What is first grade? 'I will learn to read' Mystery: Six-year-olds aren't sure exactly what reading is or how they will learn it. Unaware of the scope of the undertaking, they plunge into the task with confidence and enthusiasm.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They must stand on their tiptoes to peer through the windows in the door to Room 8. They sometimes have to use both hands to turn its doorknob. But for 21 first-graders at Reisterstown's Cedarmere Elementary School, this is where it begins.

Sure, for years at home, many of them have been listening to stories and noodling around with letters. In kindergarten last school year, they were supposed to master the alphabet and start putting letters together to form words.

But this year -- first grade -- they will formally embark on the long, sometimes tricky path toward cracking the code: figuring out the countless ways in which letters become words and words gather into sentences. And by next spring, most will be really reading.

Across Maryland and the nation, this happens every year in thousands and thousands of first-grade classrooms much like Room 8.

It is a well-marked trail, the most important thing first-graders have to do. So much of their lives -- academic and otherwise -- depends on whether they learn how to read properly. But in many ways, it remains a mystery.

The children of Room 8 are typical first-graders, black and white, rich and poor, more or less on track. And for most of them at the start of this school year, cracking the code looks like a snap. Few have any notion of the size of the mountain they will climb for years.

Reading?

Sit in rows on the blue carpet to hear the difference between "made" and "mad."

Just before lunch, grab a stuffed animal and sprawl on the purple carpet to listen to a story.

Look at the letters and sounds posted in a row over the chalkboard. There's a "writing center" -- a corner filled with paper, notebooks, pencil sharpeners and stickers -- for just that.

And after 180 days of class this school year, those books on those shelves over there are going to make a lot more sense.

Today, however, when Tyler Brown and her classmates grab a book, they're more likely to be looking at the pictures than reading the words.

Paging through "Arthur Meets the President" one morning in September, 6-year-old Tyler sits on a tiny blue plastic chair and tells the story to herself and anyone within earshot -- not from its words but by piecing together the plot from its colorful pictures.

She's able to recognize only a few words -- "and," "is," "he."

"Reading is looking at the words," Tyler says.

Articulate and a tad mischievous, Tyler's eager to answer questions and confident in her answers. But when she stumbles over a word or realizes she's wrong, she'll lapse into an embarrassed silence -- occasionally sticking her right thumb into her mouth.

Tyler entered Room 8 in August as an "emergent" reader. That bit of jargon means the pigtailed girl with eyeglasses is supposedly able to recognize letters and sounds and read some basic two- and three-letter words.

It also means that Tyler -- like just about all of the other students in Room 8 -- is more or less at the level of the average Baltimore County and Maryland first-grader. Most struggle to read longer, unfamiliar words. Few have learned how to properly write letters, frequently making their sentences more akin to hieroglyphics than English.

A room of differences

Yet, as much as they are alike in these respects, each of the 21 children in Room 8 is different.

There's Austin Sauter, a 6-year-old with sandy-brown hair who frequently gets so focused on every detail of his work -- writing in his journal or coloring a pumpkin -- that he shuts out the rest of the classroom.

Though he loves to write, Austin struggles to do it neatly and even more to spell correctly. He unfailingly leaves a trail of crayons, homework papers and pencils around his desk, despite reminders at least three times a day to pick up after himself.

Austin frequently picks out books about real things -- astronauts, oceans -- rather than whimsical tales because "I like to learn things."

For Austin, reading is simple: "When you open a book, you see words and you read them," he says.

How does he read them?

"Uh," he pauses and reflects, "Mommy and my teacher read them to me."

Sitting nearby is Danielle Bixler, who wears a different ribbon in her hair every day to match her dress. Every chance she gets, Danielle heads over to the writing center, covering papers with ,, stickers and turning them into notes to her parents.

During recess, she's a blur of energy on the playground, usually the ringleader of a breathless game of tag.

For Danielle, reading often seems to come fairly easily. She knows her letters and doesn't hesitate to sound out written words that are unfamiliar -- though she still struggles to spell.

But Danielle's disarming fluency comes from hours of hard work last summer with her mother, a reading tutor at Cedarmere. Danielle doesn't turn 6 until next month, and her mother feared she couldn't compete as one of the youngest first-graders.

"It's never easy working with your own child, and Danielle can be pretty stubborn," says her mother, Stephanie Bixler, who has been through this with two older sons. "But I think that the work is going to pay off."

