Early instruction is bearing fruit Improvement: The county's reading-level test scores are up, educators say, proof that an intensified approach in early grades is working.

December 22, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

For Baltimore County educators, the proof of improved early reading instruction lies in the numbers.

More county first- and second-graders are reading at grade-level than ever before. The percentage of third- and fifth-graders scoring satisfactorily in reading on Maryland's annual tests has jumped over the past two years. And almost three-quarters of the county's 100 elementary schools showed improvement on the state reading tests given last spring.

"We believe that these results show that we're doing the right things in the early grades," says Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione. "It tells us that if you have a strong program in the basics and early intervention for children who are struggling, every child can learn to read."

Despite the large gains posted by the beginning readers, county educators acknowledge that more needs to be done for students in middle schools, where scores have slipped in recent years.

They're also concerned about early readers who struggle and are considering changes in the way elementary school days are structured, based on the success of such changes at a school in Towson.

The effort to introduce consistent early reading instruction in Baltimore County's schools dates back to 1996, soon after Marchione became superintendent.

From the outset, he said he wanted elementary schools to focus on having all children reading at grade level by the end of the second grade, and it has remained a top priority. By last spring, 86 percent of the county's second-graders had reached that goal on a nationally standardized test, the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills.

The gains began soon after county educators developed a new early reading curriculum called "word identification." The program calls for specific early instruction in phonics -- or letter-sound relationships -- to ensure that students are able to decode words, while teaching literature to build comprehension skills.

Word identification replaces the whole-language approach that had swept through county classrooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, knocking out much of the skills instruction that research has shown is critical -- and replacing it with an early focus on stories and literature.

"We finally have a consistent program in place in every elementary school," says Roberta Bukovsky, the county's director of elementary schools. "Now we're seeing the results from all of that hard work."

Under Baltimore County's approach to reading, instruction begins in kindergarten, when 5-year-olds begin specific training in letters and sounds. More county elementary schools have added pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs in the last two years, giving children in many of the county's poorest areas more time in school.

All elementary schools are required to have reading specialists, which were lost in some schools in the early 1990s. About a third of the county elementaries have added one-on-one tutoring programs with federal poverty money and other grants.

"More and more children are now entering the upper grades of elementary schools with a better grasp of basic reading skills," says Beth Strauss, principal of Deer Park Elementary School. "By third grade, we have children reading such complex material that I would guess many of them could read the instructions on a

VCR and program it better than most adults."

Nevertheless, county educators worry that more needs to be done for students who are struggling -- and Bukovsky, the elementary school director, points to Pleasant Plains Elementary School in Towson as a model that might be worth duplicating across the county.

'Reading Rockateers'

At Pleasant Plains, almost a quarter of first- and second-graders are being targeted for extra time every day in reading and math instruction.

In the school's program, these students -- dubbed "Reading Rocketeers" -- learn with their classes in the morning during regular reading and math periods. In the afternoons, they work in small groups with a reading specialist and classroom teachers, while their peers study social studies and science.

"In many programs, you pull children out of regular instruction to give them extra tutoring," says Principal Jennifer Pahl. "We wanted to give them more time."

So four afternoons per week, the 16 first-grade "rocketeers" assemble for 45 minutes with teacher Dave Shauch and reading specialist Maureen Partilla. The group works together to sound out words, with Shauch and Partilla encouraging children to employ such techniques as using their fingers as a scissors to "clip off" quick consonants.

The Pleasant Plains staff works with Project Read, an outreach program of the private Jemicy School to help public schools adapt this and other Orton-Gillingham tutoring techniques. (Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory instructional method commonly used with dyslexic readers.)

The students then break into smaller groups, reading stories with controlled vocabularies of short words.

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