Seeking answers to an old question

The Education Beat

Nonreaders: Reading teachers want to help the older child who has been passed from grade to grade but can't read.

March 19, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THEY FLOATED from booth to booth at the annual convention of reading teachers, book bags in hand, looking for the magic formula that would solve a major problem, perhaps a crisis:

What to do about the elementary or middle school child who's been passed from grade to grade into puberty -- and can't read.

"Intervention" for these kids -- victims of social promotion -- was the buzzword last week at the three-day annual conference of the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council, which drew more than 1,000 reading teachers and administrators to the Towson Sheraton.

It's easy to see what's on the minds of the reading teachers. Follow them during breaks from workshops and meet-the-author sessions as they visit vendors' booths and talk to publishers' salesmen and consultants.

"Intervention is exploding," said Judy Meno, the Maryland representative of Saxon Publishers Inc. "We have a crisis in middle schools, and it's not just a crisis among special ed kids."

Of the curriculum at many schools, Meno put it plainly: "We can't dummy it down any more."

Jane A. Long, a veteran educator in Wicomico County, returned to teaching this year at Salisbury Middle School after an eight-year absence. "Something I didn't believe before," Long said, "is that many middle school students need a good deal of decoding."

Middle-schoolers' listening comprehension is fine, Long said. They've been read to for years. But they haven't been taught how to decode print -- that is, read -- "and if you can't decode, it's difficult to comprehend."

Long added: "We think of reading readiness as something that happens at the primary level, but a lot of kids in the fifth, sixth and seventh grade are also ready to read. They're embarrassed that they can't do it, and they really do want to be successful."

The publishers have jumped into the void with new or improved interventions designed to help older children learn to read. Many of their teachers have only a vague idea how to teach reading. They've been trained as high school teachers.

Saxon's intervention materials are phonics-oriented. The company has staked out that territory and is popular in parochial schools and public schools such as Ilchester Elementary in Howard County.

Houghton Mifflin Co., the Boston publisher whose books are used in Baltimore's third, fourth and fifth grades, is just out with a middle-school extension of its early-grade intervention program, Soar to Success. The program features "reciprocal teaching," in which pupils take turns assuming the role of teacher.

SRA McGraw-Hill, which publishes the materials used in Direct Instruction, a highly scripted program used in 17 Baltimore schools, has an intervention version called Corrective Reading. (The series is distinctive in that it has no photos or illustrations, considered appropriate reading clues for young kids but not for older students.)

Scholastic, the New York-based giant that claims to have materials in 90 percent of American classrooms, publishes a multimedia program, READ 180, for struggling older readers. It features audio books, print books and a video that provides students with "background knowledge and mental models they often lack."

All of the programs have workbooks, detailed teacher manuals, picture and spelling cards and "high-interest" stories such as one in Houghton Mifflin's middle-school package about Cal Ripken Jr.

Teen-age language and slang aren't avoided, although much of the vocabulary is simplified and multisyllabic words are few. ("Then she wiped the sweat from her eyes. She bent down and looked where Tony was pointing. `It looks like a knife handle,' Rosa said. `I'll pull it out.' ")

The idea is to get the kids interested, "and then to hold their interest, make them want to read more," said Juli Brier, a fifth-grade teacher at Carroll Manor Elementary in Baltimore County. "It's a crucial age for kids."

She's right. Those who can't be drawn into the magic web of reading by middle school are likely high school dropouts.

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