Reading, writing as parallel acts

Process: A critical test fpr Cedarmere Elementary School first-graders learning to read is to master putting words on paper.

January 29, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When it's time for Room 8 to write, Danielle Bixler is always among the first to pull out her pencil and paper. A get-well letter to a sick teacher. An entry in her journal. A secret note to a friend.

The 6-year-old bounces into Reisterstown's Cedarmere Elementary School one morning with a four-page story complete with a title page: "Arthur Reads a Book. Written and illustrated by Danielle Bixler. Copyright 1998."

Arthur read a book in the morning. He hate it. He ate dinner at 5: 00.

Arthur wet to slhoos and He had Lunch. He Learned how to add. He desin like Math.

The End.

It's not the stuff of Tom Wolfe -- or even Marc Brown, author of the popular children's series about the aardvark named Arthur -- but it's far more than the first-grader or any of the other 20 children in Room 8 could have written four months ago.

"I like writing," says Danielle, looking up from her journal. "It's harder than reading. But I like looking at it when I'm done."

As Room 8's pupils figure out how to crack the code of reading this school year, beginning to master writing is a parallel, related path.

It also is a critical test. It's one thing to look at a page full of words and try to sound out letters. It's quite another to stare at a blank piece of paper and think of words and remember what letters make them up.

With more than 20 first-graders, it's next to impossible for teachers to do daily one-on-one reading with every child. So children's writings become the most tangible record of their progress.

From the moment the 5- and 6-year-olds entered Room 8 in August, writing has been part of their daily routine.

First thing every morning, homework assignments are copied from the board. Then children have little crossword puzzles to work on, a weather chart -- is it "cold," "sunny," "windy" or "rainy"? -- to fill in, and journal entries about lessons. Once, teacher Sheri Blum required a written explanation of how she must have felt after a day filled with misbehavior.

At the beginning of the school year, it was OK to answer questions by scribbling some words and drawing pictures. But as the children of Room 8 become readers, that's not acceptable anymore.

Correct handwriting is expected, too -- after months of nightly practice on forming the 26 letters.

Cheerful Wesley Parker, who early in the school year routinely mixed up P's and Q's and D's and B's, is getting it right now. Not all the time, but enough that even he sees the progress.

"I know that this is a `D' and this is a `B,' " he says. "I can write big sentences now. Look at how neat this is."

More complex words

Fewer of Room 8's sentences look like the children's hieroglyphics of last fall. Many longer words are written phonetically (at best), requiring them to be read aloud for understanding. But at least they look like English.

The constant reminders in the fall about capital letters at the start of sentences and periods at the end seem to be sticking.

"Wetball is a ball that you can forw. When you forw it the water sahsi on you," writes earnest Aryn Wolf, making up a compound word as part of a lesson. She reads that aloud as: "Wetball is a ball that you can throw. When you throw it, the water splashes on you."

Slowly, spelling is becoming important. But the first-graders remain years away from understanding the complicated rules of English spelling. What's the difference between flower and flour? Or how is the "fl" sound written?

"I'm going to cut fafw," Danielle writes one morning. She explains: "I didn't know how to spell flowers, so I guessed."

Guessing on spelling is allowed -- often encouraged. Six-year-olds' minds soar beyond three-letter words. Some get so hung up on how to spell a word that they'll sit stumped at their desks, unwilling to write more until they're told the correct spelling. Others eagerly plunge in, happily guessing at words.

"Wod you ples play?" Karina Khusid writes to fulfill an assignment to use the word "play" in a sentence.

The guessers often are among the few in Room 8 who love displaying their writing.

In the beginning of the year, pupils would tell Blum the big news in their lives each morning, and she would write it on a big clipboard. Now, it's often up to the pupils to write their news. Drawing pictures is allowed, but not until after a complete sentence or two.

One morning, it's Tyler Brown's turn at the morning message: "I'm Going to the zoo." She adds a few pictures of animals to the bottom. "I want to write my news every day," she says, proud she spelled every word right.

First taste of testing

Writing gives these first-graders their first taste of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the series of writing-intensive exams given annually to all of the state's third- , fifth- and eighth-graders.

That means that "FAT-P" enters Room 8, with writing for Form, Audience, Topic and Purpose.

After a substitute teacher fills in one day, that night's homework is to write a letter on how the class behaved. Form? Letter. Audience? Mrs. Blum. Topic? How you did in school. Purpose? To persuade her that you were good.

Not every assignment is so structured. Writing is supposed to be interesting, too.

Every weekend, one of Room 8's pupils gets to take home Clifford -- a stuffed toy version of the big red dog of children's stories -- to write about his experiences. Fridays are a mad scramble as the children jockey for the chance to be with Clifford.

One recent weekend, it was Danielle's turn:

My trip to Danielle's House

Me and Clifford had tortellini. We watched TGIF. We went to the store and played outside. Uncle Craig came over. Clifford met all of Danielle's friends. We had lots of fun.

Love, Danielle.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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