Heading off problems Grant: Federal funds for an Advancing Early Literacy program are allowing Carroll County's educators to help young pupils before they fall further behind.

December 25, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

When it comes to reading, Carroll County students are among Maryland's top performers on state tests. During the past year, however, county educators made a commitment to reach out to struggling beginning readers before they fall further behind.

The centerpiece of the effort is a $250,000 Advancing Early Literacy grant awarded to the Carroll school system in January as part of a federal initiative.

School officials used the money to test the county's 3,905 kindergarten and first-grade pupils to identify children with potential reading problems and to hire tutors to work individually and in small groups with these pupils. This school year, 752 pupils in these two grades are being tutored.

The systemwide program supplements remedial reading efforts at county elementary schools.

Dorothy Mangle, assistant superintendent of instruction for Carroll schools, applied for the Advancing Early Literacy grant because she had noticed more pupils entering school with poor oral language skills.

"We have said to our instructional staff that it is not enough to have our average reading performance be at an appropriate level," she says. "We are making a commitment to try to help each student be successful. That's our thrust right now."

Carroll's elementary reading instruction program, called Integrated Language Arts, has been in place since 1987. It is similar to a program used in Howard County that goes by the same name. Phonics, or word decoding, has always been a part of the reading curriculum in county elementary schools, Carroll educators say, with reading for meaning and word usage.

"You don't want to emphasize any one system. You want all three working together," says Kathy Wallis, a reading specialist at Winfield Elementary School. "I've worked with kids that just have phonics, and all they know is each letter sound. They don't understand the point of reading."

On the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading tests, 52 percent of Carroll's third-graders and 53 percent of the county's fifth-graders met the satisfactory standard. Reflecting a statewide trend, reading scores in middle school dropped dramatically, but Carroll's eighth-graders earned a first-place ranking in the state with 38 percent reading satisfactorily.

While some Carroll secondary teachers are participating in a state trial program to address reading comprehension in middle and high schools, the county has directed most of its efforts at strengthening reading skills in the earliest grades.

Early literacy tutoring

That commitment is apparent during a tutoring session at Charles Carroll Elementary School near Westminster.

Nancy Milliken, a tutor hired through the early literacy grant, sits at a small desk with 6-year-old first-grader Sarah Miller. For 20 minutes the two read together, construct rhymes and play word games. The goal is to help Sarah in critical areas of early literacy such as phonemic awareness, alphabet skills and reading for meaning.

Milliken asks Sarah to think of words that rhyme with "cat," say them and write them down. Sarah comes up with "hat," and Milliken asks her to make the "haa" sound. "What letter makes that sound? Can you remember?"

"No," Sarah shrugs.

It's an 'h' Milliken tells her, and Sarah writes it down.

"What's next, if it rhymes with cat?" Milliken asks, as she sounds out "at."

The two repeat the routine with "sat."

"Ssssss," Milliken says. "What letter makes that sound?"

Again, Sarah says she doesn't know, but writes the letter "s."

"That's right," Milliken says. "You wrote it but you didn't say it. You know more than you think, don't you?"

At Charles Carroll, the early literacy tutoring is one component of the school's two-year effort to improve reading performance. In first and second grades, the school adopted new scheduling in which teachers spend an hour on reading instruction with groups of 10 to 14 children -- a move being tried in other school systems in the Baltimore area.

"It allows for a much greater focus on reading instead of having the 25 to 30 kids divided into two or three reading groups with the teacher trying to jockey between them," says Charles Carroll Principal Richard Huss.

Other key changes included retooling the school's parent volunteer program so that more parents work with children instead of doing clerical work in the school office. In 1996, the school also adopted a basal reading program, books of simple stories and controlled vocabulary.

MSPAP scores indicate Charles Carroll's changes are paying off. This year, 56 percent of the school's third-graders scored satisfactorily on the reading test. In 1997, Charles Carroll posted the lowest third-grade reading scores in Carroll, with 29 percent scoring satisfactorily.

"We feel very positive," Huss says. "There's quite a lag time until the children get to the point where MSPAP scores show improvement, but we felt as a school we were getting better."

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