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It's back to basics in reading: Middle, high schools will be stricter with remedial students

Ohanian Comment: What good mews! More time in reading. What bad news! Time in reading badly spent. As I detail in Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum, another language arts teacher and I teamed up and persuaded administrators to assign the lowest readers in our school to us for two periods each day. But our goal was not to prepare students to pass standardized tests. Our goal was to connect reading to their lives, to turn them into people who had a reason to read. Another little twist on the way we did it: When administrators wanted the extra reading class to come from electives--art, music, etc., we said "No! That might well be the one class the kid likes." And so the student was given the option of dropping Social Studies or Science in 7th grade and then switching in 8th grade. After all, really poor readers can't read those texts. We made sure to bring in lots of nonfiction in history and science to compensate. We were ever aware that, having accepted the goal of giving students more time with reading, something else was being sacrificed. Life is ever a compromise.

I applaud giving high schoolers more reading time. I condemn using that time as test prep.

By Jennifer Booth Reed

On a recent weekday in Trenna Woodley's classroom at Mariner High School, teenage students zoomed back years in their education.

They were talking about prefixes and suffixes and how to split words into their basic parts, topics that they were expected to master years ago.

But didn't.

And neither have thousands of their peers. Florida's teenagers cannot read.

Not "read" in the first-grade, stumble through three-letter words kind of way.

They can certainly decipher a text placed in front of them. But what's unclear is how much of it they really understand, and whether they can use what they've read to draw conclusions, make connections, learn unfamiliar words and sort through what's important and what's not.

State test scores suggest they're not doing these things.

So it's back to the basics in Florida's middle and high schools. This month marks the end of the first year in a major statewide effort to boost reading scores at the secondary level.

All middle and high school students who performed below grade level had to take an extra reading class. Next year, the requirements get even stricter the system's worst readers will have to spend 90 minutes a day in reading classes, a policy already imposed in middle schools and now becoming the rule in high schools.

Statewide, grades 6 through 9 showed improvement over last year, according to the results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests released last week. Nevertheless, those scores once again highlighted tremendous reading problems.

Consider: 60 percent of Florida's ninth-graders and 68 percent of 10th-graders cannot read on grade level, according to the test results. In Lee, the results were slightly worse 61 percent of ninth-graders and 69 percent of 10th-graders failed to meet the state standard.

Lee's scores are an uptick from a two-year slide in 2004 and 2005. At the high school level, seven of 10 schools tested in 2005 and 2006 showed improvement at the ninth- and/or the 10th-grade levels. Educators are applauding, but not very loudly.

"Even with the work that's been done, we're really just starting," said Tracy Perkins, the principal at Cypress Lake High School, where the percentage of students scoring on grade level shot up to 52 percent in ninth grade and 46 percent at 10th.

Back to basics

Reading instruction, it appears, never should have stopped in elementary schools, district officials say. The district had already started imposing reading classes in middle schools and offering FCAT-style instruction for struggling high schoolers. Now, they're building a multi-year approach to teaching reading starting in sixth grade and extending through senior year for those students who can't pass the 10th-grade FCAT.

"You continue to learn to read into your 20s," curriculum director Larry Tihen said.

A total of 14,279 students in grades 6 through 10 earned scores low enough to land them in at least one extra reading class; about half of them may have to take two.

The introduction of reading classes comes at the expense of elective courses, which are disappearing from student schedules as they make room for vocabulary and grammar lessons. And dozens of teachers this summer will be learning to teach reading some because they want that challenge and others because they have too few students in their specialty courses to justify their positions.

The district's academic leaders say something had to be done.

"There's been a prevailing belief in the past that there was a delay that they weren't ready to read at that level," said Lee's chief academic officer, Connie Jones.

But what they've found is that students need more than the remediation programs that have been offered in the past. They need a multi-year, systematic approach to correcting their shortcomings, administrators say.

"This is all about giving students the tools and rules of reading," Jones said.

Reading joins the mix

Mariner's reading specialist, Christine Busenbark, thumbed through a slim book that students use to practice their reading. The book contained 200-word essays and passages on a variety of topics. The readings weren't elementary district officials say they've taken care to purchase materials suitable for high school students but they were hardly Shakespeare or Salinger.

That's not to say students won't get traditional high school materials. The texts and information in their literature, algebra and biology classes remain unchanged. But how much do they really understand?

"That's the question everyone across the country is asking how much are they getting?" Busenbark said.

For some, landing in reading classes came as a surprise.

"I never thought I had a problem with reading until I didn't pass FCAT," said Tiffany Minor, 18, who finished her senior year at Mariner earlier this month and who took a reading class with teacher Christine Diamond.

"I remember in fifth grade I had a little reading class. Nothing else until I bombed FCAT," echoed John Weissgerber, 18, who also went to Mariner.

Both students said Diamond's class helped them considerably. A lot rides on their attitude toward the course students must pass the FCAT reading test to earn a standard diploma.

"I think it's helping. I feel I did a lot better this time," Weissgerber said after retaking the exam in March.

Reasons for the reading gap are varied, Tihen explained. But there are three major contributing factors: early instruction, poverty and native language.

Two years ago, Lee's elementary schools returned to a phonics-based method of teaching reading in which students are taught to break down words to speech sounds. It's a method that many schools nationally had strayed from in favor of a "whole language" theory of instruction. Tihen said merging the best of both practices should help young readers master basic skills. What's more, elementary students are being held back in early grades if they show signs of reading difficulties.

Often the problems stem from limited exposure to literature at home and limited access to the kinds of early academic preparation that children need before starting kindergarten. Children in these situations, who are often poor and come from families with limited educations, start out behind and fall further behind as they progress through school.

"It helped me because I'm from Mexico, and I don't always know a lot of words," said Chantal Castillo, 18, who took a reading class at South Fort Myers High. But she was motivated and likes to read.

"The only thing that works is read. Just read a lot. You can learn so much," Castillo said.

A unified approach

The reading programs in the district are prescribed the curriculum is a step-by-step approach to helping troubled readers.

But schools are still putting their own stamps on their programs.

At Mariner, teachers have subject-area meetings once a week and strategize. Everyone from the physical education teachers to the art instructors are expected to contribute to reading efforts.

"It's been an unbelievable experience," said Mariner art teacher Steve Frank, who has found ways to embrace the reading in his classes.

Cypress Lake High administrators have purchased software that helps students target specific reading needs. They've also introduced the Accelerated Reader program popular in elementary schools that encourage students to read books, take quizzes and earn points. The entire faculty and student body also set aside 15 minutes every Friday for silent reading. Perkins said she wants students to discover that reading can be fun.

"They identify it as an assignment, as a chore," she said.

Teachers at several schools say the most important thing they can do is address the self-esteem issues plaguing their students and to make their classes relevant and interesting not punitive.

"You stopped practicing. Somewhere along the line, you began to think you're not a good reader," Cape Coral High School reading teacher Karen Rubin tells her students. "My major goal for them, as I walk in, and they tell me how much they hate to read ... I change that. I try to offer them an incredible variety of lots of books."

What everyone hopes is that this intensive reading push is a blip on the academic radar, and that early detection of reading problems will stem the flow of middle and high schoolers showing up with reading problems. But even then, reading classes in middle and high schools aren't likely to disappear altogether the system gets some 5,000 students a year from other districts, states and countries where they have no control over reading programs and policies.

Still, Tihen said he's optimistic.

"We're going to see significant improvement from year to year," he promised.

— Jennifer Booth Reed
The News-Press


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