Pupils make best friends with words

School lifts test scores through literacy infusion


March 26, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dennis McDonald sits back in his easy chair with a book. Children sit on the floor around him, ready to listen to the story. The cozy scene is reading instruction time in McDonald's third-grade classroom at Running Brook Elementary School, where teaching youths that reading is relaxing is just one part of an award-winning literacy program.

This month, the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council gave the Columbia school its Exemplary Reading Award for the 2002- 2003 school year.

Running Brook's reading specialist, Mary Beth Hasson, said the program has been "an evolving thing for many years now. It has taken quite a few years to get this into place."

FOR THE RECORD - In Wednesday's Howard County edition of The Sun, the first name of Running Brook Elementary School Principal Lisa Booth was incorrect. The Sun regrets the error.

That evolution began several years ago, with low test scores. Principal Marion Miller, who recently left Running Brook to prepare to open Bellows Spring Elementary School in the fall, knew she and the staff had to make changes.

Through a grant, Running Brook received teacher training for more than two years. "It felt like they were getting a second master's," Miller said. Teachers "were getting cutting-edge, state-of-the-art training in instruction."

When they began to implement what they had learned, "we did everything we possibly could manage, all focused on literacy," Miller said.

The result is more than a program -- it is a literacy infusion. Children at Running Brook regularly receive free or low-cost books, test their comprehension skills on a computer, read with high school students and have family reading celebrations.

Keys to success

Variety is one hallmark of Running Brook's reading program. The other is small groups. The school has about 10 instructional support staff members -- aides and teachers. While classroom teachers work with some children, the rest of the class works with a specialist or an assistant.

"That's what we're finding makes the big difference here" in meeting pupils' individual needs, said Linda Booth, who joined the school as principal this month. "The teachers can create a supportive relationship with the students" in small groups.

Third-grader Ryan Stranahan, 8, said small groups are helpful because of the strategies teachers can use. "If there's a word we don't know, Mr. McDonald puts Post-it Notes on the words that we stopped at," he said, adding that this helps his classmates and him go back to clarify unfamiliar words.

McDonald said professional development has taught him a variety of assessments that he uses to "modify instruction."

These assessments go beyond standardized tests. He uses "everyday activities as a form of assessment," such as listening to a child read and noting areas of weakness. That helps McDonald decide what he will teach the next day so that next time the children read, they will make fewer mistakes.

Free books

Because some of the schoolchildren have limited access to books at home, Hasson said, "we have various programs where the children get books. ... It's really nice that they're able to build up their own personal library."

Schoolchildren will receive gift books tomorrow at Running Brooks' annual Reading Fun Night. The event encourages families to participate in literacy activities. "It goes along with our whole in-school commitment to literacy," Hasson said.

But other reading activities are much simpler. Each day, Running Brook youths are given 10 minutes of quiet reading time. Children choose their own material -- sports books, novels, even comics. Their teachers often join in, modeling reading as a leisure activity.

"We get across to kids just how valuable reading is," McDonald said. "The kids really like it because they get to pick which books they want. They like to relax. We want them to see that there's tons of things to read that are fun."

Making progress

Running Brook is seeing results. Although 30 percent of the children receive English for Speakers of Other Languages support, the school was above the Howard County average in reading on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests for third grade.

"If we do have children who are below grade level, they are very targeted with their instruction," Hasson said. "If the children's need is phonics, they get that. If they have more of a problem with comprehension, we have a program for those children.

"Something is always done," she said. "We work and we try various kinds of programs for the child to do the very best for them. This is a school that cares."

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