Urban, rural teachers on same page

Consensus: Maryland instructors at an annual reading conference agree on obstacles today's children face when learning to read.

March 19, 2000|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They arrived from small rural school districts in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore -- and from bustling urban systems in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and their suburbs.

But the more than 1,000 reading teachers and specialists who gathered at an annual conference in Towson last week had plenty of common ground, as they agreed on the need for parental involvement in reading and individual instruction in crowded classrooms.

"Children and education are constantly changing," said Susan McCandless, president-elect of the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council. "Teachers want to do the right thing for their students, but it requires constant, ongoing training."

She added that "there is not one easy solution or one thing like television, lack of resources or family involvement to point at as the source of the problem."

The teachers and reading experts gathered to discuss strategies at more than 100 workshops and lectures at the group's 28th annual conference, held at the Towson Sheraton on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Parental involvement was a common topic for discussion.

"The lack of parental support of their children when it comes to reading is a major problem," said Jessica Smith, a teacher at Carver Elementary School in St. Mary's County and member of the independent, nonprofit reading advocacy organization.

She said children should have more than 1,000 hours of literacy exposure from their family by the time they start school -- but they often fall far short. "I see kids that are everywhere from two to three years ahead of their reading level to those that are two to three years behind."

The problems sometimes go much deeper than simply being able to decode individual words on a page, teachers say -- often students simply aren't able to comprehend what they read.

Terry Fischer, a teacher at Linton Springs Elementary School in Carroll County, said she has seen that phenomenon every day during her 11-year teaching career.

"Children need to be taught to think while they are reading," she said. "They just can't read something without being able to apply what they read. Reading comprehension is just as important as phonics."

That sentiment is shared by Marilyn Kirschner, president of the Maryland group. "We want students to emphasize thinking rather than have the information to go in one ear and out the other," she said.

The conference workshops included a session by Kathryn Button, a professor from Texas Tech University, on how teachers can help their students become more independent writers.

Smith, the St. Mary's County teacher, said she learned that students can be given more leeway to pick writing topics. "We only help them with the grammar and the phonics," Smith said. "This way, the students become independent writers, but we still give them the support they need to learn."

Joe Yukish, a Clemson University professor, offered another approach to reading instruction that focuses on the importance of small reading groups within a larger classroom. Unlike traditional reading groups, in which students are placed with others of similar ability, Yukish suggests mixing students of various abilities about every three weeks.

"All students have their strengths and weaknesses," he said. "In this type of setting, students can be placed in groups where they would work on a single reading skill, getting the individual attention they need. Then, after they master each skill, they would be moved into another group."

Such a setting, he said, "also helps children with their self-esteem. No longer would they be labeled by their peers as being in the `fast' reading group or the `slow' reading group."

Carol Sauter, a first-grade teacher at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Carroll County, agrees. She said it is important to make students feel good about reading.

"The most difficult thing about teaching reading is teaching children at different levels," she said. "It's not difficult for children to figure out what reading group they are in. All anyone needs to do is look at the back of the readers and see one is labeled `3' and the other is labeled `1' -- and they are in the same class."

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