Watchful teachers study reading Costly program helps first-graders learn

January 18, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

A dozen or so Howard County educators huddle one recent afternoon in a darkened room, peering through a one-way mirror, secretly watching a child struggle to read.

As Ryan Woodall, 6, negotiates the sounds and sentences in a book for beginning readers, he substitutes "the" for "his" and stumbles over "foot." The teachers notice when his eyes linger over some words, when his fingers move across the page faster than he reads.

They recognize the signs of a beginning reader compensating for his weaknesses.

The 13 teachers who observe the reading lesson are being trained to pick up such subtle clues in an unusual -- and unusually successful -- program for slow first-grade readers called Reading Recovery.

They are the first crop of Howard teachers to be trained in the expensive one-on-one reading program designed in New Zealand that is growing in popularity in Maryland and the United States because of its well-documented success rate.

"Reading Recovery is a huge amount of work, but it's worth the work," says Kathy Fuss, a veteran teacher at Columbia's Phelps Luck Elementary. "I wish I'd learned this years ago."

Says Ann Mintz, head of Howard's language arts program, "These teachers will act as an area of expertise for classroom teachers throughout the system. I'm hoping that the whole system will benefit from this."

Reading Recovery is also being used in Prince George's, Frederick, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties.

The cost of the program -- the training and preparation of teachers is particularly expensive -- is probably why it is not in more school systems.

This year, in addition to the salary for the Reading Recovery teacher trainer -- which school officials would not disclose -- the program cost the Howard school system about $64,000, said Rae Ellen Levene, head of Howard's Title I program for low-income students who perform below grade level.

This does not include teachers' salaries because they were already on staff through either Title I or as reading specialists, Levene said.

It includes more than $5,000 to construct the observation teaching room -- with one-way mirror and tiered seating -- at Columbia's Phelps Luck Elementary, purchase textbooks and pay each teacher a $1,000 annual stipend. It also includes tuition fees to send a Howard reading specialist to Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania to add another Reading Recovery teacher instructor to the program starting in the fall.

Next school year, when between eight and 12 teachers will go through training, costs will run $34,000 to $52,000, Levene said. Under program guidelines, each teacher has four pupils at a time, about eight a year. In contrast to the usual handful of staff development hours most midcareer teachers receive each year, Reading Recovery teachers receive more than 30 hours of classroom preparation before they have contact with pupils.

After instruction begins, they continue training with three hours of observation and discussion each week throughout the school year. And when that training year is finished, the teachers continue to receive three hours of training a month.

Proponents say it's worth the cost.

Research shows that intensive reading instruction in early school years can reduce remedial instruction costs in later years. One Johns Hopkins University educational researcher found that concentrated instruction can cut special education enrollment -- which costs $2,000 to $4,000 per pupil -- by half to three-quarters.

Quick progress

Studies conducted in the United States and abroad consistently show that Reading Recovery pupils -- who must test in the lowest one-fifth of first-graders to be enrolled -- make vast improvements in their reading. Within about 20 weeks, about 85 percent read at grade level.

The children receive a half-hour, one-on-one lesson every school day. Between preparation time and instruction time, teachers say they spend about an hour daily on each of their four pupils.

Aiming to teach children the skills they need to be successful independent readers for life, teachers focus on the minutiae of how children read or don't read -- eye movement, hand placement, voice tone -- to gauge their reading weaknesses.

"His eyes are wandering," says one Columbia reading teacher observing a recent lesson.

"He should be holding the book so he can take control of it," says another.

Says Donna Spencer, a Reading Recovery teacher leader from Anne Arundel County, "The teacher observes what the child is doing as he's reading to see what he's able to do. It's a really careful observation of how the child is processing information."

Making connections

Spencer, who is visiting a teacher training session in Howard, talks in a whisper as Howard's teachers observe Ryan struggle with "foot." To help him connect reading and writing, his teacher asks him to write the word.

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