September 29, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Sally M. Reis thinks she has a key to a problem that has long vexed educators: how best to teach kids, including those from struggling urban districts, to read.
It's not only how children learn to read, it's what they read, the University of Connecticut researcher says in a study being published today. Reis has developed an approach that allows children to read at length from books of their own choosing.
"What we're trying to instill," she said, "is joyful reading."
While that may sound like a common sense approach, many schools - desperate to raise low reading scores - have turned to programs that concentrate on worksheets, drills and remedial lessons, allowing little time to read for pleasure, she said.
In Hartford, for example, Reis' program produced encouraging results four years ago when it was tested in two schools, but the schools later dropped it to allow room in the schedule for the regular, more scripted, citywide reading curriculum.
Reis, an educational psychology professor, does not dispute the value of teaching children the mechanics of reading. But those skills, she said, can be taught through the pleasure of good books.
"Children are not reading enough, and they're reading way too much scripted, whole group lessons," she said. "A lot of students read content that's too easy, and they read materials in which they don't have an interest."
The UConn project, supported by a U.S. Department of Education grant, began in Hartford with some of the state's poorest children and produced avid young readers, Reis writes in the October issue of the journal Educational Leadership.
In that journal, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Va., Reis concluded: "The key to enriching students' reading skills is providing them challenging books they are eager to read."
That would include books such as "Because of Winn-Dixie," selected this week by third-grader Kayla Marineau at Keeney Street School in Manchester, where teachers are in their second year testing Reis' approach.
"I like reading about animals. I just think they're cool to read about," said 8-year-old Kayla, already on Chapter 16 of a book she described as being "about a little girl who finds a stray dog in a grocery store."
Low reading ability remains a major concern in America's schools.
Across the nation, 38 percent of public school fourth-graders scored below the basic level on the latest reading exam by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although Connecticut's figure was lower - 29 percent - state officials are concerned that progress has stalled on that test.
Of particular concern is the fact that low-income and minority children lag much further behind in reading on that test and others, including the annual Connecticut Mastery Test.
In her journal article, Reis, a noted authority on gifted education, cites figures from the 2005 American College Testing program's college admissions exam showing that 79 percent of black students, 67 percent of Latino students and 33 percent of students from families with annual incomes below $30,000 were not prepared for college-level reading.
But Reis' project, using techniques usually reserved for gifted children, resulted in consistent gains in reading fluency and comprehension among low-income and minority children at schools in Connecticut and Florida.
In the program, known as the Schoolwide Enrichment Model in Reading, teachers read aloud to their classes from a wide range of books, pose challenging questions, and encourage children to select books slightly above their reading levels. The teachers then set aside time for independent reading each day and develop weekly activities or projects related to the children's reading interests.
At Manchester's Keeney Street School, teachers say that Reis' alternative approach already has made a difference.
"Our library has more books taken out since this program began than any other school in Manchester," said Claudia Millette, a reading and language arts specialist.
In teacher Michele Frallicciardi's classroom, third-graders sat at desks, leaned against the wall and sprawled on carpets to read this week after selecting from about 400 books. The books are arranged on shelves under categories such as "Fiction Animal," "Fiction Mystery," "Non-fiction Science Animals" and "Biography Sports."
"In general," Frallicciardi said, "the boys seem to go for non-fiction. ... The girls a lot of times go for the series, like `Abby Hayes.'"
Eight-year-old Brenna Crockwell, for example, picked a book from the series "The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes." "It's really cool," Brenna said. "It's about her life - like the last days of fifth grade."
When the approach was pilot-tested four years ago at Batchelder and Kinsella schools in Hartford, it led to higher scores in reading comprehension and oral reading fluency and "significantly higher attitudes toward reading," according to the journal article by Reis and former UConn graduate student Elizabeth A. Fogarty, now a professor at East Carolina University.
At Batchelder, some students at first had difficulty reading by themselves for more than a few minutes at a time but, with practice, soon became able to read at length, teachers said.
"In my room, it got to the point they were reading for a full 30 minutes, and then they would branch off into projects," said teacher Marjorie Rice. "I feel it made them very good thinkers."
John Laverty, the Batchelder principal, said the program provided a balance to Hartford's main reading curriculum. Hartford uses a program known as Success for All, a nationally acclaimed approach that includes carefully scripted lessons, a heavy dose of phonics, intense tutoring and regular testing.
Success for All "really concentrates on the nuts and bolts of teaching reading," Laverty said. But, he added, "One of the things with [the Success for All program] we're concerned about is kids are not actually reading for long periods of time."
Still, the enrichment program developed by Reis was discontinued even though it was popular among teachers and students, Laverty said. Schools had difficulty squeezing the program into the school schedule, he said.
"We made the tough decision [that] we really had to adhere to what the prescribed curriculum was," he said. "More so than anything, it became a time issue."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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