Arundel pupils hit the books -- hard

New school program double reading time for sixth-graders

Fighting aliteracy

September 02, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

When classes change and the halls at Southern Middle School in Lothian fill with chattering pupils, the sixth-graders in Barbara Maddox's class stay glued to their seats - and to their books.

The commotion outside - in the real world - doesn't stir them from their fantasy worlds. One child is engrossed in Moby-Dick. Another is tackling The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck. A third is following Harry Potter on his latest flight of fancy.

As part of Anne Arundel County's new sixth-grade reading program, pupils read the book of their choice from the school's library for 25 minutes every day. The extended class period runs 100 minutes or more, meaning schools are devoting one-third of the day to reading and language arts.

This new approach began last week for sixth-graders in all county middle schools, despite the best efforts of some parents to stop it. A group of parents asked the State Board of Education to halt the program because it reduces the time available for electives, such as physical education and fine arts, from two periods per day to one.

The state board is expected to rule on the program later this month.

But while opposing sides in the case exchange rhetorical and legal fire, filing briefs with the state board and presenting conflicting statistics or studies, pupils got down to the business of learning to read last week.

"People have said to me, `You're just adding more reading,'" said William J. Callaghan, principal of Southern Middle School, who favors the expanded reading program. "That's not true. It's reading, it's writing, it's language, it's spelling. For the first time, there's time to get it all in every day."

At Southern Middle, pupils get 108 minutes of reading and language arts every day. The strictly regimented program breaks down as follows:

30 minutes of "directed reading." All pupils read a passage selected by the teacher and then discuss it.

30 minutes of "directed writing." The class - including the teacher - writes narrative or expository passages. Last week, the pupils wrote about themselves and their families. Their work was tacked to the wall.

25 minutes of self-selected reading.

Eight minutes of journal writing.

Eight minutes of word development and vocabulary.

Seven minutes during which the teacher reads aloud and then drills the pupils on the reading.

"I keep a timer on my desk, and I'm always looking at it," Maddox said.

To accommodate the double classes in reading, Southern Middle hired three language arts teachers, but had to give up two home economics teachers and one art teacher.

Several Southern Middle pupils said Friday they're enjoying the extra reading time.

"I'm learning a lot more than I did in fifth grade because we only had an hour," said sixth-grader Aaron McCarthy, 11. "I learn a lot more in two periods."

He's reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling and a book on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a subject his social studies class covered last year. Classmate Alonzo Proctor, 11, is reading a book on athletes called Rock Solid. He just finished Scooby Doo Mysteries.

Alonzo said he doesn't mind that some of his electives were sacrificed for reading time.

"We're learning more in reading class than we would in an elective," he said.

Aaron and Alonzo said they've been taught exercises to do before, during and after reading. First they preview the book and look at the pictures. Then, while reading, they form mental pictures of the action, ask themselves questions and go back to reread what they don't understand.

The pupils also use color-coded bookmarks to note passages that have good descriptions of setting, character, plot, theme and style. Then they use those pointers to explain the book to their teacher during weekly one-on-one conferences.

"It keeps the children at a high level of accountability of thinking," said Connie Prevatte, a North Carolina-based literacy consultant who designed Anne Arundel's reading program. "A major goal is to analyze text as we read it, to read between the lines.

"Some students ... when they get to the end of the page, they don't understand what they've read. Reading is much more than calling a word. Reading is constructing meaning."

That starts, she said, at the beginning of each class, when the teacher reads aloud for up to 10 minutes and then leads pupils in a discussion. Prevatte said that creates excitement about reading and "invites children to the table."

"To become a good reader, you have to want to become a good reader," she said. "Even some gifted students by middle school have fallen out of love with reading." We don't want aliteracy - children who can read but have no desire to."

Last Friday, the pupils in Maddox's class dived into their books while she called them up individually to go over their work. She gently reminded them to use their bookmarks and helped them work through difficult passages.

Maddox said her pupils have responded well to the extra class time - and she has, too.

"I really like it because I get to know the child better," she said. "Already I know their reading habits."

Between the 30 minutes of teacher-selected reading and the 25 minutes of self-selected reading every day, pupils spend almost an hour of class time each day reading to themselves.

Maddox said some of that time includes group reading or discussion. But some parents question why so much of the day is devoted to something that can be done at home.

"For our daughter, that's really a waste of good class time," said Steven E. Thompson, whose daughter Anne attends Meade Middle School. "She's a voracious reader at home. The limited amount of time you have in class could be better spent, rather than repeating something a lot of kids do at home already."

Thompson said he recognizes that some pupils aren't encouraged to read at home, so the in-class time is valuable to them. But to force it on all children is a faulty "one-size-fits-all solution," he said.

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