Small-group program key in catching up

Intervention: Anne Arundel County is finding that `Soar to Success' is working well in helping pupils who have fallen behind in reading.

January 07, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The pace is quick in teacher Dana Kirby's classroom, a trailer behind Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie.

But the five third-graders seated around her are prepared: first for reviewing the books they're reading on their own, then back to the book on whales they've been going over in class, answering questions from Kirby and one another and summarizing what they've gleaned about how whales and their babies breathe.

All in about 50 minutes.

"We're going so fast," marveled one of the pupils in the "Soar to Success" program.

They have to move swiftly. These kids are far behind, having struggled with reading since their school years began - they can make out the words on the page, for the most part, but they have serious difficulty figuring out what it all means. They have to catch up in their comprehension or they'll fall farther behind in all their subjects.

Anne Arundel County might have discovered a program that will get them there. It's called "Soar to Success," a small-group reading intervention program from publisher Houghton-Mifflin for children in grades three through eight.

"They get used to attacking the text," said Donna Redmond, Marley's reading specialist. "They get much greater involvement in the written word and trying to understand it. It works really well."

After an average of 68 days of instruction, more than 1,200 low-achieving county pupils taking part in the daily small-group instruction have improved an average of two grade levels on independent reading tests, county officials told the school board recently.

Last year, a small group of pupils started the program, but by the end of this school year, 2,500 children in third grade through eighth grade, in nearly every elementary and middle school, will have participated.

School system officials haven't broken down the costs of the program in detail, but the materials cost about $700 per school, per grade level.

"There isn't one answer for all students," said Andrea Zamora, a reading resource teacher with the county schools. "But this does help many students nationwide."

The program originated at Ball State University in Indiana and was used in classrooms for the first time during the 1995-1996 school year. Studies in a handful of schools nationwide have shown the same kind of improvement that Anne Arundel County has seen.

The local schools choose pupils who are struggling with comprehension, catching a wide cross-section of the population. The short course is taught by different teachers at each school - a special education teacher at some schools, mentor teachers such as Kirby at others - whoever has a free period and goes through the training.

Kirby isn't the only reading teacher the Marley third-graders have. They still take reading with the rest of their classmates.

"Soar to Success" is bonus time, built around the teaching practices known to work: small-group instruction, phonics reinforcement and an activity called reciprocal teaching, in which the children take turns asking the questions.

"We find that our troubled readers don't necessarily need something different," Zamora said. "They need something more. They need more practice."

Marley Elementary was one of the program's pilot schools in Anne Arundel County last year. Twenty-one fourth-graders completed the 18-book course, and all made improvement. They also made progress on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national standardized test. Even better, Redmond said, was that they retained what they learned over the summer and were "doing very well" in fifth grade.

Those Soar "graduates" answered questions for the third-graders earlier this semester about what they could expect from the program.

"One of the [fifth-grade] kids said it'll even help you in math," Redmond said, beaming.

The books are a mix of folk tales, fiction and fact. Practice on a recent afternoon came with a review of the short book on whales.

After asking her young charges to remind her about what they read the day before, Kirby went to the sticky notes. On each one, in black marker, she wrote a complicated word from the passages: Humpback. Gigantic. Newborn.

She asked the children to pick out chunks of the words they recognize and try to sound them out. She said she hopes they use these techniques when they're reading on their own.

Then it was time to summarize what they have gleaned.

"The important thing I have learned are whales go to warm water in the winter, and they breathe from their blowholes and they breathe through their gills," said Robin Groh.

"No, that's fish," Kirby replied gently.

"Oh right," Robin said, "and they get their milk from their mothers."

At the end of each book, pupils go home and read them to parents or guardians, to make them part of the learning process and to make the learning last.

"The program is not intended to be repeated year after year after year," Redmond said. "If this program is truly what's going to meet their needs, after 90 days, they'll be successful."

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