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ABCs of reading

Ohanian Comment; This article is a disgrace. On grade level for kindergarten, indeed. On grade level for the U. S. Government version of kindergarten means being able to read these nonsense words:

DIBELS Reading Test
y i z / w a n / z o c / f u l / m i k

z u m / n u f / k u n / r u v / f o d

v e p / i j / bop / j u j / s u g

z u z / o v / v i t / w a m / b u k

l e f / l u k / t e v / l o f / k o m

and on and on and on and on.

I'm not making this up. Who could dream up something so bizarre? Visit the Anti-DIBELS Clearinghouse and learn more.

Actually, we have BIG anti-DIBELS news coming. A monograph edited by Ken Goodman will be available in about two weeks, and the Vermont Society for the Study of Education will offer it at cost, $5.95.

AND I'm working up an anti-DIBELS t-shirt. I've ordered the shirt, and if it looks good, I'll let you know where you can get one.

This article is shameful for two reasons. It demeans and denegrates the children and their families and it serves as a puff piece for a disreputable federal program forced upon schools. The opening paragraphs make me sick to my stomach, with its ugly posturing about the capabilities of children in this school, pretending they come with no skills.

School should be a place that embraces children and learns from them, not a place that denies their family talents and skills.

And I'm not even getting the misinformation of the article. The writer throws in everyting, including a bogus medical model of teaching.

By Katie Pesznecker

Only one of Mary Beth Verhelst's kindergarten students tested at grade level when the school year started at Creekside Ely.

Some kids were just short of the mark. But most weren't even close.

This is standard at a school like Creekside, where most children come from poor families and many speak English as a second language. Few go to preschool. Many come from homes without books.

With this reality comes discouragement: Teachers struggle and strain; still it feels like nothing helps -- like their students are stuck in a rut leading to inevitable failure.

But something new is happening.

It's called Reading First, an aggressive federal program built on solid research about how children really learn to read. Now, six months into the school year, only five of Verhelst's students are still below grade level. The rest are at or above. And Creekside staffers give Reading First the credit.

"It's a lot of work but it's very much worth it," Verhelst said. "It's worth it when you see those eyes of that child and you know they get it."

Six Anchorage elementary schools are now in the third year of a grant that pays for Reading First -- Creekside, Airport Heights, William Tyson, Mountain View, Ursa Minor and Spring Hill.

The first year went to planning and training, so the program didn't show up in classrooms until fall 2004. The first round of stunning results showed up after testing late in that school year.

"All of the Reading First schools did better than the district average," said Patricia McRae, the elementary education director. "We're giving them the best start possible, then finding out where the problems are and dealing with those early on before the gap between them and their classmates grows."

Twenty-five additional Anchorage elementary schools have since adopted similar reading programs. They can't be exact copies, since they don't get the Reading First grant money that pays for extra staff training. But the textbooks and materials are the same and the methods are very close, McRae said.

Three years ago, Reading First was being used in five states. Now it's spreading wildly across the country. Is it just another education fad, like so many programs before it? It's too new for big, long-term study results, but Anchorage is betting it's the real deal.

The district plans to add the program to 12 more schools next year and keep going until it's in all 60 elementary schools. It will budget so schools new to the program get extra staff and help during the first couple of years that Reading First is implemented.


Reading First was developed by a national panel convened by Congress in 1998 to deal with the abysmal fact that one-third of the country's 9-year-olds read below grade level. That's one out of three children all across the country.

Clearly schools were doing something wrong. But what?

School districts have their own ideas about reading, textbook companies push their products, and teachers all teach differently. But, given the numbers of children reading below grade, a lot of it doesn't work.

What the national panel did was ask scientists and academics to figure out how kids actually learn to read, then turn that into a road map for schools: Here's what we want kids to know, and here's what studies and data say about how teachers can get them there.

Reading First is a program based on research, not on marketing gimmicks or instinct. It says that teaching children to read is a science, not an art.

"It's proven," said Dianne Orr, the "reading coach" at Creekside. "Teaching reading is not just about how we feel anymore. Before, we were always spinning our wheels. Now the key is unity -- all of us being on that same wheel, spinning at the same time."

Before Reading First, students at Creekside who needed extra help with reading typically got it from tutors. Children would get pulled out of class several times a day -- maybe to meet with a bilingual tutor, or an Indian-education tutor, a Title 1 tutor, a speech therapist or all of the above.

Each teacher aide might have taught differently and used different books, Orr said.

"We thought we just had to change that," Orr said.

Then, several years ago, elementary education director Patricia McRae visited Creekside staff. She told them about the new Reading First program and said if the school wanted to apply, it came with grant money.

Creekside went for it.

"It was almost to a point where you're thinking, 'I've tried this, I've tried that, I don't know what else to try,' " said Adrian Le Blanc, a Creekside teacher for almost 10 years.

In fall 2004, Le Blanc had a room full of new fifth-graders, many of whom were far behind and poor readers.

"I'll be honest with you," Le Blanc said. "I was scared. I thought they might be one of the (academically) lowest groups I've ever had. And they proved me wrong. I was pleasantly shocked."

Now reading lessons unfold at Creekside Park for two hours daily, with streamlined synchronized precision. Students start the regimen in kindergarten.

