Building better readers

Program: Struggling pupils learn the basics of English one sound at a time.

October 22, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Teachers at Howard County's Mayfield Woods Middle School are trying to rewire the brains of 60 of their pupils.

Breaking down reading to letters and sounds, the selected sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at this Elkridge school will be spending more than 70 hours during this school year on auditory training to distinguish between such commonly confused sounds as the long a and short a and f and th.

It's a very basic skill that children typically learn by the time they leave kindergarten, according to recent research from the National Institutes of Health.

But a lack of that knowledge is one of the main reasons for a startlingly high percentage of middle school pupils who still struggle with reading basic passages and for stagnant scores on state and national reading tests among middle school pupils throughout the Baltimore area and across the nation.

The new program - designed by a Canadian teacher based on years of teaching hearing-impaired people how to read - focuses on the step before phonics, having teachers concentrate on what's known as "phonemic awareness."

In the "SpellRead Phonological Auditory Training" program, pupils drill on distinguishing the 44 different sounds that make up the English language, essentially trying to rewire their brains to focus on breaking up words into their basic components.

"Some kids need this extra drilling in recognizing the sounds, because that's the step that's keeping them from being good readers," says Meredith Schwartz, the reading specialist at Mayfield Woods.

Working in groups of no more than five, they concentrate on flash cards, sound exercises and reading aloud to build their ability to pick up how such letters as p and b sound differently. Many lessons focus on little more than made-up words and artificial spellings.

"Pab. Gat. Mag," Laurie Shillingburg says to her three pupils, who point to the correct vowel with their fingers and then repeat it aloud.

Mayfield Woods is one of just three middle schools in the United States using the program. The others are Wilde Lake Middle School and Chapelgate Christian Academy, a public school and a private school that are both in Howard County.

But if the program's early success continues, it could spread to many other middle schools, at which it is common these days to find a wide range of programs aimed at putting a greater emphasis on reading in general and in particular trying to rapidly remediate lagging students' basic reading problems.

In Anne Arundel County, a group of parents and the school system have been in conflict this fall over educators' desires to expand the time spent on language arts so much that it would cut into art, music and physical education. The parents recently won an appeal to the state school board contending that the county's plans violate state regulations, forcing Anne Arundel officials to make some changes in their plans by second semester.

Even so, there is apparently little debate that a relatively large number of middle school pupils need basic reading instruction, even though until recent years that was not widely acknowledged.

By the middle school grades, "you have an assumption that reading instruction has been done," says Steve Kennedy, principal of Chapelgate. "You don't at the sixth-grade level think you need to teach children to read, so it's not part of the standard language arts program.

"This program is a chance to make up the difference," Kennedy says.

The poor reading performance of Maryland middle school pupils has been a concern for state educators for the past few years, becoming more urgent as test scores have remained stagnant.

On the most recent set of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams, only 26.8 percent of eighth-graders scored satisfactory in reading. Though that percentage improved slightly from the previous year, it's lower than pupils' scores in 1995.

And nationally, reading test scores for middle school pupils aren't any better.

"It really is a difficult issue," says Chris Paulis, who oversees language arts instruction in Howard County. "There are kids who truly can be helped by this kind of instruction, and we really didn't have it.

"The assumption was that beginning at age 9, if they haven't learned to distinguish the sounds, then basically they've been written off as readers, and the focus has been on compensating for their lack of reading," Paulis says. "With this, we've been able to start to change that."

Many recent efforts have focused on children who have basic reading skills, but aren't able to make the transition from simple, elementary school stories to more complicated social studies and science textbooks.

But a substantial percentage of these pupils simply haven't learned to break up words into chunks to sound them out - a process known as decoding, say reading experts. Unable to distinguish between sounds such as "f's" and "ph's," they struggle to read passages with unfamiliar words.

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