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Learning to love literacy

Susan Notes: It's still the rent-a-susan speaking: however read the joy that kids have in pure reading, and check the method that promotes a love of literature. No phonics mentioned, notice.


Posted on Sun, Jan. 11, 2004

In the challenging task of getting children to cherish books, four local educators' efforts speak volumes

The announcement that recess would be moved inside because of the cold brought a peculiar reaction from Mollie Wilson's first-grade class.

The kids cheered in delight.

``Yeah,'' one of the students blurted out in a classroom at Medina's Ella Canavan Elementary School. ``You can read in there.''

This statement from the blond, pigtailed girl made Wilson smile warmly. She and other local teachers are thrilled when they see a student excited about reading.

``I see a lot of growth with them,'' Wilson said, proudly surveying her young charges on a recent morning. ``The small victories are why I come to work.''

Educators like Wilson, Jane Summers of the Chippewa school district, DeLores Pressley of Canton City Schools and Robert Butler of the Akron school district toil daily to make reading fun. They use innovative methods to try to instill a love of books in students.

Teaching reading

Jane Summers wrote the book on reading.

The 32-year teacher -- along with a colleague -- penned five books in the late '80s about how to use literature in the teaching of reading. This approach is now widely accepted but was a new concept at the time.

``It was something I thought I would never do -- ever,'' said Summers, who is a Title 1 reading specialist in Wayne County's Chippewa school district.

More recently, Summers has worked with fellow teachers at Hazel Harvey Elementary School on the most up-to-date techniques for teaching reading.

``She was the one who got everything going,'' said Principal Ronna Haer.

Chippewa, a small rural district, has demonstrated impressive results on its reading scores. The district had a 98.3 percent passage rate on the reading portion of the latest ninth-grade proficiency test -- the highest of any district in the five-county area. On the third-grade reading achievement test, which soon will replace the fourth-grade proficiency test, the district had Wayne County's top score.

At Hazel Harvey, where Summers teaches, scores on the fourth-grade reading proficiency test have risen 34 percent in the past five years. The elementary school went from the bottom of the list of Wayne County's scores to near the top.

On a recent afternoon, Summers worked with five readers at a table inside a third-grade classroom. They discussed Luba and the Wren, a novel they had read the previous day.

First, Summers asked a student to point out the title of the book. Then, they tackled a work sheet about the story -- outlining the setting, characters, goal, resolution and moral.

``I think this is more of a fantasy than a fairy tale,'' Chris Walsh, 8, piped in.

``But fairy tales teach us a lesson,'' Summers replied in a calm, soothing voice.

For the setting of the story, one student wrote, ``Outside and inside.'' Summers told her: ``I bet you can be more specific.''

At the end of the lesson, Summers told the students she wanted them to take the book home that night and read it again. They would be writing about the story the next day using the work sheets they did that day.

``I already have too much homework,'' Courtney Pendleton, 8, complained, getting a patient smile from her teacher.

Summers, who has seen methods for teaching reading come and go, has developed her own philosophy.

``It's a professionally prepared teacher getting many fun and interesting titles at the appropriate reading level into the hands of the kids,'' she said.

Though Summers is reluctant to take credit for the district's improved test scores, she says that she and the school's other teachers have done all they can to get better results. They've visited other schools, attended summer training, had after-school workshops and read books on the latest teaching methods. She was delighted to hear about the district's high scores on the third-grade reading test.

``I just wanted to stand up and jump,'' she said, though she quelled the urge because she didn't think it was appropriate in the middle of a meeting.

Summers, 55, is eligible for retirement but doesn't see herself quitting teaching anytime soon.

``It's too exciting. I'm not ready to stop,'' she said. ``We are seeing too much growth in our school. I want to continue to be part of it.''

So much to read, so little time.

Robert Butler often sees a book leaving his middle school library and thinks to himself, ``I'd like to take that'' and read it.

If Butler actually read each of the books, he'd have time for little else. Besides, the books are there for his students.

Butler, 46, who is just a few months into his job as librarian at Akron's Goodrich Middle School, is winning plaudits from others in the district for his enthusiastic efforts at getting kids interested in the library, and more importantly, reading.

His get-them-reading repertoire includes everything from working with teachers to creating book displays to hanging posters that dot the library and the nearby hallway. He solicits ideas from students on what books to acquire. One of the school's students of Laotian heritage recently helped him pick out texts about the Hmong, an ethnic group from the Laotian highlands.

On a recent day, Butler showed a visitor a collection of biographies. There were so many, they covered nearly every inch of a long table.

Butler put the display together to help an English teacher. The day before the winter break, Butler spent hours rifling through the library's collection to gather all the books and create a list of all the biography subjects -- from Muhammad Ali to Paul Zindel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright known for his novels for young people.

``I've tried to put myself in the mind-set of a kid coming into the library,'' he said. ``Are they going to look at these stacks of books and is it going to scare them? What can I do to make it easier for them?''

He likes to create displays that link books to news events.

``Really,'' he said, ``education is about making connections,'' and reading helps make those links. ``If you learn (something) in just one area and you can't connect it to anything else, what good is it?''

He helps teachers to integrate the library into their lessons and leaves articles and notes about texts in their mailboxes.

Butler needs to look no farther than his own family to see the value of reading. His two children -- daughters Melanie, 13, and Emily, 12 -- are readers, and Butler says their reading ``has contributed greatly to their success in school.''