The year begins with a reading test, then sorting into four groups: those at grade level, those comfortably above, those just below, and those way below, in need of the most help.

What happens next is similar to how a doctor treats a disease: not by guessing what ails the patient and prescribing treatment by instinct, but by analyzing, diagnosing and attempting a cure with medication known to work.

The Creekside kids gather daily into groups with others their age and on their level -- all pulled from different classrooms -- and work with a teacher for two full hours.

It's a significant portion of the 6 �-hour school day, particularly considering the time students spend out of the classroom for things such as recess, lunch, library, music and art.

Extreme? Some educators think it might be too much for the youngest students. Robyn Rehmann, principal at Creekside Park, said that one principal criticized sending kindergarten-age children to a different room and teacher.

The other principal's point: Moving little children around added another element of instability to the lives of kids who need to feel comfortable and safe. But Rehmann wasn't fazed:

"I said, when they go home, they will still have all those issues to deal with. But at least we will have taught them to read."


In Mary Beth Verhelst's room, children sit cross-legged before her as she points to words printed on a big piece of paper -- simple words like dig, fig and pig.

"Duh-ig. Dig." Verhelst beams an adoring kindergarten-teacher smile. "Now you try."

All together, the children respond: "Duh. Ig. Dig!" They enunciate with triumph and some 5-year-olds squeak.

They end with the sentence "I see a pig."

"And at the end of the sentence, what do I see?" asked Verhelst.

"A period!"

"And these are just kindergartners," said Rehmann, watching from the sidelines.

They are practicing one of the tenets of Reading First: that at a very young age, children need to understand the spoken word is made of sounds -- or phonemes -- that are represented by letters, and that sounds linked together are represented by several letters, and that makes a word.

Most kindergarten teachers consider it a victory if their students end the year knowing the alphabet and how to write their own names.

At Creekside, the kindergartners will finish the year reading, Rehmann said. Last year, nearly 75 percent of Creekside's students tested proficient on spring reading tests -- up from 64 percent the previous year.

On a recent school day, a dozen second-graders sat scrunched close to teacher Debbie Mullin and an easel displaying simple sentences:

"My big brother is named Hank. He takes care of pandas at Animal Park."

She pointed to a word: The children repeated it, sometimes almost shouting. They trucked along -- until they hit "pandas."

Mullin smiled encouragingly and broke the word into two parts for the kids to sound out. "Pan-das." This time, they nailed it.

Mullin was among those teachers who initially resisted the Reading First program. It involved a lot of training and a lot of change, she said. Some of her individuality had to be sacrificed.

"And it was frustrating," Mullin said. "Now I'm very happy with what we're doing. I really think this is the way education should be going."

Next door in Cindy Rosser's classroom, a different scene played out. Her reading students are also second-graders. But they're at or above grade level, and it showed.

They read the same story as Mullins' kids. But many worked in pairs or small groups, filling out worksheets and quizzing each other.

What made these children special? Many of them started the school year in one of the below-level groups and had already moved up.

"For years we were trying so hard and we weren't making progress with our kids," Rehmann said. "I'd have teachers in my office crying, saying, 'What more can we do?' This is not easy, but it's worth it because we're finally making a difference -- a profound difference. The results are just phenomenal. How can you argue with that?"


A big part of Reading First is the planning time teachers get: Once a month they have a half-day off to meet and review their efforts.

They also get periodic brush-up training, sometimes with teachers from across Alaska whose schools have adopted the Reading First curriculum.

This extra time that teachers spend out of the classroom amounts to money. Since Reading First comes with a grant, it's covered.

An auditor visits Creekside five times a school year, three days at a time, to make sure the school is adhering to Reading First's structure.

Students in the lowest bracket get tested weekly for progress. Exams are short -- a one-minute read-aloud, with teachers noting fluency and errors.

If a child's progress is stalled, staff tweaks the lesson plan -- maybe increasing the time the student gets with a teacher or putting the child in smaller group settings.

"It's like the safety net that keeps kids from falling through the cracks," said McRae, the district's elementary education director.


Ten-year-old Harmony had been through several Anchorage public schools before landing at Creekside. Different settings, teachers and programs didn't seem to help much, said Harmony's mother, Lauri Toves:

"She hated reading, she hated homework, she hated school."

When it was time for Harmony to move on to the next grade level, Toves opted to hold her daughter back. This time, she enrolled her at Creekside.

The change in Harmony is remarkable: She used to spend hours on her homework and routinely test at the bottom of the heap.

"Now she just finished the last of the Harry Potter books," Toves said.

"Whatever she's learning here has really gotten her excited. She wants to read. She wants to go to the library and look for books. Her favorite Christmas present was a Barnes & Noble gift card.

"It is a whole different kid."

Eileen Pospisil's daughter, a kindergartner, tries to read every word she sees -- words in print, words on signs, words on TV, said her mom.

Pospisil was recently on a telephone call, and told a friend she was about to take her daughter to the "d-e-n-t-i-s-t."

"My daughter turned to me and said, 'Dentist?' " Eileen said.

"No more secrets."

Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at kpesznecker@adn.com.

— Katie Pesznecker
Anchorage Daily News


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