For kindergarten teacher Celeste Zerner, clumps of stickers on her children's notebooks are a sign of progress.
The Runnymede Elementary School instructor and her colleagues evaluate their pupils' reading abilities daily, adding to the colored dots on the youngsters' workbooks, according to their strengths and weaknesses.
The more layers of dots, Zerner figures, the more specialized time and attention each young reader is getting. "We see what the children need right away," she says. "If a child starts to excel in one area, we move them up in that group. If they need help, we give them help."
For three years, Carroll County has had an early literacy program that provides extra help for struggling readers. But what would happen, educators at Runnymede Elementary wondered, if children at every ability level -- not just those having problems -- were given extra guidance in small groups in their earliest years in school?
The result is the "Reading Block," an extra period of reading instruction in which kindergarten, first- and second-grade pupils rotate through small clusters, huddling in different corners of the room to read with a teacher and clutching small erasable boards for writing instruction.
This year, five years after the program began, third-grade reading scores at Runnymede skyrocketed, with 53 percent scoring satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, compared with 31 percent in 1999.
Carroll County's reading scores on Maryland's annual pupil assessment exams dipped across third, fifth and eighth grades.
Given the success of the Reading Block at Runnymede -- which receives federal aid for the disadvantaged -- some other Carroll schools are trying to replicate the program, and many more are developing similar ones, Carroll officials say.
"There's a lot of movement in that direction," says Dorothy Mangle, Carroll's assistant superintendent for instruction.
Schools with federal grants, including Runnymede, often have an easier time initiating programs that rely on low student-teacher ratios -- as the Reading Block does -- because they have more teachers, Mangle said. Other schools have hired part-time teachers and language arts specialists.
Four days a week, kindergartners at Runnymede get a half-hour of "block" time. First- and second-graders get 45 minutes. Teachers and administrators value the program so much that the school's principal or assistant principal fills in for the language arts specialist when she's out of the building -- so the small reading groups don't swell.
On a recent morning, Zerner's kindergarten class scatters across the room for block time.
Four pupils scurry to a far corner where they sit pretzel-style on the floor with language arts specialist Joy Dain. She reviews a book titled "I Am ..." that the group read during the previous lesson.
"Can anyone remember who this story's about?" Dain asks as the children flip through the book with big pictures and large type.
Five-year-old Sean Atkinson's hand shoots up. "A boy," he volunteers.
"Ooh, Sean, you are right," Dain says, eliciting a satisfied grin from the little boy.
Sean is similarly delighted after he rereads the entire book.
"I knew I could do it. I readed that book so quick."
Sean's teachers say building confidence -- especially in kindergarten -- is one of the most important benefits of the Reading Block.
"They've become risk takers," Zerner says. "They're starting to write words all the time. They're not waiting for us anymore. We see them initiating things on their own, and that's the gratifying part."
Zerner's room is filled with encouraging reminders of pupils' progress.
It has the Word Wall, a bulletin board full of cereal box covers and candy bar labels and store names that kids have brought in because they can read them.
And on the counter top, tucked away in plastic containers, is Zerner's favorite proof of progress: the notebooks.
She pulls out the notebook of 5-year-old Adelaide Kachur -- a pupil she calls "a textbook example" of the headway that can be made by tailoring lessons specifically to the needs of each child.
Adelaide's writings from September consisted of loopy, undecipherable scribble. By the end of November, she neatly printed an entire sentence in "kid writing" -- a method of sounding out words and writing what they hear as opposed to worrying about the correct spelling.
"We do send readers to first grade," Zerner says. "I'm not going to say that all of them are readers. But even those [who aren't reading] have book knowledge -- they know what a good reader does, they know their letter sounds and they know some words. They're going into first grade better prepared, and that's our payoff."