Progressive preschool

The Approach: Adults engage in constant conversation with children as they play with educational toys, eat nutritious meals and take trips to the park or the zoo. Vocabulary is thus “taught” in the context of engaging activities, much as it is in a typical middle-class home.

The Setting: Carnegie Elementary School serves some 385 pupils in Woodlawn; about 97 percent come from low-income homes. In 1995, about 20 percent of Carnegie’s 3rd-graders scored above the national average in reading comprehension. A year ago, Carnegie’s state pre-kindergarten received accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Each class has 16 pupils.

On a warm day in early April, spring is in the air and on the minds of children in the preschool program at Carnegie Elementary School. Indeed, spring is the theme of the week.

At 9 a.m. sharp, Sharon Mayfield gathers her pupils on a rug in the corner to read One Bright Monday Morning and talk about signs of spring. Completing the story, she asks each in turn: “What did you see on your way to school today?”

“I see a tree,” offers one girl.

“I saw a green blade of grass,” a boy says, picking up on a line from the book.

“I saw an ant,” volunteers another. “I didn’t kill it.”

The discussion encourages students to put their own experiences into words, Mayfield explains, and to try out vocabulary from the story. When children make grammatical errors, she models the correct form as in, “Oh, you saw a tree?” But pupils are not asked to repeat their statements correctly, on the theory that the criticism may discourage them from speaking up next time.

In NAEYC-accredited preschools, grammar and other skills, such as pronoun usage and speaking in complete sentences, are not taught explicitly. “I think if they hear it enough the correct way they’ll just catch on.” says Mayfield. “I really believe that.”

Next up: breakfast, which Mayfield uses as a springboard for conversations about shapes and numbers and other basic concepts.

“What shape is a waffle? … How many squares does it have on it? … “How does honey taste? … How does it feel in your hand?”

“Sticky,” answers a plump girl, scooping honey from a cup with her finger.

Forging a link to the week’s them, Mayfield asks: “You know who makes honey? Bees. What’s one of the signs of spring—when we see what?”

“Bees!” the children call out.

“Bees. That’s right. You know who tries to steal the honey from the bees?”

“The bears,” one girl replies, recalling a story her teacher had read to the class. “Bees and bears like honey.”

Like advocates of Direct Instruction, progressive educators believe in repetition, but they opt for repeated exposure to the content of a theme rather than drills.

Walking to the park, Mayfield helps her pupils identify more signs of spring: buds on a branch, berries on a bush, sprouting daffodils. Later students will add what they remember to a “Signs of Spring” list.

Where facts learned in isolation are often forgotten, themes help children organize new information and retain it better, according to Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development at NAEYC headquarters in Washington, D.C. “[That’s] how the human brain operates.”

Free play time offers another “meaningful context” for learning. This morning children choose between painting with water colors, playing with cars, building with blocks or dressing in costumes. As children play, Mayfield, an assistant teacher and two parent volunteers engage them in conversation.

At one end of the room, two boys push toy race cars around a plastic map, following streets and traffic signals. Seated beside them on a low chair, teacher assistant Odel Cain uses pictures on the map to teach about people, places and even rules that are part of community life.

“Uh-oh, did you stop at the stop light?” she asks, tapping her finger on the picture of a traffic light. “You’re going to get in trouble.”

“I’m in jail now! I’m in jail!” the boy cries, pointing at a building on the map.

“What’s that?” asks Cain, “the police station? Now, pay for your ticket because you ran a red light.”

The boy pretends to hand money over to the police and then looks up at his teacher. “I’m sorry, Miss Cain, that I passed that …” He searches for the word.

“That you ran a red light?” says Cain. “Well, if you’d told that to the police, they might not have given you a ticket.”

Some learning activities are more directed. For example, to learn the words for various actions, children skip, hop and clap while singing words to a song that describes what they’re doing. Prepositions might be taught by asking students to place toys on the top shelf, on the bottom shelf, under the table and on the table.

While “learning by doing” may appear haphazard, Mayfield keeps a checklist and writes anecdotal descriptions of every child’s progress in learning skills and concepts. These records, in turn, guide her teaching. For example, she might engage a child having trouble with the concept red in a conversation about red objects in the classroom.

Over all, her challenge is to set up appropriate activities and follow-up so that all children are engaged and receive reinforcement.

Learning “doesn’t just eventually happen,” stresses Barbara Dungill, a state pre-kindergarten cluster coordinator. “It happens because of the way she’s set it up.”

Direct Instruction preschool

The Approach: Given the enormous vocabulary deficit of most inner-city children, it’s impossible for a teacher to track all the minute language skills they need and design activities to teach them, according to Direct Instruction adherents. Systematic intervention is needed; in preschool, that means a half hour of language tasks, or exercises.

The Setting: Herzl Elementary School serves some 930 children in North Lawndale, 91 percent of them low-income. In 1995, 16 percent of 3rd-graders scored above the national average in reading comprehension. Its eight half-day preschool classes are part of the city’s highly regarded Child Parent Center program, which provides extra services. Four classes of 4-year-olds receive a half-hour language lesson each day to prepare them to begin DI reading in kindergarten. Herzl adopted DI last year.

Everybody, hands in your lap and feet on the floor,” directs Beverly Powell. Seated in a semi-circle of yellow chairs, eight preschoolers snap to it, straightening up and looking expectantly at their teacher.

