Room 8: `We're readers now'

Success: The children in Sheri Blum's class are confidently moving on to second grade.


They don't need to stand on their tiptoes anymore to peek through the windows in the door to Room 8. Nor do they have to use two hands to turn its knob.

More important for these first-graders at Reisterstown's Cedarmere Elementary School, five- and six-letter words are becoming kind of easy. Short picture books are turning boring because there aren't enough words. And writing even unfamiliar words isn't so hard because spelling patterns are starting to make sense.

The reading code has been cracked. The 22 first-graders in Room 8 of Cedarmere are on their way.

"I couldn't read like this in the fall," says Austin Sauter, a 6-year-old who started first grade still confusing "b" with "d" and "p" with "q." "Now I can. I like that."

As their first full school year of formal reading instruction ends today, signs of success are frequently found in Room 8.

The first-graders now routinely fill their journals with complete sentences -- and capital letters and periods, too. At the end of trips to the library, they pick up longer books. At home, they can unscramble the writings on cereal boxes, though the 6- and 7-year-olds still have an easier time sounding out such words as riboflavin than figuring out what they mean.

And as Room 8's pupils look to second grade, they are tackling their toughest reading task to date: chapter books.

With just a couple of weeks left in the school year, the students got their own copies of the first book published by the well-known children's author Judy Blume, "The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo" -- and their very first school bookmarks to keep track of the chapters.

"Why do we have to read `novels'?" Austin asks, troubled less by the book's tougher words and sentences than the unfamiliar word used to describe the new kind of book sitting in his lap.

"No. 1, you know more words, so you can read longer stories," explains teacher Sheri Blum, who has been guiding Room 8 along the path to reading since late August. "No. 2, more happens in novels, so they're more fun to read."

"Oh. This book looks like fun," Austin says, picking it back up and diving into a page filled with words, not pictures.

Long over for Room 8 are simple drills on letters and sounds. So are work sheets calling for letters to be traced or words to be combined into contractions.

The "silent k" isn't an unknown anymore, and figuring out when "c" sounds like "s" and when it sounds like "k" isn't quite so confusing.

For more than a month, much was made of the three days of reading tests that came toward the end of last month. Since 1996, at the start and end of first grade, Baltimore County has been requiring all students to take the Gates-MacGinitie exams to judge their reading skills.

Nervousness -- among Cedarmere's students and even some of its teachers -- was common in the weeks before the test.

"Is it going to be hard?" Tyler Brown asks one day. "What if we fail?"

"Don't worry," Blum reassures her. "You're learning to read. All you have to do is show off what you know."

By the end of the tests, there was little to worry about.

Sure, there was a fair amount of confusion on the exam over whether the middle sound in "shirt" is an "ir" or "er." But matching the word "pencil" with a picture of a pencil wasn't hard at all. Nor was choosing which word begins with an "m" from the choices of "man," "cat" and "dog."

"It was so easy," Tyler says right after Room 8 finishes its first day of testing in just 25 minutes, far less than the hour that had been set aside. "We did it."

By the end of the exams, all of the 22 children but one end up at least on grade level, with about a half-dozen above. The one child below grade level fell just one point short of the mark.

But the students don't understand the meaning of the testing. And they aren't told of the results, other than that they did well. For them, reading isn't about test scores or even report cards. It's about books.

Tyler began first grade with a strong notion of what she would accomplish. "I will learn to read," she boldly declared in September.

Starting out still unsure of some letters of the alphabet, Tyler -- along with Austin and her pal Lauren Wheeler -- ended up spending many long hours outside of Room 8 with Cedarmere's reading specialist, Charlotte Forman. Most elementary schools have similar teachers to work with struggling readers.

While most of the children in Room 8 moved ahead quickly in the fall and winter, Tyler, Austin and Lauren gathered with Forman three times a week to keep practicing the basics. They traced letters with their fingers. They made lists of simple three-letter words, color words and what they came to know as "sight words" -- "that," "what" and other common words that are hard to sound out.

They were rewarded by Forman at the end of each half-hour session with a couple of stickers, and their confusion gradually came to be replaced by greater and greater doses of confidence.

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