Difficulties teaching teens how to read Basics: First-grade-level books and phonics are boring and demeaning for young adults, so teachers have to find creative ways to engage their students' imaginations.

Education Beat

August 02, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A FEW MONTHS ago, we considered reading by 9 months. How about reading by 19 years?

That's the daunting task facing middle and high school teachers who increasingly encounter illiterate teen-agers.

It's not exclusively a city problem. "Today's high school teacher sees lots of kids who can't read," says Allan Starkey, coordinator of language arts in Howard County.

If a 15-year-old can't spell or add, that can be overlooked. Cash registers at McDonald's were manufactured for the numerically challenged.

But the failure to read is a shame for society, an embarrassment for the student.

"The intrinsic desire to read is there in everyone," says LaTonya Harris, a Coppin State College senior teaching in the Teach Baltimore program at Northern High School.

"In the African-American community, sometimes that desire can't be demonstrated because of peer pressure, but it's there. I know it's there. I've seen it this summer."

Teach Baltimore, designed to attack the "summer effect" -- or disproportionate summer loss in learning -- enrolls 180 elementary students and 35 high-schoolers for eight weeks of academics, field trips and mentoring. The 39 instructors are recruits from area colleges and universities. Funding is from 13 private and public sources.

High school students in the program get a nice inducement -- $5.50 an hour for a 20-hour week. The money gets the students to school and keeps them there, but the instructors say that's not nearly enough. On a hot morning in a nonair-conditioned school, turning a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds on to reading and writing requires daring, skill and endurance.

You can't use first-grade books and phonics drills with 15-year-olds. It's boring and demeaning. Instead, you have to engage their imaginations, get them thinking about themselves and writing about the things that interest them. Eventually, they read their own writing and the writing of others.

"The key to teaching teen-agers to read," says Starkey, "is to provide meaningful content. If they're interested in motorcycles, let them read about motorcycles."

A touch of stealth is required, Harris explains. Essentially, you trick the teen-agers into learning to read by engaging them in writing and speaking. All three of the language arts are enhanced.

In the Teach Baltimore program, for example, students play a game called Imaginomics. It's keyed to jobs that these young people stand a reasonable chance of obtaining after graduation -- in the travel industry, for example.

Working in small groups and wearing yellow Imaginomics caps, the students plan their business. They discuss and write about the changes in their make-believe company over the next 10 years. Then they read what they've written, sometimes haltingly, word by precious word, says Harris.

Why writing first? Starkey quotes Freud's observation that "the history of the individual re-creates the history of the race." In that history, writing generally precedes reading. "Look at the cave paintings," Starkey says. "Look at preschoolers. What they do might just be scribbling, but it's a form of writing."

As the students become more skilled at reading, they can read aloud, Harris says, and as they read aloud they learn to differentiate between formal language and the street language that prompted last year's national debate over "ebonics."

Reading aloud, Harris says, "teaches them about formal language. We all speak differently around our friends, but in a formal situation we have to speak formally. Once we hear differently, we speak differently."

Harris and her colleague in Teach Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University junior Kim Galloway, describe students who have bloomed in the Northern High garden of reading this summer. Galloway says one of her students "asked me to bring in books. She's becoming a better reader, a better communicator, a better writer."

Harris takes one of her students home with her, where the student reads aloud for an hour each day and writes down new words in her expanding vocabulary list.

"At first, every word was difficult for her, but now she's seeing words in groups of three or more. She's learning to read."

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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