Innovative methods of motivation

Librarians: Staff members at two schools for dyslexic children take extra measures to develop classes full of book lovers.

January 27, 2002|By Joanne C. Broadwater | Joanne C. Broadwater,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For children who struggle with the reading disorder known as dyslexia, a library might seem like an intimidating place.

But at the Jemicy School in Baltimore County, children with dyslexia tumble eagerly into the world of books. Fresh from their classrooms, they hurry into the reading room where librarian John Clayton is waiting to share a story.

They take off their shoes and nestle in oversized pillows beneath a picture window that frames a view of the school's scenic campus in Owings Mills. A few wriggling children stretch out on cushions in the window seat and listen intently to Clayton's animated reading of Berlioz The Bear by Jan Brett.

"I want them to feel comfortable with the library," said Clayton, who is in his fifth year as the school's librarian. "I want to make it look like it's their place."

`So much energy'

His mission is to get the children hooked on reading. It's a challenge faced by every librarian, but it's an especially tough one at Jemicy and other schools for dyslexic children.

"Reading takes so much energy for children with dyslexia," said Nina Harkness, librarian at the Odyssey School in Roland Park, which also serves children with dyslexia. "They have to struggle to remember each word."

Once the children overcome their frustrations and experience success, they can learn to enjoy reading, Clayton and Harkness agree. In the meantime, the librarians use strategies they hope will inspire their charges and transform reluctant readers into book lovers.

For Clayton, that means creating a welcoming library space that catches the eye and appeals to kids.

He strives for a "bookstore look," displaying books on cardboard stands donated by businesses. He has filled the library with the youngsters' artwork and made a coveted reading nook by putting a mattress and a quilt in an old-fashioned bathtub.

Stuffed animals and toys such as sharks and dinosaurs guide the children to subject areas. A section of books is arranged by difficulty level to help children choose what to read.

And when Clayton reads to them, his storytelling comes to life with the voices he creates for the characters. He has been known to dress up as a witch for the sake of a story.

Discussing books, authors

Gathering the children around him, he helps them understand how books are made. They discuss design and artwork, and Clayton talks about writing and publishing his own children's book, Alexander Fox and the Amazing Mind Reader.

The children learn about a different author each month, discussing his or her books and looking at Web sites with biographies. They create artwork related to the stories - covering paper villages with spaghetti noodles, inspired by Tomie dePaola's Strega Nona, for example, or making colorful mittens out of paper after reading The Mitten, a folktale retold by Jan Brett.

Once they are familiar with an author, they seem to look forward to reading more of his or her work, Clayton said.

Children have preferences in books and it is important to respect them, he said. Each year they vote on the Jemicy Book Award recipient.

Popular movies such as Titanic can spark interest in related topics, he said. And books that have been adapted as films, such as Romeo and Juliet, can be a great incentive. After reading the Harry Potter books, Jemicy students took a field trip to see the movie.

"If they know they're going to get to see the movie after we read the book, it really seems to inspire them," he said. "When they know they have an actual goal, they're eager to learn."

Incentive program

At Odyssey, a reading incentive program offers a tantalizing reward for pupils at the end of the school year: Those who earn play money by reading for pleasure will use their earnings to bid on and buy such items as donated bicycles, games, sweatshirts and video games at an all-day auction.

The program, which started in the fall, awards one dollar in play money for every 50 pages read. When they can, the children read on their own, and their parents and teachers can read to them or they can listen to a book on tape.

"It really gives them motivation," said Harkness, who also tutors at Odyssey.

To further encourage reading, every student in the school spends 15 minutes on leisure reading at 8:30 every morning. The older pupils read to the younger pupils, and sometimes the younger pupils read to the older pupils, Harkness said.

Dramatic readings

She believes her enthusiasm in telling stories plays an important role in awakening a desire to read. And the children have grown to expect her to be dramatic, she said.

"I have a good time reading to them, and it makes the book so much more fun," she said. "One day I wasn't feeling well and I was just reading words off of the page, and one of the children said, `You're not doing this right.' They look forward to hearing the words."

When she reads a book with chapters, she always stops at an exciting part so the children will wonder what's going to happen and look forward to visiting the library again. She chooses humorous, scary and mysterious books to share.

Children sometimes have trouble selecting from rows and rows of titles on the library shelves, so she tries to narrow the choices. Students like nothing better than rummaging through a small box of recently donated books that have never been on the shelf, she said.

"Because it's a small selection, it's easier to choose," she said.

Accompanied by a staff member dressed as Ms. Frizzle, a character in The Magic School Bus books, Harkness sometimes will fill her arms with 20 or so books and take the library to the classrooms. All the books have great covers, of course.

"They do judge a book by its cover," Harkness said.

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