Nirupa Mathew Credit: photo by Jason Reblando

How do you teach reading to a 10-year-old immigrant who may never have been inside a classroom? At Swift Elementary in Edgewater, where 41 percent of students speak little or no English, that’s a likely scenario. Nirupa Mathew, who teaches 5th grade, relies on children’s literature and constant testing. Mathew earned a master’s degree in education from Northwestern University and is a two-time winner of the Rochelle Lee Fund annual award, which provides professional development for teachers and books for their classroom libraries. Mathew talked with writer Kathy Broderick about strategies for effective teaching.

Tell me about some of the special challenges you and the school face.

A lot of the refugee children have no English-speaking ability at all. They’ve never seen books before. Some of them have never been to school in their life. But children are placed in classrooms based on age, so a 10-year-old coming from Haiti will be in my room, regardless of whether they’ve had any school or not.

Where do you start with reading instruction?

It begins with teaching students what things are by labeling them in English. I put up signs, like “These are crayons” and “This is our chalkboard.” Then, I coach them in social skills— “This is the way to stand in line.” It’s a challenge, but also exciting. It shows other kids how to open their minds to other cultures and gets them curious as to where these children came from and what drove them to come to the U.S.

How do children’s reading skills change? What kind of goals do you set for them?

I do tons of assessment, and based on how I feel they’re coming along, I can push them to the next level. I had [a non-English speaking] student last year who was reading below grade level, and I was able to discover exactly what his problem was and implement strategies to help him. He was so busy trying to decode [words] that he wasn’t focusing on the meaning of the story. He actually went up six grade levels just last year.

Describe how your guided reading groups work.

These are small groups in which everyone is on the same reading level. I’ll give a test to find out what their problem is, such as adding endings that aren’t there. Then I’ll coach them, starting with a book that’s just above their level and working through phonics, decoding difficulties and comprehension. Once they’ve mastered those skills, they’ll be asked to practice, and then I’ll re-test them. I also use strategy groups, where I group kids on different reading levels and work on a reading strategy that is a problem, such as inferring. They bring their books to me and we practice. It’s more individualized instruction.

What do you think about Learning First?

(Learning First tests are short assessments given several times during the school year. The district adopted them to help teachers fine-tune instruction.)

I love it. I use it to drive my instruction because it targets the state standards my kids are tested on. With the first test, I graphed and charted students according to their weaknesses. I was able to pull groups together right away, for example, on getting the main idea when reading. It’s a lot of work and involves a lot of analysis—it took me probably 12 hours—but a couple of other teachers and I decided to do that together. We talked about different ways we could use the data to drive instruction.

How do you help the students who get little reinforcement of reading skills at home?

Every day and over the weekend—there’s never a day they have off—they’re required to read 20 minutes at home. They can read anything they want. Their parents have to sign their reading log. The kids who are reading on a daily basis improve in every area because everything involves reading.

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