At Lyndhurst, middle ground about reading Drills: Phonics edges in, but hugs don't go out. A yearlong journey through two city schools continues.


In, is, if, it. Fit, sit, pit, bit.

Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Betty Pierce stands at the blackboard, wooden pointer in hand, tapping out the spelling words.

"What letter does this begin with?" Pierce points to "pit."

Her students are quick with "p."

"What sound does it make?"


"Right! But just make your lips pop. It's not a word. It's just a sound. Your breath makes the sound, not your voice. Puh. Puh."



It's not a word; it's a sound. The rules of phonics are inviolate.

At a school where for years it has been expected that children will learn to read by reading "whole words," Pierce is breaking the whole into parts.

The children are learning about "short i" and "long e." They're beginning to sound out words and use them in sentences.

"This is an 'f.' Put your top teeth on your bottom lip and blow," Pierce tells the children.

"You'll be able to use these rules to figure out words you don't know."

In this way, Pierce's children are becoming more like those at City Springs Elementary across town, where the phonics-based Direct Instruction rules the day. Lyndhurst and City Springs face intense pressure to raise poor reading scores on the annual state tests. Although the two schools have taken somewhat different approaches toward teaching reading, as the year progresses, both are moving more toward a middle ground.

Phonics has its place now at Lyndhurst, and at City Springs, teachers are using stories alongside the drills.

In Pierce's class, several children could barely distinguish letters and numbers on the first day of school. More than three months into the year, Tiffany, one of those children, stands confidently to use the word "bit" in a sentence.

"The girl bit the apple," she says.

Lakira knows that a "pit" is a big hole. She has come a long way since the first two days of school, when she slept through class. "The man fell into the pit," she says.

Pierce has moved seamlessly from teaching the rules of school to imparting the rules of language. Lining up for the bathroom, sitting in seats, keeping mouths closed - these seemed like impossible tasks in September.

Those hurdles mastered, there is time now to read aloud from one of their favorite stories, "Better Move On, Frog." ("Holes, holes, lots of holes. Which one shall I have?") There is time to spell "happy," "sad," "at" and "pat." There is time to learn.

Pierce's first-graders are able to read morning greetings over the school intercom when their turn comes in December. "The positive action we will talk about is creative thinking. Do you know what it means to think creatively?"

Christmas is only a few weeks away, and Pierce is teaching the children about the holiday elsewhere. In Mexico, children break pinatas - she brings one shaped like a candy cane - and families act out roles in the manger scene. "Creche," she tells them, is another word for manager.

Pierce's tools are whatever she can patch together. For teaching phonics, she brings refrigerator magnet letters stuck to the blackboard, homemade lists of rhyming words, a shopping bag full of little plastic animals. What letter does "kangaroo" begin with?

Voice giving out

Her voice is hoarse and raspy. It has been this way for four weeks, painful whispered speech, each word an effort. Three decades before the blackboard are taking their toll, but she can't afford to take time off.

These children will be hers for only five more months. Before they leave for second grade, the little ones must be readers. She is determined.

"I can talk enough to teach, so I'm here," she says.

Pierce keeps up her encouraging pattern in that painful rasp -

"Come on, girlfriend. You can do it" - and the children respond to her motherly warmth. The classroom is still free and easy; children will jump from their chairs to hug a visitor and Pierce doesn't seem to mind. Putting away coats, getting books can turn into a 15-minute production that takes precious minutes away from instruction, but the spontaneity also nurtures creativity.

Pierce is blending the form of phonics with the function of literature and giving the children enough rein to sort some of it out for themselves.

One set of words can be taught several ways.

'Give me five!'

She writes "fit, sit, pit, bit" on the blackboard. For starters, what do they all have in common?

Hands shoot up. Pierce chooses Jovan, a small, wide-eyed boy in the front.

L "They all have 'i' in them," he says, pointing at the words.

"Right! Give me five!" Pierce exclaims.

What else do the words have in common?

Jovan pauses a minute. "They're rhyming words."

Pierce is thrilled. "Oh, I love you!" she says. Jovan couldn't have done this in September. She grabs him for a quick hug.

Some of the children still struggle with sounds. They don't hea "it" within "fit, sit, pit and bit." They seem to be able to recognize some words from memory, but are unable to sound out words.

"Some of you aren't getting it," Pierce says. "You need to tap your heads and say, 'Wake up, brain!'"


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