Jesse Ward, a first-grader at Edgewater Elementary in Anne Arundel County, squints his eyes shut and runs his hands over the red plastic letters. "F," he says, guessing correctly at the first one, and looks up eagerly at Sharon H. Solberg, his reading tutor, for reassurance.
His word for the day is "for" and gaining a tactile sense of its letters is part of the lesson at the school's Reading Connection program developed by Edgewater's reading resource teacher, Elaine B. Zimmerman, four years ago.
Reading Connection focuses on first- and second-graders who are falling behind in reading by providing them with volunteer tutors for twice-a-week, half-hour sessions of reading and writing exercises.
Jesse has breezed through two short books from previous sessions as a warm-up. He spells out "for" with chalk, magnetic letters and a pencil before he is ready to compose a sentence using the word in his journal and read a new, basic-level book.
When Jesse runs into a snag on a letter or word, Solberg pulls out her alphabet book. They make the sound of the letter together and flip through the book until the letter on the page matches the sound coming from their mouths.
Zimmerman, who has been teaching for 26 years and is in her fifth year at Edgewater, says one of the program's strengths is in stressing the importance of touching, seeing and hearing words and letters.
A group of kindergarten students files past Jesse into the center of the school's media room, but he is too focused on his book to notice. He and his tutor are taking a "picture walk," discussing the pictures in the book -- which is about animal legs. They read it twice, to ensure that Jesse has mastered his word for the day.
Solberg, who taught elementary school for 17 years before devoting time to raising a family, is entering her fourth year with Edgewater's Reading Connection. She praises Jesse after he has finished the book, offering a pat on his back and a dinosaur sticker to add to his collection.
Solberg says the greatest challenge of this program is helping the children "connect," or make meaning out of symbols and pictures.
"The whole point of any reading program is to give them the tools to read so that they can experience the joy of books and reading," she says.
Measuring Jesse's progress, Solberg observes that "we are beginning to bridge the gap between pictures and words."
Zimmerman encourages the Reading Connection tutors to constantly praise their pupils as they learn, even when they make a mistake. A child may confuse "C" with "K," she says -- but because the two letters sound the same, the child has shown understanding.
The child works out problems with the tutor, and the tutor reinforces the process with clues -- but never an answer. "Tutors always should remind the student of what they already know," Zimmerman says.
She structured this program to focus on first- and second-graders because, she says, "it is important to catch them early." She says she would love to reach older pupils as well, but her program is short on books and volunteer tutors.
Zimmerman says she notices many pupils in today's high-speed electronic world are easily frustrated with the patience required to read.
"If they can't immediately read, or if the book doesn't immediately catch their attention, they don't read," Zimmerman says.
That is why Zimmerman has structured the Reading Connection program to reach the pupils on several layers, including at home, with parents' help, whenever possible.
The program's seven volunteer tutors undergo eight hours of rigorous training in technique and student assessment methods that Zimmerman has compiled from similar reading programs and research in the field.
Zimmerman says the only requirement for volunteer tutors is that they must "love children and be ready for a huge commitment." Retired teachers, parents and senior citizens are among the current group.
Tutor Faye Rosenberg, a retired speech and language therapist, thinks the one-on-one focus greatly aids the transfer of reading skills to pupils. "They hunger for this one-on-one attention," she says, "and they know something exciting is happening to them."
One of the strengths of the program is its structured recordkeeping and monitoring. Each tutor maintains a "Running Record" that keeps track of every sentence of each book the pupils read as they progress through the eight levels of the program.
Virginia G. Thomson, a retired elementary teacher in her second year with Reading Connection, says the logs allow the tutors to spot problems with sounds or letters and to direct the pupils' teachers to these problems.
Zimmerman says she knows the program is working when pupils complete a book and "I can read" is written all over their faces.
To volunteer for the program, contact Elaine Zimmerman at 410-222-1660.