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In new chapter, pupils face tough challenges; Reading: Midway through second grade, children tackle spelling tests, cursive writing and other steps on the way to literacy.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They don't go into Room 8 much anymore.

Once in a while, a few stick their heads in for quick hellos and hugs. But for most, Room 8 -- and first grade -- are memories of long ago.

Those were the days of learning how to tell "b's" from "d's" and "p's" from "q's" -- of learning how to join letters to make words and words to make sentences.

First grade was the year to begin cracking the code, to begin learning how to read.

Last year's children of Room 8 at Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown are now second-graders. After a year of struggles and successes -- documented from time to time in The Sun -- they're midway through the next stage of their journey across the threshold of literacy.

Chapter books. Compound words. Stories without pictures. Plays. Even cursive writing.

The 7- and 8-year-olds have moved up a step on the elementary-school ladder, and they're scattered among a new batch of classrooms. Room 2. Room 4. Room 6.

And in second grade, everything -- and everyone -- is bigger, including the challenges.

"I have a big word I know now," says Wesley Parker, who still has his infectious smile and never-ending laugh. "Champion. My mom had a cracker box, and I read the word 'champion' on it. I didn't know that word last year."

In first grade, Wesley was the smallest boy in Room 8. This year, in Room 2, he's not the smallest -- not because he's so much taller but because one of his new classmates is a tad smaller.

This year, Wesley's tastes in books are changing. Last year, animal books were in. Now, they're replaced by books about kids. The subject of Wesley's future first book? Not a big dog anymore, but Pokemon.

"I don't like books with pictures anymore, and I don't like books with staples," Wesley says. "I like chapter books, books with real bindings."

What about the Arthur and Clifford books, the favorites of Room 8? "Those are first-grade books," Wesley says, dismissing them with a wave. "Every time I go to the library, I always get a 'Goosebumps' book."

When the children of Room 8 began their 180-day journey through first grade, Wesley's classmate Tyler Brown had one goal. "I will learn to read," she declared at the outset.

Tyler is as mischievous, articulate and excitable as ever. But, just as her pigtails have been straightened, she's reached a new level. "I read a lot," says Tyler. "That's what we do in second grade."

Assigned to Room 4 with only two of her buddies from first grade, Tyler has more or less mastered many of the basics with which she struggled in first grade. But new this school year is spelling.

Spelling tests

Every Monday brings a fresh set of words. Every Friday brings a test. In between is lots of studying. Join. Foil. Enjoy. Spoil. Royal. Decoy. Memorize which words have "oy" and which words have "oi," even if they sound the same.

"I like the spelling tests," Tyler says, though she admits she's not so fond of the extra homework.

One thing that continued from first grade is working on reading in small groups. More of Room 8's pupils receive the extra tutoring in second grade, and for many the sessions are daily instead of two or three days a week.

That's because Cedarmere merged its four first-grade classes of last year into three second grades, increasing the size of each class by four or five pupils to about 23. So the school has increased the tutoring available to second grade, giving more children extra attention.

As was the case last year, Tyler's tutoring group has three pupils, including Austin Sauter, a classmate from first grade.

Tyler still competes to be first -- first to finish a work sheet, first to blurt out the answer, first in line. So she's disappointed when tutor Ann Pastorello says it's Austin's turn to read first.

" 'I'm having a New Year's party. I think it will be fun,' said Kim," Austin reads without a hesitation.

For Austin, reading that sentence would have been nearly impossible last year. Lots of extra work -- at school and home -- is paying off for a boy with a single-minded focus on getting things right.

The problem during this day's tutoring? Reading so quickly that "a" and "the" sometimes get skipped or mixed up. "Reading is getting easier," Austin says.

Reading reminders

Tutoring often takes place in Cedarmere's hallways. Pastorello works outside the music room, huddling over three desks pulled together. Though this is second grade, basic sounds and letter combinations still get reviewed.

A nearby wall bears a reminder -- "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking. The second goes walking" -- with a list of such vowel pairings as "ai," "ay," "ea" and "ou."

With success, Austin and Tyler are quick to flash smiles, revealing what their teacher calls "the affliction of second grade": missing teeth. This year, no smile is unbroken. The more gaps, the more reason to be proud of growing up.

Growing older has brought another mystery that tantalized the children of Room 8 last year: cursive writing. And it's hard for them. Uppercase and lowercase "j's" are confusing, as is the capital "q."

"I can't write the 'i,' " complains Danielle Bixler, who still wears a perfectly tied ribbon in her hair almost every day. "When I write my name, I forget it sometimes. So I write D-a-n-e-l-l-e."

Danielle jumped to the top of the class in Room 8 last year, and she continues to excel in reading.

She still wants to be a teacher -- excitedly describing the overhead projector she plays with in her basement at home. And in a version of the Judy Blume book "Freckle Juice" that her second-grade class is staging, she has been cast in the role of the teacher.

Danielle's mom still tutors Cedarmere first-graders in reading, and Danielle is among the more frequent visitors who stop by to see her former first-grade teacher Sheri Blum in Room 8. "I loved first grade," Danielle says. "It was fun to learn."

Not getting easier

But this year, Danielle is learning something else about school.

It's still fun, but it's not getting easier. Tougher words. Thicker books. More homework.

"It takes too long to read the second-grade books," Danielle confides. "I like the pictures. That's why I still like my books from first grade."

The Pupils

Wesley Parker

In second grade, he's no longer the smallest child in his class. And he's dropped animal books, which first drove him to read, for books about kids. "I don't like books with pictures anymore, and I don't like books with staples," he says. "I like chapter books, books with real bindings."

Danielle Bixler

Last school year -- thanks to tutoring from her mom -- she jumped to the head of the class, and she's still excelling. But school's getting tougher. "It takes too long to read the second-grade books," she says. "I like the pictures. That why I still like my books from first grade."

Tyler Brown

She's as mischievous, articulate and excitable as ever. With continued tutoring, she's reached a new level with books, having more or less mastered the basics with which she sometimes struggled in first grade. "I read a lot," says Tyler. "That's what we do in second grade."

Austin Sauter

Lots of extra work -- at school and home -- is paying off for a boy with a single-minded focus on getting things right. He still spends time with a tutor on basic sounds. "Reading is getting easier," he says, his smile revealing the affliction of second grade: missing teeth.

About this series

Part of a long-term series of articles on the successes and failures in teaching children to read by third grade, or age 9.

To learn more

For more information about reading issues, go to The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at www.readingby9.com/news/readingby9/

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