What is first grade? 'I will learn to read' Mystery: Six-year-olds aren't sure exactly what reading is or how they will learn it. Unaware of the scope of the undertaking, they plunge into the task with confidence and enthusiasm.

October 25, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

They must stand on their tiptoes to peer through the windows in the door to Room 8. They sometimes have to use both hands to turn its doorknob. But for 21 first-graders at Reisterstown's Cedarmere Elementary School, this is where it begins.

Sure, for years at home, many of them have been listening to stories and noodling around with letters. In kindergarten last school year, they were supposed to master the alphabet and start putting letters together to form words.

But this year -- first grade -- they will formally embark on the long, sometimes tricky path toward cracking the code: figuring out the countless ways in which letters become words and words gather into sentences. And by next spring, most will be really reading.

Across Maryland and the nation, this happens every year in thousands and thousands of first-grade classrooms much like Room 8.

It is a well-marked trail, the most important thing first-graders have to do. So much of their lives -- academic and otherwise -- depends on whether they learn how to read properly. But in many ways, it remains a mystery.

The children of Room 8 are typical first-graders, black and white, rich and poor, more or less on track. And for most of them at the start of this school year, cracking the code looks like a snap. Few have any notion of the size of the mountain they will climb for years.

Reading?

Sit in rows on the blue carpet to hear the difference between "made" and "mad."

Just before lunch, grab a stuffed animal and sprawl on the purple carpet to listen to a story.

Look at the letters and sounds posted in a row over the chalkboard. There's a "writing center" -- a corner filled with paper, notebooks, pencil sharpeners and stickers -- for just that.

And after 180 days of class this school year, those books on those shelves over there are going to make a lot more sense.

Today, however, when Tyler Brown and her classmates grab a book, they're more likely to be looking at the pictures than reading the words.

Paging through "Arthur Meets the President" one morning in September, 6-year-old Tyler sits on a tiny blue plastic chair and tells the story to herself and anyone within earshot -- not from its words but by piecing together the plot from its colorful pictures.

She's able to recognize only a few words -- "and," "is," "he."

"Reading is looking at the words," Tyler says.

Articulate and a tad mischievous, Tyler's eager to answer questions and confident in her answers. But when she stumbles over a word or realizes she's wrong, she'll lapse into an embarrassed silence -- occasionally sticking her right thumb into her mouth.

Tyler entered Room 8 in August as an "emergent" reader. That bit of jargon means the pigtailed girl with eyeglasses is supposedly able to recognize letters and sounds and read some basic two- and three-letter words.

It also means that Tyler -- like just about all of the other students in Room 8 -- is more or less at the level of the average Baltimore County and Maryland first-grader. Most struggle to read longer, unfamiliar words. Few have learned how to properly write letters, frequently making their sentences more akin to hieroglyphics than English.

A room of differences

Yet, as much as they are alike in these respects, each of the 21 children in Room 8 is different.

There's Austin Sauter, a 6-year-old with sandy-brown hair who frequently gets so focused on every detail of his work -- writing in his journal or coloring a pumpkin -- that he shuts out the rest of the classroom.

Though he loves to write, Austin struggles to do it neatly and even more to spell correctly. He unfailingly leaves a trail of crayons, homework papers and pencils around his desk, despite reminders at least three times a day to pick up after himself.

Austin frequently picks out books about real things -- astronauts, oceans -- rather than whimsical tales because "I like to learn things."

For Austin, reading is simple: "When you open a book, you see words and you read them," he says.

How does he read them?

"Uh," he pauses and reflects, "Mommy and my teacher read them to me."

Sitting nearby is Danielle Bixler, who wears a different ribbon in her hair every day to match her dress. Every chance she gets, Danielle heads over to the writing center, covering papers with ,, stickers and turning them into notes to her parents.

During recess, she's a blur of energy on the playground, usually the ringleader of a breathless game of tag.

For Danielle, reading often seems to come fairly easily. She knows her letters and doesn't hesitate to sound out written words that are unfamiliar -- though she still struggles to spell.

But Danielle's disarming fluency comes from hours of hard work last summer with her mother, a reading tutor at Cedarmere. Danielle doesn't turn 6 until next month, and her mother feared she couldn't compete as one of the youngest first-graders.

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