Learning to read between the lines

Oct. 6, 2006, midnight | By Audrey Kubetin | 13 years, 10 months ago

Inside the struggle to increase literacy at Blair

Sophomore Michael Funes sits slumped over a desk in his second-period Developmental Reading class. He doesn't know how he got put in the course, and he doesn't really care. All he knows is that he doesn't want to be here.

He turns to his teacher and tells her just that, but she just smiles patiently. "I've seen your scores," she says. "You can either prove that you can leave, or you can sleep and spend the rest of the year with me."

Funes sighs and puts his head back on his desk. With his poor grades in English and low test scores, he is one of many Blair students who consistently underperforms in reading. According to resource teacher Joseph Bellino, a reading assessment given in November 2005 to 532 of this year's sophomores revealed that almost 39 percent were reading below their grade level.

To combat low literacy rates, Blair launched a new literacy initiative at the start of the 2006-2007 school year, says literacy coach Debbie Fickenscher. Blair ushered out its 20-year-old Special Alternative Reading classes in favor of a newly formed Reading Department, which targets struggling freshmen and sophomores.

More than 250 Blazers are enrolled in developmental reading classes under the new program. Some, like Funes, simply don't like reading. Others have been left behind in an increasingly fast-paced academic environment. No matter their background, the Reading Department hopes to help all Blair students learn to read on-level or above.

Breaking the trend

For freshman Maya Green, the struggle with reading began in kindergarten. "I've always been a slow reader," she says. "I've had trouble my whole life."

But for the next eight years, no one seemed to notice. Her teachers didn't ask. Her classmates didn't care. When Green walked into Blair on the first day of ninth grade, she was still reading at an elementary-school level.

The warning signs were there, Green says. The bad grades. The missing assignments. She was too embarrassed to ask for help. "I thought I was going to get it all by myself," she explains. But every year, she fell further behind.

Based on her C-average and low test scores, Green was enrolled in Read 180, a computer-based reading class in its first year at Blair. According to Amy Bottomley, head of the Reading Department, students are assigned to reading classes based on a combination of grades, standardized test scores and teacher recommendations. "They're doing a very good job picking out the students that need help," she says.

The move to restructure Blair's reading curriculum follows the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which requires schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress for academic performance. Nancy Navarro, a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education, explains that the law's increased emphasis on standardized testing uncovered a startling trend: "Students in high school aren't reading at the level they should be."

In MCPS, the Board is working to buck the trend. On June 13, the Board adopted a $1.5-million initiative to combat illiteracy. "We really have a problem in high school with literacy," says Valerie Ervin, a school board representative. "It's not an accident that kids are showing up in high school reading on a fifth-grade level."

No child left behind?

When freshman Rayvine Wynn picked up her schedule on the first day of school, she saw a class she hadn't requested: Read 180.

She didn't think she needed extra help. Throughout middle school, she earned mostly As and Bs. In her free time, she loves to read. "When my friends told me what kind of class it was, I was kind of shocked," she says.

Wynn was in for another surprise. At the start of the school year, students in Read 180 took a diagnostic test to gauge their reading ability. When her results came back, Wynn found herself rated as reading at a middle-school level.

According to Audrey Wilson, chair of Blair's Literacy Committee, many struggling readers don't know they have a problem. Students may show up in advanced classes still reading below-level, Wilson says. A few years ago, she remembers asking her students to write a response to the question, "If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?"

One student's response stuck in Wilson's memory: "I'd want to have dinner with a live person," the boy wrote, "because a dead person would smell bad." He had understood the question literally, but he couldn't read beneath the surface.

Students often enter high school without basic reading skills because teachers simply don't have the time to help struggling readers, Wilson explains. "One of the difficult things, especially with standardized testing, is that teachers have to cover more and more material," she says. Pressed for time, teachers assume that their students understand the material. Those who don't are left behind.

For these students, Blair's reading classes revisit old lessons, introduce new strategies and, when necessary, push past the boundaries of a traditional English curriculum.

Outside the lines

On a Friday morning early in September, Bottomley begins her second-period Developmental Reading class with the mystery of Bob and Ursula. She opens a dog-eared book of riddles and starts to read:

"Bob and Ursula are having an intense conversation while Bob is trying to concentrate on driving their two-seater sports car down a winding mountain road. Bob has a seatbelt on, but Ursula does not. Suddenly, a truck swerves and hits their car head on. Their car is totaled, with equal damage on the driver's side and the passenger's side. Bob has two broken legs and a broken pelvis, but Ursula doesn't have a scratch on her body. Ursula calls the police right away but can't tell them what happened."

Bottomley turns to her class. "Why isn't Ursula injured, and why doesn't she know where the accident occurred?" she asks.

One student asks, "Was Ursula in the back seat?" No, corrects another, the car was a two-seater. Finally, a girl in the back speaks up: Bob was on his cell phone. Ursula wasn't in the car.

The class lets out a communal "Ohhh!" Bottomley explains that a key to reading comprehension is understanding the structure of the text, from puzzles to prose. "If you learn the tricks of reading your science book, if you learn the tricks of reading a newspaper article, it'll be a lot easier," she says.

Only five weeks into the school year, Green believes Read 180 has already helped her learn to read faster than ever, she says. Wynn agrees that the techniques she has learned in Read 180 are helping her perform better in school. Before she began the course, she was too embarrassed to read aloud in her classes. Now, she says Read 180 has given her the confidence to raise her hand.

Not all students are so enthusiastic about Blair's reading classes. Almost an hour into Developmental Reading, Funes is still half-asleep on his desk. "I know how to read fine," he insists.

For him, the problem is apathy. He's just not interested in reading unless a subject piques his interest. An avid soccer fan, he tore through David Beckham's autobiography, but the books assigned in school bore him. "I don't like reading, but I do it sometimes for me," he explains.

Spreading an appreciation for literacy is one of the Reading Department's main goals. According to Wilson, the new literacy initiative aims to increase the volume of reading that all students do – not just those in need of extra help. "Even if you don't plan on attending college, you're still going to be reading the newspaper and filling out job applications," she says. "Literacy is necessary to be a member of society."

Audrey Kubetin. Audrey lives off of tea, tofu and Tool. The end. More »

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