The road to better reading skills


In the fall, the Anne Arundel County school system will roll out a comprehensive strategy to identify and assist struggling readers of all ages.

Administrators, reading teachers and other staff members will use a variety of tools to assess students' reading abilities and to address skills deficiencies.

"We believe this comprehensive approach is going to ... support teachers and support schools in trying to find the right answer for the children in a timely way," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

In Anne Arundel, elementary school children and those in special education have improved reading scores through interventions, he said. But for problems that persist, "we believe the fundamental issue is really a reading issue," particularly among secondary students, Smith said.

About 900 school system employees will explore such issues Tuesday and Wednesday at a leadership conference at Old Mill High School.

Often, children with reading problems end up in special education programs, said Sue Torr, former principal of Solley Elementary School, who was recently named an assistant to the superintendent for reading.

However, the school system's new method asks schools to consider other alternatives.

The framework is meant "to help administrators [and other educators] to work through figuring out what the next step is for kids so they don't just turn and say they're special ed," Torr said.

The school district will establish a three-tier model under the plan. School system officials expect the majority of children to respond to the core reading and language arts programs countywide, such as the phonics-based Open Court reading curriculum. However, about 15 percent could require additional assistance to decode words or comprehend their meaning.

About 5 percent of county students might not respond to that aid, Torr said.

"That doesn't mean they can't learn to read. We just have to find a way to build their skills and accelerate the amount of time they have with reading," she said.

Those "treatment resisters" might need more individualized, intensive support, perhaps using more kinesthetic or auditory methods, Torr said.

The school system also plans to monitor each child's progress to determine whether they are receiving the right interventions and are being taught as intended.

"Every school will look different based on their needs," Torr said.

In the "Sunshine Pod" at Pasadena's Sunset Elementary School, groups of first- and second-graders learned to distinguish sounds they heard through headphones while they worked through computer programs during a recent visit. In another area, children applied their knowledge of sounds by describing the different configuration of the lips and tongue used to form them.

Many pupils identified as needing special education have language disabilities or learning disabilities with reading, said Laurie Ullery, Sunset Elementary School's principal.

"Some kids can't put all the pieces together at the same time," she said.

Smith said the school system worked with national reading experts to pinpoint the best age-appropriate methods and tools to use.

About a third of $1.3 million added to the operating budget for the next fiscal year will be spent on training and materials for those programs. The school system will use the remainder to hire a reading technician for each of 20 schools and an additional reading resource teacher.

The superintendent added that laws such as No Child Left Behind place a legal obligation on the school system to take steps such as these, beyond the district's ethical duty.

"We have a federal and state mandate to see that students that have not have been successful as readers ... that we find a solution for this," Smith said.

Joseph K. Torgesen, a professor of education and psychology at Florida State University and director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, will address educators at the conference.

School districts need to "put a finger in the dike of reading failure" by building strong preventive programs for young children, he said. They should also offer intensive classes to older children who are having trouble reading. But teachers of subjects such as science and social studies can also support reading by coaching students how to think about what they read, he said.

Anne Arundel's approach will help because the school district is applying a variety of responses and degrees of support, Torgesen said.

"When you've got that diversity of instruction to match the diversity of kids, that's when you get progress by everybody."

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