Computers prompt learning

Breakthrough: A husband-and-wife team has developed a program that makes it easier for children to learn fundamental reading skills.

February 03, 2002|By Susan Ferrechio | Susan Ferrechio,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

UPPER MARLBORO -- In her kindergarten class at Perrywood Elementary in Prince George's County, 5-year-old Azah Morton expertly navigates her mouse across a mouse pad, clicking on a quick succession of images that appear on the computer screen in front of her.

Her choice is based on prompts from the screen and audio messages she hears through a set of tiny headphones. Within minutes, Azah has successfully identified feet, lips and other body parts by clicking on their illustrations.

By connecting words, pictures and sound, Azah achieved a main goal of a program called Breakthrough to Literacy, which aims to teach young children the skills they will need to read at grade level in the first and second grades.

Breakthrough is a for-profit subsidiary of the McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc. The program includes the computer software and teacher training and materials to work with children at different ability levels in small groups. Group activities range from identifying letters of the alphabet to reading short stories. Azah's class and another Perrywood kindergarten group use the program daily for 90 minutes.

The program was created and is operated by the husband-and-wife team of Carolyn Brown and Gerald Zimmermann, both speech experts. Zimmermann says it helps children develop the foundation for reading by making it easier for them to learn how to break words into distinct sounds, as well as learn vocabulary, alphabet and word recognition skills.

"This isn't a quick fix," says Zimmermann, a former speech scientist at the University of Iowa. "It's a partnership schools enter with us, and we work with them over a period of time to get better and better."

Breakthrough to Literacy serves more than 100,000 children in 39 states, according to Zimmermann and Brown, who began selling their program to schools in 1994. Breakthrough previously was part of Tribune Education, which was acquired by McGraw-Hill in 2000.

In Maryland, the program is offered in two public schools in Prince George's County: Perrywood and Glassmanor Elementary.

The program isn't cheap. Perrywood Principal Deborah Stokes paid Breakthrough's $14,000-per-class bill out of her budget this year, but is hoping to win a grant so she can expand the program to two more kindergarten classes next year.

"What I like about it is the computers," Stokes says. "The children really don't have to know how to write" to use Breakthrough.

Company literature cites data from various tests administered at Breakthrough schools in cities such as Grand Rapids, Mich., Fort Worth, Texas, and East Chicago, Ind., to show improvements in reading, writing, listening and other skills among children using the program. Zimmerman says those enrolled in Breakthrough are less likely to be retained or to need remedial literacy help later.

Breakthrough's computer program gives children control over how they learn, he says. Each child works at his or her own pace, guided by audio instructions.

The program exposes them to hundreds of words, another key factor in the development of literacy skills. Zimmermann says that's particularly helpful for children from impoverished homes, who might hear only half as many words as their more affluent peers by the time they begin school.

"Children with backgrounds without lots of language and printed words need the experiences that the computer program gives them that they wouldn't be getting otherwise," he says.

Breakthrough was sparked by a pupil the couple worked with in 1981. The boy, an 8-year-old named Garrett, developed reading problems in second grade. The couple studied him closely and realized that he lacked the ability to break words into distinct sounds, a skill called phonemic awareness.

They developed a computer program that broke words into smaller components and taught Garrett to use a computer, which allowed him to pick up new information at his own pace. Then they watched him learn.

Breakthrough was modeled, in part, on the way Garrett overcame his reading deficit. The program includes intensive training for teachers, followed by regular visits by "literacy coaches."

"We provide teachers a conceptual framework that links oral language and print," Zimmermann says. "And we provide the tools to help [the teacher] teach in the context of that conceptual framework."

Stokes says she believes Breakthrough will be successful at Perrywood, but it's too early to see tangible results. She plans to compare skills assessments performed last month with data collected at the beginning of the year.

Karen Miller, a Perrywood kindergarten teacher who started using the program about two months ago, says she sees children picking up skills that will help them become literate. She works with the children in groups of about six to help them understand words and their meanings, often by reading a short story.

The plot of one story, "Mrs. Wishy-Washy," involves a succession of farm animals jumping in mud, much to the dismay of the farm woman. On a recent day, Miller asked the children to identify the verbs, or "action words," in this sentence: "`Just look at you,' she screamed."

Some of the children readily identified the word screamed, while others seemed lost or pointed to the wrong word. Miller made sure every child caught up, sometimes by taking a pupil's finger and placing it on the word.

"It's a combination of the small groups and the individual computer work that really makes the program work," Miller says.

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