Reading Aids ESL Students

Reading Aids ESL Students

Seventy percent of Guilford students speak English as a Second Language.

Call it a sub, a hoagie, a grinder or whatever, but eating that luncheon delight means supporting a worthy cause.

Guilford Elementary School Principal Deborah Cookus hosts "sub nights" to buy her students books. And if subs don't whet your appetite, she also organizes money-making "spaghetti nights."

In the seven years Cookus has been at Guilford, she has seen the number of students speaking English as a second language rise from about 5 percent to 70 percent. Because of the high diversity, she has saturated the school with reading programs and developed a first grade reading curriculum that prompted the need for new books with graduated reading levels.

"These books allow them to take tiny steps in learning to read," she said. "They also allow them to move along more quickly."

Cookus said the key to the reading program's success is smaller classroom size and a new approach to teaching.

A portion of each of the three first grade classes is sent to the guidance office, computer lab or library every day. Those students spend 30 minutes on reading and writing activities. The others stay behind and work on the same subjects but different activities. Then they trade places for another half an hour. All the teachers coordinate their instruction, but there is no duplication.

Brenda Jochems, the school's guidance counselor and a certified teacher, and an assistant teacher work with students who struggle with the subject. "The role of the guidance counselor is to support the children emotionally and socially, also academically," she said. "I really get to know the students if I read with them daily. I also can identify other needs, dental or mental."

She uses the reading program to teach sharing, taking turns, friendship and similar lessons.

THE FIRST GRADERS read aloud and play games to help them memorize words. "We do a lot of sight word games: Bingo, baseball, Word Around the World," she said. "They love the games. They know the sight words in no time."

She said the students start out reading level one and progress rapidly. "It's unbelievable. Before you know it, they're reading on level 12," she said. "The majority are on grade level (18) by the end of the year."

In the past, the teacher would instruct a small group of children while the other students would work independently, Cookus said. There would be a lot of disruptions with first graders complaining they couldn't find their crayons, glue or cutouts. Now there is no downtime or busy work, she said.

Cookus said the teachers do a "running record," listening to each child read and recording any mistakes. They write symbols similar to shorthand to quickly document the shortcomings. Then they determine the appropriate reading level book for the child. "We also look at the way the children are learning to read," she said. "And we're looking at how to break down words, how to get their mouths ready for pronunciation."

Pandora Zook, a first grade teacher, said she analyzes the mistakes and determines if the student is focusing on letters and sounds, the picture or using another strategy to read. By determining the approach, Zook is able to offer additional strategies to help the student learn better.

"One time I had a little boy who was reading a story about ducks crossing the road," she said. "He kept reading 'dirk,' which told me that he's only using visual information. He's looking at the letters and making the sounds. So I asked him, 'Have you ever heard of a 'dirk?' 'Do you know what a dirk is?' Then I said, "Why don't you look at the picture. Go back and try that word again."

TO PREPARE for the new teaching method, the three first grade and the three reading teachers plus two second grade teachers and the principal took a course, "Observing Young Learners," at George Mason University. They attended classes after school and evenings for two years, finishing last spring. "It was a big investment of our time," Cookus said.

The course provided common ground for the teachers who had varied instructional approaches. "Before, they had to look to the reading teachers to solve the problem, but now they are part of the solution, she said. "It has given teachers an empowerment they didn't have before."

Zook, who has taught at Guilford four years, said the course made a difference. "I have more kids who are reading at a higher level, at least grade level and beyond, than I did my first year before I had any of this training."

Cookus said it is a win-win situation for the students and teachers. "I think the children are doing far better than they would if they didn't have this program," she said.

She said she could not specifically gauge the success, because there is no benchmark. Diversity has grown to about 70 percent today and many of the students transferred to Forest Grove Elementary School two years ago.

More than 40 percent of the 400 students are Hispanic, 14.5 percent Asian, 14.2 percent black and the remainder is white and Middle Eastern, she said.

Some of the students speak and read English fluently. The challenge lies with the rest, she said. She focused on reading, because it is fundamental for the students to succeed in all of their other subjects.

The first grade reading curriculum is geared to address all reading levels. "In this program, every child blossoms," she said. "If they are top readers, they are flying through their levels quickly. No child is left behind in this. Every child has the opportunity to do better."

Cookus also has set up a literacy team composed of herself, the reading teachers and the first grade teachers. When appropriate, the English as a Second Language and special education teachers participate. The team develops a plan of action to help students who need it most.

Guilford also has an hour-long, after-school program called Ready Readers for first and second graders.

Third, fourth and fifth graders go to the computer lab every day to participate in an individualized reading program that matches each child's reading level.

Cookus does not teach the children, even though she took the course. "They do come to me when they graduate from the 'Reading Recovery' program," she said. "I listen to them, and we make a big deal out of it."

Guilford also offers "Reading Recovery," a 30-minute, one-on-one program for students who need extra help.

"We do many things, but the one I'm so proud of is the first grade program," Cookus said. "We believe if you get to the root of the issue early then the children have a chance to be very successful."

She credits her teaching staff with the students' success. "I just came up with the idea," she said. "They make it work."