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Program Creates Stronger Readers

<bt>In the waiting area of the main office at Freedom Hill Elementary School is a plastic basket filled with picture books written by students. Behind the basket is a colorfully decorated sign reading, “Please read these books while you are waiting.”

The sign, written in children’s handwriting and decorated with student drawings, was created during a directed writing exercise, in which a teacher gives students a topic then asks them to write a sentence on that topic. Both the sign and the directed reading exercise are products of a three-year-old reading program which is starting to yield some positive results.

That program, developed by Ohio State University, puts an emphasis on individual instruction and focuses on students in kindergarten through second grade.

Rita Davis, a teacher and the main organizer of the program, said 35 to 40 percent of students in kindergarten through second grade three years ago were considered “at-risk” in their reading abilities.

“We found we had a large number of children, who were not at the expected reading level, moving through the grade levels,” said Georgia McGuire, principal at the Vienna school.

Last year, only 12 to 15 percent of lower-grade students were considered at-risk readers.

“Now we can work even harder on those 12 to 15 percent,” Davis said.

THE READING PROGRAM has two components: literacy collaborative and reading recovery. Literacy collaborative is a set of teaching strategies for regular classroom instruction. A literacy collaborative teacher conducts one-on-one and small group exercises with his or her students. That program is designed to help lower to middle-level readers. Reading recovery is a one-on-one program for the weakest readers. The reading recovery program runs for between 12 and 16 weeks, during which students meet with a teacher individually for 30 minutes every day. Davis expects to run about 20 students through the reading recovery program this school year. By the end of the program, students should be reading at the same level as most of their classmates.

“I was trained in reading recovery last year,” Davis said. “Now I see my kids from last year reading at grade-level.”

Davis brought the reading program to Freedom Hill when she first moved to Fairfax County Public Schools. Before coming to Freedom Hill, Davis had been a teacher in Jackson, Mississippi at one of the first four schools in the country to use the reading program. She pitched the program to McGuire, who agreed to carry the program. Now there are five schools in Fairfax County carrying the reading program: Freedom Hill, Glen Forest, Dogwood, Graham Road and Annandale Terrace Elementary Schools.

Davis said the program focuses on the early grades so young students will develop good reading habits, and will keep those habits throughout their careers as students.

“It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” Davis said. “That works for reading, too.”

IN ADDITION to helping students, the program has made teachers’ jobs easier, as well. McGuire said although the program does require some extra training, teachers tend to appreciate the results.

“If you bring the lower kids up, it changes the whole tone of the classroom,” McGuire said. “It changes the kind of questions a teacher can ask.”

She said the program also helps free up time for the school reading specialist, who helps out in all the grades, kindergarten through sixth. Because the program has raised reading ability among students in the lower grades, the reading specialist does not need to spend as much time with the younger children. Therefore, the specialist is able to spend more time on content issues with the upper grades, McGuire said.

The principal said the program is expensive to implement, requiring significant training for participating teachers. The school is not using extra funds from Fairfax County Public Schools, however.