At year's midpoint, most of class reads

Words, not pictures, now draw yound readers

Cracking The Code

March 14, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

They still have to stand on their tiptoes to peer through the windows in the door to Room 8, and some still aren't strong enough to turn the doorknob without using both hands. But inside their first-grade classroom at Reisterstown's Cedarmere Elementary School, much has changed.

No longer is there confusion between p's and q's, between b's and d's. The letters scattered across walls and blackboards have meaning. Books are looked at for the words, not just the pictures.

More than halfway through first grade, reading is no longer much of a guessing game in Room 8. It's an accomplishment for almost all of the 22 first-graders -- and a continuing challenge.

"When I was in kindergarten and the word was `the,' I would say `cat,' " says pigtailed Tyler Brown, after successfully picking her way through a series of short sentences. "Now I know better."

Tyler can be pretty stubborn. She sometimes wishes aloud that she could return to being a baby and not have to listen and follow rules. But the articulate, opinionated 6-year-old also takes pride in how far she has come in such a short while.

At the beginning of the school year, when she could not really read, she would roll her eyes behind her glasses, unsure what to do with most words because she barely knew all the letters of the alphabet. Now, a word such as "same" produces little confusion for her.

"Ssss. Ayyyy. Ummmm. Same," Tyler says. "It had the silent `e' at the end, so I knew I had to say the `a' like its name."

On the long road to cracking the code of reading, that's only among the first of many mountains to climb. But it's taken a lot of work to get there -- inside Room 8 and outside, where Tyler continues to get extra help three days a week from the school's reading specialist.

Tyler would be the first to admit she'd often rather ask an adult for help than sound the words out for herself. But one morning, after being told she has to figure out "sunset" by herself -- and doing it -- Tyler exclaims: "I can do this. I can do this."

Already, the children of Room 8 have stumbled into one of the great paradoxes of learning how to read. Now that they know the letters, it isn't quite as hard anymore. At the same time, the rules keep piling up, so reading isn't quite as easy as it looked in August, either.

When their journey began, more than 100 school days ago, the mountain didn't look as if it would be very difficult to climb. How hard is it to learn the "short a" sound by looking at red apples? Or to sprawl on the carpeted floor to listen to stories read by their veteran teacher, Sheri Blum?

But now, they're encountering hidden peaks and valleys that make for one- or two-day detours. A letter that breaks the rule. A sound that doesn't quite make sense.

"Keer-ree-ul," Danielle Bixler says one morning, trying to pronounce the word "cereal" with a hard "k" sound at the beginning.

Told that the word begins with an "s" sound, her first response is: "That doesn't make sense." But then she calmly -- and smartly -- picks up her pencil and draws an "s" over the "c" on the work sheet to remind herself of the "soft c" sound. "That's better. Now I'll remember."

Gaps opening

Not everyone in Room 8 climbs at the same pace. Gaps have opened up among the children as if they were a line of hikers along a steep mountain trail -- some struggling behind, some forging ahead.

And Danielle is now among those at the front of the line.

Just like the first day of school, she still shows up for class each day with a perfect ribbon tied in her hair by her mother, a reading tutor at Cedarmere. The strong-willed 6-year-old is a natural leader who assumes the role of teacher when she and her friends "play school" during indoor recess.

Since August, she has steadily caught up to and passed most others in the class, bumping up from one reading group to the next, reaching the highest one just before winter break. "I didn't know the sounds that much in kindergarten," Danielle says. "I know words now."

Others are cracking the code at a slower pace.

When the school year started, Austin Sauter's desk was the easiest one to spot in Room 8 -- the one surrounded by loose papers, crayons and pencils all over the floor. Now his desk is marked only by his name tag and his beloved action figures of wrestlers that he keeps inside it.

2; "Ssss. Ayyyy. Ummmm. Same. It had the silent `e' at the end, so I knew I had to say the `a' like its name." Tyler Brown,age 6

Careful about every detail on his papers, Austin, like many Room 8 children, grinds down erasers almost as quickly as he sharpens pencils. If his work isn't just so, he erases it and does it over -- repeating it again and again, even if he occasionally tears a hole in his paper.

"I want to do it right," Austin says, copying the phrase "Valentine's Day" for a card he's making for his parents. "I do it over until it's OK."

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