Teachers back in class, as students Seminar aims to help reading instruction of at-risk students


Carroll County students are settling into the slow pace of summer vacation, but some teachers and administrators returned to the classroom this week to learn about techniques for improving reading instruction in early grades.

More than 160 kindergarten and first-grade teachers and administrators participated in the weeklong workshop at Friendship Valley Elementary School.

"What we hope to accomplish is to really encourage all teachers of young children to think about and reflect upon what they are doing as a classroom teacher to create an environment in which children can learn," said Dorothy Mangle, director of elementary schools.

The program is part of a systemwide initiative to prevent at-risk readers from falling behind in critical learning years. The effort got a major boost in January when Carroll schools received a federal $250,000 Advancing Early Literacy grant to identify struggling beginning readers in kindergarten and first grade and provide them with individual tutors.

The workshop, which began Monday, was intended to be "motivational and inspiring," said Mangle. Featured speakers included Sharon Craig, Anna Varakin and Phyllis Sonnenleiter -- school employees who are overseeing implementation of the grant and organizers of the event.

Judie Thelen, president of the Allegany County Board of Education, gave the keynote speech Monday, and praised Carroll's efforts to reach beginning readers.

"Their Integrated Language Arts [reading] specialists have a really wonderful reputation in the state," said Thelen, a past president of the International Reading Association. "If you don't get kids at the first three grades, they're going to be lost forever."

Yesterday's session focused on a reading intervention program, called Interactive Writing, which was used with great success with at-risk readers this year at Friendship Valley, school officials said.

The school applied for a grant to pay a reading tutor to work twice weekly for 20 minutes with a group of five kindergarten students to build alphabet recognition and phonics awareness. With the Interactive Writing technique, the teacher asks the student to write short sentences related to a familiar story or text. The child uses sound-letter associations, alphabet skills and clues from illustrations to compose the sentences.

Anna Varakin, assistant principal at Piney Ridge Elementary, demonstrated how the technique works, using a reading book with an animal theme. With the book open to a picture of a frog, the child is asked to complete the unfinished sentence, "Frogs ."

Varakin explained how the child can use the "picture clue" to come up with the word "swim." From that point, the student counts the four different sounds in the word and then chooses the letters to correspond to the sounds.

"I remember when I first started teaching, we would have children standing up hissing and spitting all morning long," said Varakin, referring to students making "s" and "p" sounds.

"The major change now is that we start with a meaningful text, then we go down to the sentence level and then to the letter level. They know the word first and then they can segment the word into sounds," she said.

In a small discussion group after Varakin's talk, some teachers wondered how they could use the teaching strategy in a class of 30 children.

"You have kids rolling all over the floor, and to get them to hold a book is a big deal," said one kindergarten teacher. "How can I get them to count sounds when they say 1, 3, 5 and 8?"

Another teacher expressed anxiety about becoming comfortable with different teaching techniques.

"Are the administrators going to give us a chance to work through this?" asked Cathy Schwaab, a first-grade teacher at Taneytown Elementary. "I'm excited to try things, but I know there will be times when I fall flat on my face."

Craig, the reading specialist at Friendship Valley, reassured teachers that administrators would give them time to identify the most effective reading instruction strategies.

"There's nothing wrong with feeling your way through it and adapting it to work for you," she said.

Today, on the last day of the workshop, teachers will decide how to use some of the Advancing Early Literacy grant money next year to improve reading instruction, Mangle said. That might mean buying extra print materials or scheduling more teaching workshops, as well as hiring tutors.

"It will be like a living document," Craig said of the use of the grant money. "We intend to see it change over time as our understanding and expertise increase."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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