Learning to read is the first step; reading to learn is the ultimate goal. That's the premise of a state pilot project aimed at training more than 130 secondary school teachers from Carroll, Howard and Frederick counties in effective strategies to help students improve reading comprehension abilities.
Although most pupils learn the mechanics of reading in the early grades, many don't acquire the skills to understand and retain what they read.
"They learn to decode. They learn to turn written symbols into recognizeable words," said Chris Paulis, an instructional facilitator for reading with Howard's schools and project director of the reading-for-content effort. "What they don't learn to do is to process those words and draw meaning from them that they're going to hang onto."
A growing problem
It's a problem that was becoming increasingly apparent to Pat Lawlor, a social studies teacher at North Carroll High School who is participating in the project.
In recent years, Lawlor has noticed that many of her students -- who were categorized as "high ability" -- were struggling to retain the information from reading assignments.
"I'm a content teacher," she said, referring to the fact that she teaches a specific subject. "I know a little bit about reading strategies, but I didn't know enough to help these kids."
Lawlor and the other teachers who signed up for the three-year project -- financed with a federal Goals 2000 education initiative grant of $228,000 -- said they are hoping to learn techniques to help their students become better readers.
Ability to read for content becomes especially critical when pupils leave elementary school and begin to take "subject area" classes, including science, social studies and math.
In addition, Paulis said Maryland's new high school assessment tests will demand a higher level of reading competency.
"By addressing reading, we hope to be addressing learning in all subject areas," Paulis said. "What kids need to be able to do is teach themselves from the text. That's reading."
A three-year effort
The first year of the reading-for-content project is devoted to providing instructors with basic strategies to teach reading comprehension skills. In the second year, teachers will create projects tailored for their classrooms. In the final year, participants will develop presentations geared toward colleagues in their subject areas, Paulis said.
The need for greater attention to reading in post-elementary grades is clearly apparent in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores released last week.
Eighth-grade scores have shown no improvement since MSPAP began reporting school-by-school results six years ago. Statewide, barely a quarter of the eighth-graders are reading at a satisfactory level.
Experts say a factor may be that starting with middle school, the only reading instruction students receive is embedded in the English curriculum. At the same time, students are confronted with more complex reading material in other subjects.
"If you're not teaching it [reading], then why would you expect students to improve?" asked Mark Moody, an assistant superintendent with the State Department of Education.
The focus of the reading-for-content program is to show teachers how to give their pupils simple strategies to increase comprehension. These include vocabulary lessons that relate to the class reading assignments, stressing the practice of re-reading confusing passages and reading aloud.
Recently, Lawlor tried a technique she had learned in a seminar to help her students strengthen their ability to read for content.
The assignment was to read aloud the second inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln and simultaneously "think" aloud, or verbalize, questions relating to the speech.
"They had to share what was going on in their brains when they were reading for understanding," Lawlor said.
After some initial awkwardness, Lawlor said, the students were able to express their thinking processes.
"They'd say, 'Oh, that doesn't make sense,' or 'I'd better go back,' " she said.
"A lot of kids would read right through it out loud, thinking they were understanding," Paulis said. "Kids don't really have this sense of 'Am I getting it or not?' "
At a recent seminar, Gloria Neubert, a professor of secondary education at Towson University, said vocabulary knowledge is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. But she said many teachers don't teach vocabulary or they use outdated, ineffective methods.
Neubert demonstrated a selection of techniques to teach vocabulary, including use of visual aids, relating a word to a student's experience, and asking students to work together to come up with the definition.
Deidre Smith, a science teacher at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, tried some of the strategies to teach students five vocabulary words from a textbook chapter on genetics: allele, dominant, recessive, phenotype and genotype.
To convey the meaning of allele -- one of a group of genes -- Smith used the visual imagery technique. She asked the students to imagine being at a table with two desserts, but told them they could only choose one.
"They loved it," Smith said. "I could see in their eyes that they got it."
Pub Date: 12/13/98