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Reading Teachers Head Back to the Classroom

Ohanian Comment: I must be missing something where. What is the point of making adult professionals sit in kiddie chairs?

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe/all mimsy were the borogroves/And the mome raths outgrabe.

PROVIDENCE -- Even veteran reading teachers stumble over the pronunciation of the words,"gyre" and "gimble." Is it a hard g or a soft g? Do the customary rules of phonics apply?

The class recites the Lewis Carroll poem together, a technique called choral reading in the parlance of ed-speak. It is just one of the strategies modeled by elementary teachers during a week-long course called Beginning Reading Instruction.

One hundred teachers from Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls squeezed their adult bodies around pint-sized desks in order to learn new approaches to a time-honored ritual -- teaching youngsters how to read.

Never has a topic been so fraught with politics. First, phonics was in, only to be replaced by "whole language," which believed that a child could learn to read through immersion in the language. Today, most reading teachers use a combination of the two.

What makes this professional development program unique is that it has teachers teaching other teachers. The courses are run by the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and are based on teaching strategies that have been developed and tested by the American Federation of Teachers.

The professional development is paid for by a federal grant through the Reading First initiative, which is mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"The theme is catching kids before they fall," says Rhonda Henry, a former teacher from Cranston and one of the program's instructors. "We're trying to bridge the gap between research and practice."

Sometimes, the most effective reading instruction feels counter-intuitive.

"I was giving my kids a new text every day," says Cathy Parisi, one of the instructors, "but I never gave them a chance to practice."

Young children learn to understand what they read if they are allowed to read the same story repeatedly. First, they learn to pronounce the words. As the words become familiar, the students read with expression. They read for meaning.

"We used to say that a child was reading but we weren't thinking about speed and comprehension," Parisi tells the class. "You need to work at fluency all the time, not once a week."

The adult instruction is patterned after the way children are taught reading in the classroom. The early classes focused on phonic awareness: listening, rhyming, teaching children the sounds that make up words. Next, the teachers discussed how children decode words -- putting letters and syllables togther to form words.

Research has shown that by the end of first grade, only one child out of eight is reading at grade level. If a child falls behind in first grade, he or she has difficulty catching up later.

What techniques do you use to encourage fluency, Parisi asks.

Books that rhyme. Shared readings. Poetry. One teacher says she tapes her children reading together so that individual students can listen to it later.

During a break, Lori Barkett, a teacher at the Windmill Elementary School in Providence, says the week has been well-spent. Teachers spend too much time standing in front of the class and lecturing because it's comfortable. They should break the class into ability groups and change things up.

"We got a lot of hands-on experience here," Barkett says. "We learned things we can bring back to the classroom."

— Linda Borg
Providence Journal


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