Getting A Jump Start On Children's Literacy

Posted: May 28, 1999

Theresa Thorpe's spacious kindergarten classroom in Camden's Early Childhood Development Center is a blizzard of words.

There's hardly a blank space on the walls. Everything is labeled, from the computers ("computer #1" to "computer #4") to the supply bins where "paper" and "lined paper" each have a place. The front wall is covered by maps, a calendar and a "word wall": Under each letter of the alphabet is a list of common words beginning with that letter.

The children's drawings and writing dominate one corner. Side walls are plastered with posters featuring favorite authors with pictures and biographies. Activity signs - "ABCs," "Library," "Math," "Blocks" - hover over each of the 11 work stations.

Everywhere a child looks, there are letters, numbers, words, sentences and paragraphs. "The idea," said ECDC principal John Boyle, "is that by the time they leave here, they can read the classroom."

With the nation focused firmly on the goal of teaching all children to read by the end of grade three (a benchmark deemed critical for future reading proficiency), teachers such as Thorpe are at ground zero of a revolution in the approach to early literacy. Instead of miring students in drills as they learned to crack the letter-sound code and not expecting them to write until they did, educators now recommend a virtually total immersion in reading and writing for all students from the youngest ages.

"We are asking things of children and families we have not traditionally asked before," said Boyle.

This week, a leading educational group that had previously devised standards for fourth, eighth and 12th graders released literacy standards for kindergarten through third grade.

New Standards, a joint project of the University of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy, brought together 22 experts from around the country to specify what students should know and be able to do, grade by grade, if they are to become proficient readers and writers. The standards show examples of acceptable work and list books students should be reading.

Some of these experts prefer the phonics approach, specifying that children should first master sounds and letters. Others lean toward "whole language," a literature-intensive approach in which letter sounds are learned in context. In devising these standards, they cast aside their differences and agreed that reading and writing should be linked.

Their standards call for students to write every day, and read four to six books a day from kindergarten on.

"We're asking kids not just to read, but to be able to talk back to texts, to question what they read, to make connections between different books, to question each other's interpretation of texts," said Lucy Calkins of Columbia University.

The standards don't prescribe any one way to teach, but Calkins added, "If you read these standards, you can't really picture a teacher at a chalkboard writing down questions and answers."

To move beyond that, teachers need training. While Thorpe never just stood at a chalkboard, this year she got help from the 11-year-old Children's Literacy Initiative, which advises schools, districts, teachers, parents and day-care providers on how to create print-rich homes and classrooms.

Making good readers, said Marcia Moon, CLI's co-director, "is not about the kids, it's about the teachers, where they are and where they need to be going."

* With 23 upturned faces drinking in every word, Thorpe read Donald Crews' book Shortcut to her class.

It tells the story of four children who walked along the train tracks to get home faster. When a train barreled by, they scrambled safely into the woods and vowed never to take that shortcut again.

Now, Thorpe had a question for them to answer in writing: If each one of them had a train, "Where might the train go?" Might was the new word for the day.

The children - bespectacled Jazzmin, boisterous Byron and the others - dispersed eagerly to their tables, where each had a boxful of paper, crayons, pencils, stencils, cutouts and other tools from CLI.

Byron Rozier, 6, had definite ideas about where his train might go. A playful child who uses his rapidly developing verbal skills to write love notes to his seatmate, he drew a train belching black smoke, with huge raindrops falling on it.

And he wrote in neat block letters: "It takes me past the train station and it will go past big momma house and past my grandmom house and my school."

His sentence was pretty good for a kindergartner, but could be better. Thorpe, checking on the work of each child, pointed this out.

"Remember I told you about the apostrophe," she asked, "that little mark before the S?"

Byron remembered. He fixed his sentence, adding " 's" to the words momma and grandmom. Thorpe praised him. "If my expectation says he won't learn that, he won't," she said. "But there's nothing to stop him from learning that."

The children in this class are from Camden's poorest neighborhoods: 97 percent at ECDC qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many came to school not knowing even one letter; some had never held a pencil.

Yet, today every child in Thorpe's classroom can read some words and write their own ideas. They consult maps for their writing (one little boy's train went to Connecticut), they make their own dictionaries listing the new words they've learned, and they help each other with proper spelling.

The importance of learning such skills early is evident. A study from the University of Virginia showed that only 10 percent of children who read poorly at the end of first grade become proficient readers by the end of fourth grade. Currently, 40 percent of the country's fourth graders score below the basic level on the National Assessments of Educational Progress exams.

Just this week, New York disclosed that more than half the fourth graders in the state failed a new three-day test based on high literacy standards that required them to read long passages and write essays.

And the need for schools to have the best possible teaching, especially in inner cities, is also evident. According to one study from the University of Chicago, the average middle class first grader has been read to more than 1,250 hours; for some children in low-income families, the comparable figure is 25 hours. Most scholars now insist that superior teaching can make up for such disadvantages.

"Virtually every child can learn to read by age 8 or 9," said Lauren Resnick, the director of New Standards.

A teacher for 20 years, Thorpe worked in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Connecticut before coming to Camden. She has taught in a little country school and in affluent suburbs, in sixth grade and kindergarten. Initially, she didn't want to work in Camden; she had never before worked in an area so poor and troubled.

But she also made a vow: "There was no way when I came to Camden I was going to lower my expectations just because I'm in Camden."

Thorpe was also fortunate that Assistant Superintendent Deanne Burney, a former Philadelphia principal with a doctorate from Harvard, brought in the Children's Literacy Initiative.

Thorpe, though she had already run an active classroom, learned how to run a better one.

"I had a great class last year, and when I finished, I felt good and thought I did a good job. But those children were not nearly as able to read and write the way these students can," she said.

What was the key?

"Exposing the children to so many concepts," she said. "Even as a teacher, I was not aware that they could learn so much so early. I had never dreamed children could understand quotation marks and exclamation marks and put them in their own writing."

Before, she said, "reading a book was just reading a book. I didn't dwell into it as much as I do now and extend it around the whole curriculum." For instance, she is now using The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to teach not only science (insects) and art, but geography. "Eric Carle went to school in Germany," she said. "Last year, I wouldn't have talked about where the author went to school, but this year I used this as the perfect opportunity to talk about Germany."

To get the examples of acceptable work, New Standards worked primarily in urban areas, including New York and Houston.

"About kids who come to school never having held a book, we used to say, 'We can't expect them to learn to read,' " said Resnick. "Now we're saying, 'If they come to school never having held a book, they'd better start holding a book right away when they get there.' It's just common sense. The question is why it's taken so long."

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