A classroom visit reveals the miracles of the mind; Reading: Look into an elementary school and discover how tough it is to be a first-grader.


I TRY TO FOLLOW THEIR thinking as they learn to read, and it never fails to surprise.

For example, Jeanne Osborne, a reading specialist at Solley Elementary in Glen Burnie, passes out paper and crayons to her group, a six-pack of first-graders. "I'm going to stretch a few words out," says the veteran teacher, "and as I say each one, I want you to draw a picture of it."

Then Osborne phonetically pronounces four words, leaving time after each for the young Rembrandts to draw. She "stretches" each word -- milk, honey, egg and butter -- for a few seconds, so that only a person familiar with phonics would recognize it: "mmmm... iilll... k."

I watch as the children think for a moment and then go to work. In their minds, they have to collapse the sounds into words, form a picture of what the words represent, decide how to draw the pictures and, finally, execute the drawings. No easy task at any age.

How do you draw an egg? Five of these kids draw an oval. The sixth produces an irregular circle with a perfect circle in the middle, an egg sunny side up viewed from above. Miraculous, the human mind.

We're in an intervention class at Solley designed to jump-start children who have fallen behind in reading. While Osborne works with these six, speech pathologist Shirley Brewer is next door helping other children with "phonemic awareness" -- the knowledge of the sounds of the language that experts say must precede knowledge of the shapes of the language -- the letters.

Osborne and Brewer work together, Brewer beginning with groups of three that she passes to Osborne. Both teachers keep a "running record" as the children pick up the specific skills they somehow missed in kindergarten. A third teacher helps the same children with their writing.

These aren't children with learning disabilities, not Solley's poorest readers, Brewer explains. They're kids who, with an extra hour of instruction on top of the two hours they get each morning with their regular teacher, can be expected to be reading at grade level by the end of this year. A few are ready now to return to the mainstream, Brewer says.

This is something new in public schools, this intervention with the almost-theres, kids who only two years ago would have languished in regular classrooms because they didn't qualify for special education.

Anne Arundel and other districts have acted on a conflicting pair of statistics: While 5 percent to 10 percent of children have serious reading problems requiring special education, 38 percent of fourth-graders read below the "basic" level, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

"I've taught at all levels," says Osborne, who helps instruct other Arundel teachers to teach reading in her role as a specialist. "I've seen so many kids in middle school who aren't able to read. It breaks your heart."

I'm at Solley because Brewer called me last week after my column deploring the loss of nursery rhymes and their value as a tool for reading readiness. "You were absolutely right," she says. "For some reason, these kids don't hear nursery rhymes at home, which is really a shame. The kids love them, and you can do so many things with them."

Rhyming is the bedrock of phonemic awareness because it introduces children to the rhythm of the language and helps them realize that different words sound alike. When they leave Brewer's table and move next door to Osborne's, they begin to see how words that sound alike look alike.

The homework assignment -- yes, homework in the first grade -- is to draw a picture of the nonsense sentence, "Ted fed Ned a red sled in bed."

I think I'll go back and look at the results.

Tests show gender gap in reading continues

Girls are better readers than boys, according to the NAEP. In the latest test in 1998, fourth-grade girls were moderately ahead of boys. Eighth-grade girls were significantly higher, as were 12th-grade girls.

The fourth-grade gap was even wider in the previous assessment in 1994, but girls' scores over the four years did not change. Boys improved in that time, though NAEP officials said the gap remained significant.

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