Back to basics

Schools focus on the first of three 'R's

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Teaching students to read was one of the first requirements of a public school. More than three centuries later, new research findings are leading schools to re-examine how they teach the core subject.

The 1996 Colorado Basic Literacy Act forced schools to take a hard look at reading programs. Moffat County's response was to hire a district-wide literacy coordinator to work with teachers on the best methods of teaching reading.

But as data continued to grow on the importance of reading in early childhood, educators reconsidered their attempts to give all schools equal resources.

According to the American Teaching Federation, any child who doesn't learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or in life.

Rather than look at the entire district, Moffat County administrators began focusing on individual schools. The model they began with was tweaked, Assistant Superintendent Joel Sheridan said.

Instead of having one literacy expert to work with all the schools, each elementary school got its own expert in the 2003-04 school year.

At East Elementary School, the literacy coordinator works in individual classrooms each morning, assisting teachers with reading and writing lessons and modeling teaching methods. In the afternoon, the coordinator works with students who need additional attention.

"That way kids get a double dose of reading," Principal Diana Cook said.

Sunset and Ridgeview Elementary schools follow a similar model.

Elementary students spend a good part of their days reading. They participate in 40-minute literacy blocks each day. Students who need extra help spend another 30 minutes, four days a week.

"There's a lot of reading time," Cook said. "We have our literacy blocks plus our classroom time."

Too little time

The Colorado Basic Literacy Act mandates that all students read at the third-grade level before they can be promoted to the fourth grade.

Reading is a critical skill and it falls upon elementary schools to teach it, Cook said. But, state and federal regulations are changing to require students to know more at younger ages. Third-grade and fifth-grade students are tested for reading, writing and math proficiency. Next year, fifth-graders will be tested for the first time on their science knowledge.

That adds to the burden placed on elementary schools, Cook said.

The solution, she said, is an integrated curriculum. When developing a science curriculum, experts no longer solely consider what students need to know about science. They consider how to integrate math and reading into that curriculum.

Reading material offered to students is rarely fanciful. It is carefully created so that it includes social studies lesson, for example, but does so in a way that it holds a child's interest.

"When they're reading, they're practicing history," Cook said.

Two hands are better

What literacy coordinators can't do, literacy paraprofessionals do. Paraprofessionals, the new term for what used to be teacher's aides, fill in by working one-on-one with students, help teachers in the classroom and work with groups of students in literacy blocks.

In fact, everyone helps during literacy blocks. School secretaries, physical education teachers and volunteers often work with students during literacy blocks, bringing the student-to-teacher ratio down to about 7-1, Cook said.

"This way they get what they need in small groups," she said.

Research indicates that larger groups don't absorb as much, Cook said.

At the fifth- and sixth-grade levels, it was determined that the student-to-teacher ratio isn't as important as the time a student spent reading. Students went from 44-minute to 84-minute literacy blocks.

Between fifth and eighth grades, students shift from learning to read to reading to learn, Sheridan said.

The school district begins the shift at seventh grade. By then, students are expected to have mastered extrapolating words. They also are expected to be ready to extrapolate concepts.

"There's a different set of skills there," Sheridan said.

Measuring success

In the past five years, the school district has charted a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in the number of students who score proficient or advanced in reading in state tests, Sheridan said.

"What we have done has made us get better," he said. "Those numbers are highly significant."

Now the focus is shifting to the 25 percent to 30 percent of students who still aren't making the grade. Some of those are special education students who have other needs the district is attempting to address in other ways. School officials are targeting the remaining 8 percent to 10 percent who aren't responding to programs.

"We need to find the right interventions," Sheridan said.

Basic interventions, which include additional one-on-one learning time, are having positive results, Sheridan said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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