- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

On cue, the 5- and 6-year-olds hold up cutout figures on sticks as they listen to their teacher, Kathy Bates, read Byron Barton’s “The Three Bears.”

They recite certain lines, using deep voices for Papa Bear and high, squeaky voices for Mama Bear. They take a quick singing and dancing break before separating into groups to work on various literacy skills, including reading at their own pace out of blue workbooks and practicing their handwriting skills.

Two hours a day, Mrs. Bates focuses on teaching reading and writing to her all-day kindergartners at McKinley Elementary School in Arlington.

“We read to children. We read with children and we have children read by themselves,” Mrs. Bates says. “All through the day, literacy skills are being used and built.”

Six-year-old Catie Leigh says she already can read “little stories.”

“I like reading and learning about new things. It’s fun,” she says. “It’s fun for me to learn what’s happening around the world.”

From the first day of kindergarten, Mrs. Bates and other metropolitan-area elementary teachers use a balanced literacy approach that combines instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension. The schools, which differ slightly in how they carry out the instruction, dedicate 90 to 120 minutes a day to teaching reading and writing skills.

“Not one approach works for everyone. With a balanced approach, you hit every child’s strength,” says Ann Anderson, curriculum specialist for reading for Alexandria City Public Schools.

In the first half of the 20th century, reading was taught using phonics, which is the relationship between letters, or graphemes, and individual sounds, or phonemes. Educators assumed that children entered kindergarten without any prior knowledge and that the way to teach skills was one step at a time, says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University.

“The assumption was you had to start reading one word at a time, and you would sound out the words as you read them,” says Ms. Baron, who holds a doctorate in linguistics.

In the 1960s, a number of changes occurred in the American education system, including the introduction of the progressive education movement that fostered independent thought in children rather than drilling them by rote.

“Teachers began to realize when children entered kindergarten and first grade, they already have a number of preliteracy skills. They already recognize a number of words,” Ms. Baron says.

Teachers responded by adopting the whole-language approach, which combines phonics and whole-word instruction. Phonics, the relationship between letters and their sounds, encourages children to sound out unfamiliar words as they read. Alternatively, teachers using a whole-word instruction method tell children any unfamiliar words they identify.

“In actual fact, many, if not most, of the whole-language approaches really did whole-word approaches and did nothing with teaching children how to sound out words they didn’t recognize by sight,” Ms. Baron says.

Research shows that 90 percent of students can learn reading from phonics instruction but only 10 percent from whole-word instruction, says Elizabeth Primas, director of literacy of reading and language arts at District of Columbia Public Schools.

“The balanced approach means we break it down for children,” Ms. Primas says, adding that children are allowed to learn at their own pace.

The movement toward the balanced approach began in the mid-1990s, says Barbara Given, director of the Adolescent and Adult Learning Research Center at George Mason University in Fairfax.

“Children need specific intensive instruction, and it can’t be incidental,” says Ms. Given, who holds a doctorate in the education of exceptional children.

Traditional phonics taught alone or as part of whole-word instruction, for instance, left out attention to phonemic awareness, she says.

Phonemic awareness is how children first learn sound identification before they learn how to write out those sounds through phonics, says Reba Greer, supervisor of language arts and library media programs at Prince William County Public Schools in Manassas.

“Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear the sounds of language, to segment those sounds and to ascribe meaning to words formed by those sounds,” Mrs. Greer says. “To teach reading, there are oral communication skills that have to be taught, and part of oral communication is making sure kids can hear the sounds of language.”

Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics occurs primarily in kindergarten and first grade, but as phonics is mastered, the focus shifts to comprehension, the ability to get meaning from print, as well as to building vocabulary and increasing fluency.

Children, such as those in Mrs. Bates’ class, like having the same story read to them over and over again, says Gayle Kelley, reading specialist at Arlington Public Schools. Hearing a story repeated helps children memorize the words in the text and is essential for fluency, she says.

That is why Mrs. Bates’ students can recite lines from “The Three Bears.”

“Listen to the story,” she tells them as they are gathered around her, sitting cross-legged. “Who will talk first? Let’s find out.”

The students hold up a cutout figure of whichever character is speaking.

Fluency involves reading a text accurately, quickly and with expression, as if one is speaking, as described in “Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read,” a publication developed by the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.

“Fluency is like riding a bicycle,” says Mary Zolman, English language arts supervisor for Arlington Public Schools. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a focus in reading. “You need to ride fast enough not to fall off, and, when reading, you need to read fast enough not to lose meaning.”

Reading fluently is directly related to comprehension, says Nancy Guth, supervisor of literacy and humanities at Stafford County Public Schools. If students spend too much time on decoding, which is sounding out words to figure them out, they will read hesitantly and with a jerky pattern, losing meaning, she says.

“The meaning from print is emphasized from the first day of kindergarten,” says Mrs. Guth, who holds a doctorate in literacy education. “We try to make all kids aware that’s the goal of reading, to get meaning from the printed word.”

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