Climb up Mount Reading gets steeper School: Three months into first grade, the children in Sheri Blum's class notice the work getting harder, and some are falling behind.

November 27, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

At least three times a week, they're tapped on the shoulder and taken out of class to one of the little desks parked awkwardly in the hallway. While most of the other first-graders in Room 8 have moved on to figuring out bigger words, they're still stumbling over some letters.

On the path to cracking the code, they're already a bit behind.

And it's Charlotte Forman's job to help them catch up -- with one-on-one teaching and a rolling metal cart of tricks.

Forman is Cedarmere Elementary School's reading specialist. The children she began working with a few weeks into this school year -- many of them bright and willing, like Austin Sauter -- consider themselves special because of her attention.

She hands out bags of words to practice with their mothers at home, color words such as "green" and "brown."

She has them trace letters with their fingers on sandpaper, burning the shapes into their memories.

She gives them stickers, the currency of first grade, and praise.

Most of all, despite the hallway's noise and interruptions, Forman provides undiluted focus -- already something of a luxury as the rest of Room 8 races ahead in reading.

"What's the first letter in 'monkey'?" she asks Austin one morning.

L "M, muh," he says, pinching the letter on an alphabet strip.

"Rooster," she says.

"Errr. R," he says, searching the strip several times before spotting the "r."

"I can't fool you today, can I?" Forman says. Austin's face glows.

He proudly pastes a turkey sticker to the front of his shirt as he walks back to class.

Three months ago, when classes at the Reisterstown school began, reading looked like a breeze to these 6-year-olds, most of whom arrived knowing all their letters and some simple words.

Now it's become more than a matter of sounding out "cat" and "hat." Teachers aren't always right there to fill in the blanks.

Expectations are higher.

And it's beginning to dawn on almost all the children of Room 8 that maybe it's not going to be so easy after all.

"I don't know how to do this," one of them, Tyler Brown, complains one morning while trying to figure out a story. Adult help is on the other side of the room, and she's left to stare at the words.

For first-graders, this is a critical period. Small differences in reading skills in the fall can quickly grow into huge gaps by spring.

Horror stories about seventh-graders unable to read have their roots in first-graders who fall behind and never recover.

"By the time kids get to fifth grade, they aren't interested in learning the letters anymore," Forman says. "Now is the time to help these kids catch up. We can't let them slip behind."

So Forman, a veteran teacher who never seems to tire of going over letters with struggling children, takes to the hallway -- this time, to help Lauren Wheeler and Tyler read "I am Sam."

Forman makes Lauren come alive.

A shy girl with blond hair usually pulled back in a headband, Lauren can disappear at times in the class hubbub. But in small groups, she is as loud and involved as anyone -- except, perhaps, the always talkative, assertive Tyler.

Friendly competition

Tyler and Lauren are pals, but when it comes to reading, they're competitors. Both want to read every sentence. If one struggles, the other strains to jump in.

"I see the dog," Lauren reads. "I can see a car."

"I would say automobile," Tyler says, glancing at the picture in the book.

"How do you know it's not automobile?" Forman asks. "What letter does it begin with?"

"It begins with 'c,' so it can't be automobile," Tyler replies. "And automobile is a long word, and that word is short, so it has to be 'car.' "

Both in the hallway and in Room 8, there's now a lot more to think about. Each day, cracking the code gets more complicated.

Not so long ago, some of the children were holding up their left or right fists to tell "b" from "d." Now they take five sentences from a story and arrange them in the order they happened.

Their lessons in the "a" sound have moved from such words as "at" and "apple" to "alligator" and "animals." Their list of sight words -- words that can't be sounded out and must be memorized -- grows longer.

When there's an unfamiliar word, Room 8's teacher, Sheri Blum, no longer provides a quick answer.

Instead, they must "blank it" and "frame it" -- read the rest of the sentence and go back to figure out what word makes sense.

They are aided by the remarkable ability of first-graders to gain ground by leaps and bounds -- something already evident in Room 8.

One child in a lower first-grade class down the hall made such progress in just two months that he was transferred into Room 8 -- bringing the class to 22 pupils.

And Blum is contemplating bumping up a student or two to a higher reading group.

Reading and writing

Beyond reading, writing is starting to become important, too.

Many nights, homework includes work sheets to practice writing letters properly. Sentences begin with capitals and end with periods -- or the work won't earn smiley faces from Blum.

This takes lots and lots of practice.

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