot of observation during the beginning of the year," she said. "You try and determine what the child’s abilities are when he or she comes into the classroom, like their knowledge of basic letters and sounds, and you go from there."

No two classrooms, no two children and no two school years are alike, fellow first-grade teacher Kay Falls said.

"There are times when you have to backtrack and start where a child knows what he’s talking about, and then the challenge is to bring him up to speed with the other students as far as you can," she said.

It’s the teacher’s job to get the students up to that level and make sure they are ready to move on to the next step at the end of the year, Ironton City Schools first-grade teacher Cheryl Holtzapfel said. But, parental intervention would help, too.

Unfortunately, not all students receive the benefits of home assistance. The sad fact of the matter is, some parents themselves cannot read –  still others do not believe it is their job to reinforce school lessons, Ironton first-grade teacher Nancy McKee said.

And when that happens, the options are limited, but not as limited as they might have been in the past.

"There’s not a whole lot we can do about parents who can’t, or won’t help," she said. "We can’t force them to help their children with schoolwork. We can send things home, and we can encourage the parents to help. I’ve encouraged some to go to their local library to receive literacy training, too."

Afterschool tutoring sessions help catch the children up on what they might have missed at home, Ms. Collinsworth added.

"For the last couple of years we’ve provided after-school tutoring, but that program doesn’t start until spring and we need it now," she said.

With the promise of new government programs in the form of Ohio Reads, Gov. Bob Taft’s new initiative to pump literacy-based grant money into schools and funnel community volunteers into classrooms, area teachers remain unsure of what the coming years will bring.

"They get grants to do these things for a little while, and then when the money is gone, the program is gone," Ms. Falls said. "We can depend on our district and our staff, though, because they have provided these things for us."

Smaller class sizes play a large role in learning fundamental skills because of one-on-one attention, she said.

And that personal attention can make all the difference to children who are struggling with reading, Mrs. McKee said.

"Those sad looks on their faces when they know they are behind, when they know they can’t read, are just heartbreaking," Mrs. McKee said.

Reading isn’t just the ABC’s these days, even as early as the first grade, Ms. Falls said.

"We’ve gone to new types of questions to develop those cognitive skills so they are thinking about the characters in the stories and what those characters are doing and why," she said.

It isn’t just "See Spot run," in today’s young classrooms. Students are given questions that ask them to actually process and interpret information, Ms. Holtzapfel said.

Sample questions from Whitwell Elementary’s first-grade reading classrooms include:

– Do any particular feelings come across in this story?

– How does the author do this?

In the county’s eastern end, intervention during special summer classes helps students get a jump on the coming year’s lessons, educators said.

A lot of the children need the intervention over the summer to keep them interested in school, Fairland East Elementary principal Theresa Johnson said.

Students deemed in need of help were earmarked for the program, but the sessions weren’t exclusive – any child interested in attending was welcome, she said.

Although the state mandates summer programs for students who fail the fourth-grade proficiency test, the school offers the programs to first-, second- and third-graders to better prepare them before they are faced with the testing, she said.

First-graders, too, are given proficiency tests, Ms. Collinsworth said. This year, the youngsters will face hours of cognitive questions, putting their fledgling reading skills to work.

"The scores are not recorded on the state level, but the tests will be used to see how much the students have learned and what else we need to teach them," she said. "We’re going to have a lot of work to do to make sure 100 percent of the students pass."

And, if 100 percent of the students don’t pass the test, it’s back to the drawing board with some of the teaching techniques, which include sight words that are easy to recognize all the way to phonetics and then true reading skills and comprehension.

"If we’re not doing it up to snuff, we want to do it better," Ms. Falls said. "It’s the best feeling in the world when you are with a child the minute they understand that they are actually reading."

It is that moment that every parent, educator and potential volunteer should focus all their energies toward. It is that moment that a life is changed from potential to success.

"They turn to you, and their eyes are wide, and they say ‘I can read. I read that!’ It gives me goosebumps every time," she said.