Push to read beginning in kindergarten Curriculum is part of a larger effort for youngest pupils

'K cannot be a lost year'

Initiatives include full day for some, skills tests, course for age 4

November 23, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Filled with games, naps and snacks, kindergarten was once a place to learn the routines and social skills needed before starting school. Now, kindergarten in Howard County is school.

Children must learn how to be students while learning letters, numbers and words. They can write their names within weeks of starting school. Ideally, by year's end, they are beginning to read.

The beefed-up kindergarten curriculum is part of a larger effort started this year to get Howard's youngest students -- pre-kindergarten through first grade -- reading fluently as soon as possible, school officials say.

"Some people say kindergarten should be a year for play and fun, and play is good -- it can be instructional," says Mamie Perkins, head of elementary curriculum in Howard. "But K cannot be a lost year, it really cannot. We can't assume that every child is going to come to us with a literacy-rich background. This may not have been an issue years ago, but it's time to rethink things."

For the first time this year:

* Incoming kindergartners took skills tests to gauge how well they know numbers, letters and words.

* Pre-kindergarten classes at four schools, where a higher-than-average proportion of students are considered at-risk, give 4-year-olds a jump-start on kindergarten.

* Kindergarten students who tested low in the same four schools were enrolled in full-day kindergarten -- instead of the normal half day -- with nearly all the extra class time spent on reading.

* Ten elementary schools offer first-graders Reading Recovery, which is considered a successful program for poor readers.

"We have pulled out all the stops," Perkins says.

On a recent morning at Columbia's Talbott Springs Elementary, teacher Amanda Brackins asks her full-day kindergarten class of 10 pupils a question. "What letter does pumpkin pie start with?"

"T," yells a tiny voice in the huddle sitting cross-legged on the floor. "S," says another tentatively. Brackins hesitates and shakes her head. She waits for a few moments until a student calls out the correct letter.

She repeats the drill dozens of times this day, sounding out letters and sound combinations for the students, who mimic her over and over.

"A lot of these students didn't have experience with preschool," Brackins says. "This is to get them up to par with other kids. They'll have the extra help for when they get to first grade."

For years, Howard school administrators assumed that most kindergartners came from relatively affluent families that could afford preschool programs. But with more families facing financial strain, that is no longer always the case, school officials say.

Brackins' class -- along with the three other extended-day kindergartens and four pre-K programs -- are part of the school system's Title I program for low-income families. They are at Talbott Springs, Phelps Luck, Running Brook and Laurel Woods -- districts that include neighborhoods where the economic need is greatest, school officials say.

About one in 10 Howard students qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, the federal standard for low-income families, according to Rae Ellen Levene, the county's Title I coordinator. In the 1990s, students from low-income families have increased by almost 75 percent, and the percentage of children with limited English proficiency has doubled, school officials say.

Brackins' students were enrolled in her class after the kindergarten assessments at the start of the school year showed their reading and math skills were below average.

Such assessments are conducted in about half the school districts in the Baltimore area, but this year marked the first time they were done in Howard, Perkins says.

"In the past, a lot of our focus was on the [grades] one to five block," she says. "Now we want to make sure the K year flows into first grade and so on."

The tests were so low-key that most students didn't realize they were being tested, Perkins says. Scores were immediately available to each teacher, she says, while systemwide results are expected to be released in early January.

"It's a matter of making sure the entire elementary experience is speaking with one voice," she says. "And to do that, we've got to look at what happened to them before we got them."

For first-graders whose reading test scores are below average, the Reading Recovery program offers 12 to 20 weeks of training aimed at bringing the pupils up to average.

Each student sits with a teacher for 30 minutes of one-on-one reading instruction each day to work on letter-sound associations and other basic reading concepts.

TTC The goal: to correct what program leaders call the students' "confusions" with reading.

"First grade is such a crucial time in a student's school career," says Tracy Jones, in charge of training teachers for the program. "Most schools assume they'll learn to read in first grade. If they don't succeed, they'll likely continue to struggle throughout their school careers. This is critical."

Reading Recovery instructors receive a year of training -- they're about halfway through -- to teach them to be keen observers of students' abilities and needs at each stage of the learning-to-read process.

Teachers and school administrators stress that such skills are crucial to making students successful readers because each pupil learns the complexities of the language differently.

One recent morning, Talbott Springs Elementary kindergartners Phillip and his friend Teddy write their names in awkward scrawls in a visitor's notebook. When the visitor reads the names, Teddy nods knowingly.

But Phillip is confused.

"How did you know his name?" the child asks, still unclear on how letters translate into information.

"Did you know that because you can read those letters?" he asks. "What does that mean?"

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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