Reading instruction multi-leveled

Phonics not forgotten in Steamboat schools

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— The surprisingly complex, modern theories behind teaching children to read are creating confusion between parents and elementary school teachers.

Teaching a child to read is a challenging undertaking in and of itself; although keeping up with the latest research, child psychology, software and multi-media tools can complicate the task, local elementary school teachers have not been swayed from sticking to the basics.

"It all comes back to balance," first-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Celia Dunham said. "It's a big mistake we make in America, flying way out on some limb, only to realize later, once again, that we need to keep our focus on the basics when it comes to learning to read."

Specifically, Dunham is referring to new approaches to teaching that, for example, eliminate phonics from the learning method.

"But you can't teach reading without phonics," Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal John DeVincentis said. "It's an impossibility."

Some parents of kindergarten students at Strawberry Park who prefered to remain anonymous are concerned that their children are not getting the phonics base that DeVincentis agreed is so crucial to the reading process. A few have even purchased phonics books to supplement the reading instruction their children receive at school.

"I'm not sure where their concerns are coming from," DeVincentis said. "Phonics is a huge part of our reading program here."

Part of the confusion may have come from just one aspect of a multi-fold reading program at the elementary school. Although phonics is indeed heavily emphasized in local classrooms, despite the fact

that many Colorado schools are omitting phonics from reading curricula, there also is a large group of words referred to as "sight words," which local students learn to recognize by sight . The reason for the list of sight words is that many of the fundamental words necessary to a good reading base cannot be pronounced phonetically. The list includes words like "of," "that," "is," "was," "his" and "they."

Teaching beginning readers to recognize the list of sight words is only part of the literature-based reading program, and it's an important part, the first-grade teachers agreed.

"Even as an adult reader you use sight words along with context, memorization and sounding things out," Dunham pointed out.

Dunham and fellow Strawberry Park first-grade teachers Jan Acker and Lora McGinn explained that the "balance" needed in American literacy programs includes, for Steamboat students, four "blocks": guided reading, word study, phonics and reading response.

"You need all of them," Dunham said.

Another source of confusion regarding the elimination of phonics from the curriculum could be due to the "whole language" movement that swept through school districts nationwide some six to seven years ago, DeVincentis and the first-grade teachers agreed.

"Whole language" is a reading curriculum that emphasizes not only sounding out letters and words, but using text and reader response to aid the learning process.

"There was a huge, widespread misunderstanding that this method wasn't supposed to include phonics," DeVincentis said. "The philosophy is just not to use phonics in isolation."

Local first-grade and kindergarten teachers at both Soda Creek and Strawberry Park Elementary agree that none of the teaching methods can be successfully used in isolation. That is precisely why learning to read can be such a difficult process it requires integrating several different ways of learning.

Judging by the reading level of Steamboat's newest readers, the literature-based program that Strawberry Park uses is by no means an unbalanced one.

Each fall and spring the kindergarten students are tested for conformance with reading standards for their age group. By the end of their kindergarten year, each student is expected to be able to, at the very least, recognize all letters, upper and lower case, and to make the sounds of each letter.

Last year's kindergartners started the year knowing an average of 17 of the 26 letters. By the end of the year, all students could not only recognize and sound out the entire alphabet, but could rhyme, identify and call-up the "sight words as well as write. In the fall, the youngsters could write an average of three words each. By spring, the class average was up to 19.

Last year's third-graders scored an 87 percent proficiency on the reading section of the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests. The CSAP goal had been 80 percent.

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