Propelled ahead

None of the children in Room 8 knows quite what it means to read.

Even Danielle, further along than many, says reading just boils down to "looking at the pictures."

But they like having books read to them, whether it's by their parents or their teachers. They enjoy writing short sentences, even if -- following instructions -- they "guess and go" on longer words by writing the first sound and then a line to represent the rest of the letters.

After they read a story with such simple sentences as "I am Dad" and "I am sad," they're very pleased with themselves.

They are propelled ahead as if riding a tide. For as long as they can recall, adults have said they will learn to read. And they march into Room 8 every day with that as a given.

"I will learn to read this year," Tyler declares when asked what first grade means.

Their journey begins at what can only be called the beginning -- the "short a" sound.

As with just about every important lesson in Room 8, they sit on the blue carpet in three straight, orderly rows named for ice cream flavors -- strawberry, vanilla and chocolate.

"Who can think of words that begin with 'ah'?" asks Sheri Blum, their teacher.

"Art," answers Wesley Parker, the smallest child in the class, who lights up Room 8 with his big smile and quick laugh. Reading is hard for him; he often relies on pictures instead of the words.

But at home at night, he loves listening to his mother read books about animals and he plans to write one, too, someday.

"Very good," says Blum, in her 26th year of guiding children into the code. "What else?"

"As," says Danielle.

At this point in the school year, the children of Room 8 look on Blum as a mom -- though she may command more respect at times than many parents. Nothing encourages Room 8's children to improve their behavior like Blum's quiet threat of putting their initials on the board -- the first step toward being forced to sit on the bench during recess.

Blum writes "as" on the blackboard, saying: "Class, let's all read 'as'."

Most struggle to pronounce the word, saying something more similar to "asss." For children used to reading words by simply stringing together letter sounds, it's a common mistake.

"No, to say 'as' you have to make the sounds more like a 'z' than an 's'," Blum corrects. "We'll have to put 'as' up in our box with misbehaving words.

"That's what is called a 'sight word,' and you're just going to have to learn it. You can't sound it out."

This is simple, boring and challenging all at once, the stuff of myriad doctoral dissertations, endless debates and a huge, diverse industry in this country. Ever enthusiastic, Blum never lets on to any of that.

And for the children of Room 8, at least for now, every variation of the "short a" sound is a new and exciting secret.

"It looks easy," Danielle says with typical confidence one morning after reading the sentence "I am sad." "I know the letters. I know how to read."

It will be weeks, even months, before that is true. But it is likely to happen: At the end of the last school year, 86 percent of Cedarmere's first-graders were reading on grade level.

The relatively high percentage reflects recent improvements in test scores throughout Baltimore County's 101 elementary schools, just as Cedarmere's student body reflects the overall school system. About 32 percent of the school's pupils are black, and slightly less than a third come from low-income families.

Two reading groups

To teach to the different abilities within Room 8, Blum within the first four weeks of classes divides the 21 children into two reading groups, something done in virtually every first-grade classroom.

As the school year wears on, and the children spread out on the path to cracking the code, that may expand to three groups.

Austin, Danielle and Tyler find themselves in a group with seven others making "apple sandwiches." They create such "short a" words as "mad" and "man."

Sitting in two rows on the blue carpet, with Blum in front perched on one of their too-small chairs, they read a small book called "I am Dad."

"I am Dad," Wesley reads, intently peering at the pages of the book.

"I am sad," Danielle reads.

"I am mad," Austin says, looking not at the book but directly at Blum -- a sign he already knows the book so well after a couple of times through that he has much of it memorized.

"You were looking at me, not at the words," Blum says. "That tells me you were talking and not reading."

As the reading group reviews three-letter words with the "short a" sound one morning, two children appear to struggle more than most -- Austin and Tyler.

Like all of the others, they're eager to get picked to answer questions and earn approval from Blum. But when the word is "fat," Tyler pronounces it as "bat." And when the word is "rat," Austin is simply stuck, unsure what the beginning sound should be.

For just a moment, resigned looks come over both of them. Most of the other children in their reading group thrust their hands up, bursting with the right answers.

Austin and Tyler are left frustrated, with nowhere to turn.

Embarrassed smiles come across their faces. Very quietly, Austin says, "I don't know."

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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