Helping pupils Soar to Success

The Education Beat

Instruction: Twenty Maryland school systems are using an intervention program with a careful design and specific schedule.

November 25, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - CANDIS Earp is beginning to get the hang of it.

She's sitting at a table with five other Wicomico Middle School sixth-graders, and they're discussing Wilma Unlimited, Kathleen Krull's biography of Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph.

It's the first of a few days Candis and her classmates will spend reading and discussing the book, and reading specialist Jane A. Long is asking the pupils to look at the cover drawing of Rudolph in full stride, then predict what will happen.

"I think it'll be about a racer," says Candis. The teacher smiles. "Predictions give us a reason to read," she says. Predicting, summarizing, questioning - they're part of a carefully designed and tightly scheduled reading intervention program in Wicomico and 19 other Maryland districts. It's called Soar to Success.

Candis doesn't know and doesn't care that Wilma Unlimited is written at about a fourth-grade reading level. Nor does she know that this is the eighth of 18 books of steadily increasing difficulty she and her classmates will read this semester. They started with a picture book in September and will finish early next year with Windcatcher, by Avi, a 124-page action-packed children's novel.

By then, Wicomico educators predict with confidence, Candis and her classmates will be at or close to grade level in reading.

Soar to Success, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., is one of several commercial programs aimed at upper elementary and middle school pupils who miss reading by 9 and reach puberty two or more grades behind. There's an urgent need to intervene with these kids, and the remarkable thing about all of the programs is that they virtually guarantee success.

Perhaps because they know much of the blame is theirs, educators speak euphemistically about these lost kids. They're called "reluctant" or "transitional" readers. Some have never read a book.

It's not that these children aren't noticed along the way. They're just poorly served. Andrea C. Zamora, a reading specialist in Anne Arundel County, where Soar to Success is used in all but two middle schools, says many poor readers "are tracked for years as remedial students, but they get put in programs that use contrived text that turns them completely off."

When they get to middle school, these kids have lost all the wonder that should be associated with reading. "They think of reading, and they think of the drudgery of academic text," says Debi Sulzer, director of professional development for Scholastic Inc., which publishes Read 180, an intervention program that employs computer software, audio books and paperbacks in 90-minute reading sessions. "At that age, kids no longer want to read about bears, balloons and boats."

The problem is compounded in middle school, Sulzer says, because many teachers at that level don't know how to teach reading. (Maryland now requires all secondary teachers to take two reading courses.) That's one reason the commercial programs tend to be scripted: If need be, a teacher certified in social studies can handle them.

"Until now," says Lee Powell, Wicomico's supervisor of reading, "elementary and secondary reading were two different worlds. Learning to read was considered our job, while reading to learn was considered their [pupils'] job."

The commercial programs directed at poorly reading adolescents have a few things in common. They're "leveled" - that is, they move pupils through books of increasing difficulty. But they employ "authentic" books, fiction and nonfiction, designed to turn kids on. They encourage out-of-class reading. The kids in Soar to Success spend the first five minutes of the daily 40-minute session discussing with each other the books they're reading on their own.

All of the programs stress phonics. "These kids can't decode," says Sulzer of Scholastic, "because they have only so much working memory. As it's taken up with decoding, they're not thinking about what they're reading. These kids don't make movies in their minds."

But gone, by and large, are the old phonics drills. These poorly reading adolescents have had enough of drills, which haven't worked. Pupils are taught in Soar to Success to stop at an unfamiliar word, look for the largest "chunks" they know (such as syllables or prefixes), try to sound out the word and reread the sentence to see if it makes sense.

Not surprisingly, the most phonics-oriented and heavily scripted of these programs, Corrective Reading, comes from SRA/McGraw Hill, the same folks who publish the Direct Instruction curriculum used in 16 Baltimore elementary schools. Corrective Reading doesn't shun drill. Its supporters maintain that once kids realize the joy of reading, they'll understand why they needed the drill in the first place.

Corrective Reading's advice to a teacher who's reluctant to subject 13-year-olds to phonics instruction for fear of publicly embarrassing pupils: Close the door.

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