He said his wife, Elissa, who teaches English and French at Kenmore High School in Akron, is the most voracious reader in the family. When the two built a house in Suffield Township several years ago, they included a library to house all their books, most of which belong to her.

Before becoming a librarian, Butler taught music for 10 years at Goodrich. He decided to go into library science to try something new, while staying in education. Plus, he said, ``I've always liked the atmosphere of a library.''

And, Butler said, he gets to try to have an effect on literacy in the school. Goodrich's scores on the reading portion of the sixth-grade proficiency test doubled in the past three years, although still only a little more than one-third of the students passed the most recent test.

When he was a music teacher, he incorporated reading into his classes by having students read about composers and other musicians. ``It was quite frustrating to learn how many students here have a hard time reading,'' he said.

Making it exciting

Teacher DeLores Pressley tried to relate the importance of reading to her fifth-graders on a recent morning.

``How many of you are looking forward to driving?'' she excitedly asked the class at Canton's McGregor Elementary School.

Nearly all of the students' hands shot up.

Pressley quickly asked them, ``If you couldn't read, how would you pass the drivers ed test?''

The students nodded. They were getting the lesson.

This recent exchange about reading was just one of many Pressley will have with her students during the school year.

While she acknowledges she prefers teaching math -- she likes the problem-solving aspect -- Pressley works hard to infuse her students with an enthusiasm for reading.

She's known in the district for the theatrical way she reads aloud to her students -- often once or more a week. This is in addition to daily reading lessons in which she tries to keep them engaged with lots of animated questions and acting out of stories.

Victor Johnson, McGregor's principal, said Pressley ``is an inspiration'' at the inner-city school near a Timken Co. steel plant. Pressley has spent her entire 24-year career in education at the school. She ``can take anything and just make it exciting,'' Johnson said.

That's challenging in an urban district, where many students come to school unprepared to learn. Among Ohio's eight largest districts, however, Canton consistently ranks first or second on reading proficiency tests.

``Learning needs to be fun,'' Pressley said to a recent visitor as her split fourth/fifth grade class performed a play about a runaway slave. The play was a key part of the reading lesson. Instead of reading a book, the students recited lines in a script.

``Students begged me to do a play'' and have a chance to perform, said Pressley, who theorizes her theatricality is rubbing off on her students.

Students ``learn more when they are involved like this.''

She wants students to continue to work on their reading skills outside of the classroom. ``It doesn't have to be a book; read a magazine together,'' she said she tells parents. ``When you're riding in a car along the road, read the billboards together.''

She encourages parents to begin reading to their children even before they're born. ``Children who have grown up in a home where reading is instilled in them, they love it and they enjoy it and it won't be foreign to them when they begin school.''

Pressley grew up poor -- as have many of her students. Nearly 84 percent of the current student body at McGregor is eligible for free or reduced lunches.

She began giving motivational speeches about 10 years ago and is fond of telling her students that their economic backgrounds don't dictate where they will end up. Before she began giving speeches, she started a modeling agency for plus-size women.

Pressley credits her aunt Mable Thomas with helping her get excited about reading.

Now, she's working to pass along that enthusiasm. ``I enjoy reading, and the students see how excited I get and they want to read.''

Closing the gap

For several years, Mollie Wilson has been volunteering her evenings to teach preschool children in Medina's poorest neighborhood to read.

She hasn't gotten a dime for her time.

``I love children and have a passion for them, especially for low-income children,'' Wilson said. ``My heart goes out to parents who don't know how to teach their children to read. I believe children should be read to.''

The help is sorely needed. Though Medina gets high marks from the state, the district has one of the highest achievement gaps in the area.

On the most recent state report card, the district had a 30 percent gap between how white and African-American students performed on reading and a 20 percent disparity between the reading scores of low- and average-income students.

``We are aware that certain groups need more support,'' said Karen McGinty, principal of Ella Canavan Elementary, where Wilson teaches. ``We are trying to help families and teachers reach kids.''

McGinty gives Wilson credit for being creative in her classroom and trying to make learning exciting. She said Wilson is a mentor to younger, less experienced teachers at the school.

On a recent morning, Wilson passed out magnetic boards and letters to a group of five students. She had them make various words out of the letters, such as ``pin,'' ``kin,'' and ``wing.'' To assist, she sounded out the words.

``That's an easy one,'' 6-year-old Jay Mikalacki said when told to make ``sink.''

Next, Wilson asked the students to come up with words on their own. One student crafted ``is,'' while another made ``ring.'' Another got a bit too creative. ``No, that's not a word,'' Wilson told the girl.

Wilson was pleased when every student got her bonus word for the day: ``swing.''

``Good job,'' she told them.

``I'm hungry,'' Jay chimed in.

It was time for the morning snack. During the break, students brought their journals to Wilson, reading aloud the three sentences they wrote that morning. One boy's passage particularly impressed her.

``He came in not writing anything,'' she said. ``A pencil and paper freaked him out.''

Wilson's approach to teaching is simple: ``Anything you do, if it's fun, they'll learn.''

The 20-year teacher has a framed picture on the desk in her classroom of her year-old grandson sitting on her lap. She's reading a book to the diaper clad boy. It's a pose she plans to capture with her -- hopefully many -- future grandchildren.

``That's how much I value the process,'' she said.

— Katie Byard
Learning to Love Literacy
Akron-Beacon Journal
January 11, 2004


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