Making reading a priority

Posted: Friday, August 18, 2000

About 1,000 teachers from Kenai Peninsula schools heard Wednesday how they can help struggling students -- in any subject and any grade -- win literacy.

The teachers were at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's annual first-day meeting for staff (see related story, this page). They crammed into the Kenai Central High School auditorium to hear keynote speaker Quality Quinn Sharp talk about teaching reading.

Literacy, she said, is the key to all educational goals.

"It inoculates kids against failure," she said.

"Making every youngster in your sphere of influence a better reader is simply the right thing to do," she told the teachers.

Quinn is an educator from Texas who has won teaching awards and worked on reading programs in several states. Her talk, titled "Leaders of Readers: Closing the Reading Gap and Getting Results," offered tips.

All teachers, regardless of what they teach, need to know the reading curriculum in addition to their own and to understand how to find and raise a struggling student's reading level. Whenever a pupil lags, the teacher has a responsibility to analyze the child's level of language proficiency, then work with the child through appropriate steps to help them catch up, she said.

In blunt language peppered with humor, Sharp urged the educators to embrace the public demand for accountability rather than viewing it as personal criticism. The movement originates with business, she said, and is tied to concerns about the U.S. work force's ability to compete in an international, information economy.

"Accountability is about getting results," she said.

One way to enhance reading skills is through writing, not to follow formulas, but to create meaning.

"Writing is your secret weapon," she said.

Educators tend to bog down in too many formal tests in their quest for hard data. She urged the audience to use fewer tests, more informal assessments and look more deeply at them to get more information. The results should be used to plan how to help the students, not how to label them, she said.

Sharp said she studied two major programs that have demonstrated success in helping slow readers catch up with their classmates and gleaned the factors they shared. From that, she outlined three areas where families and teachers can help students improve their literacy.

n Early language development: Numerous scientific studies show that children exposed early to words and books become readers. The exception is a minority that seems to have an inborn difficulty picking out phonemes -- the units of sound that make up speech -- and need extra help to learn their letters. For most children, the classic nursery rhymes and other sing-song word games for tykes lay the vital foundation for higher literacy skills, she said.

n Decoding: Our alphabet is a code of 26 letters representing 44 sounds and grouped into words. She said phonics is the first step to decoding the magic of the written language.

Sharp criticized people who tried to teach meaning without phonics. But the problem, she said, is that phonics is a boring slog. To motivate students, she advocated enticing stories to draw them into the magic of reading.

The good news, she told the teachers, is that the students who make it to upper grades without mastering phonics can learn the skills faster than younger children because they have larger vocabularies.

"You can get them up to speed," she said.

n Fluency: Some students read, she said, but without any comprehension of the subject matter. She defined fluency as the ability to read a lot, quickly and with understanding.

Sharp compared building fluency with building muscle tone. The best way to achieve it is daily practice. She urged teachers to find appropriate texts students can understand and enjoy and have them pursue reading every day to get into the habit.

The only way to address the urgent problem of helping lagging students close the reading gap is by having educators of all stripes focus on every child's reading needs, Sharp emphasized.

Otherwise, she warned, "We have a lot of children who see themselves on the outside of the candy store looking in."

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