A script on her knee, Powell moves quickly to the first task, which reviews actions (clapping, holding, touching) and body parts (hair, finger, elbow, leg). She raises her right hand, palm out: the “get ready” signal. First, she says: “Everybody, touch your finger.” Then she snaps her fingers to elicit their response. On cue, the children grasp their forefingers.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

Touching my finger.

“Say the whole thing.”

I am touching my finger.

“Good talking,” Powell praises.

Perform the action, state the action, describe the action in a full sentence. That’s the routine.

Powell has divided her 17 pupils into two groups, based on oral testing earlier in the year. The children before her are in the lower group. When first tested, many could not identify the action in a picture, could not repeat simple statements or didn’t know what to do when asked to point to their chins. The higher group, now engaged in an art project with a teacher aide, will progress more quickly through the language program, skipping some lessons and tasks.

Lessons are quick-paced to keep students focused, prevent boredom and allow the teacher to cover as much material as possible.

Responses are in unison to prevent children from simply copying a classmate’s answer. When students respond incorrectly or hesitate, the activity is repeated immediately, either as a group or individually, to keep a mistake from becoming ingrained. “The child doesn’t feel like he’s being corrected,” though, says Powell. “You don’t make him feel insecure or put him down in any way.”

The second task today gives children practice saying their names. When asked for her first name, one small girl hesitates and then garbles the pronunciation. “Phedra,” corrects Powell. “What’s your first name?” The girl looks uncertain. “Let’s everybody help her,” Powell suggests. “What’s your first name?” she asks several times in succession. Each time the question is answered roundly by the entire group.

Some children who are called nicknames at home may be unfamiliar with their full names, others simply confused by the terms first name, last name or whole name. In fact, half of the kindergartners and 1st-graders tested at six Chicago schools adopting DI were unable to give their first and last names.

Powell returns to Phedra. This time the girl answers her name loudly and clearly, and receives the familiar praise, “Good talking!”

Each task in a lesson must be repeated until all children respond accurately. A lesson not completed within the allotted 30 minutes may be continued or repeated entirely the next day. Children enjoy the drill, Powell says, because it’s “repetitious enough that they feel good about themselves. They know they’re learning things. They’ll tell their mothers, my brother didn’t know this but I did.”

A primary goal of DI’s preschool program is to teach children concepts. Children who are unfamiliar with a term such as “on” lack more than just the vocabulary to express the concept, according to DI developers; they lack an understanding of the concept itself.

To clarify the concept “on,” a drawing in the teacher’s script depicts a horse and five balloons. One balloon is resting on the horse’s back. If that was the only balloon in the picture, children might pick up the “misrule” that “on” describes anything “near” the horse, DI developers say. That’s why the picture includes other balloons in various locations.

And lest children pick up the misrule that “on” has something to do with balloons and horses, the concept is taught again with different objects. Today’s task reviews the concept of “on” as well as “in front of” and “over.” It goes like this:

“One of these balloons is on the horse,” Powell announces. Pointing to each of the five balloons, she asks, “Is this balloon on the horse?” The children respond “yes” or “no.”

Next, Powell helps the children discriminate between the object and the phrase used to describe its location. She points to the balloon on the horse and asks, “What is this?” A balloon. “Where is this balloon? On the horse. “Say the whole thing about where this balloon is.” This balloon is on the horse.

Some concepts are taught with props rather than pictures. For example, in another lesson Powell uses a glass and a toothbrush to demonstrate the concept “in.”

The DI program covers many other language concepts, including conditional words (or, if), opposites (full, empty) and categories (tools).

Once taught, concepts are applied. In the case of “on,” children get a lesson in logic, too.

Students look at a picture of three cats: one on a picnic table and two beneath it. Powell reads them this “rule:” “The cat on the table will sleep.” Then, she points to one of the cats beneath the table and asks: “Is this cat on the table?” No. “So what else do you know about this cat?” This cat will not sleep.

She repeats the sequence with the other two cats and flips the page. Presto: Another picture of the cats confirms their predictions. “Which of these cats is sleeping?” asks Powell. The cat on the table is sleeping.

The exercise follows a familiar textbook pattern. First, a general statement or rule: Inclined planes are used to move objects to higher places. Then an example: A ramp is an inclined plane.

Finally a conclusion: A ramp can be used to move objects to higher places. Children unfamiliar with the pattern might fail to make make the logical leap. Throughout DI programs, children are challenged with rules of increasing complexity.

Learning general information is also part of the program. In a few weeks, Powell’s pupils will begin to memorize statements defining parts of nature, places in the community and occupations. For example, “A dentist is a person who fixes teeth.”

To keep the energy high, Powell pauses often to offer handshakes and praise for a job well done. Completing one task with her youngsters, she says: “OK, hugs and kisses.” The kids hug themselves, run noisy kisses down their arms and giggle.

The rest of the day is standard preschool fare—learning through stories, songs, free-play, art projects and other hands-on activities, like planting seeds.

Powell believes that children learn through many activities but that Direct Instruction ensures that the language skills kids need to learn get taught. “It’s focused; you know where you’re going,” she says. “That’s important. Because we don’t have a lot of time, and we have a lot of things to do.”

Progressive kindergarten

The Approach: Children need to understand the purpose for reading and writing before they’re taught the mechanics, progressive educators believe. Formal instruction must be tailored to the developmental level, or maturation, of each student. Academic and social growth are both enhanced by opportunities for self-expression, movement, hands-on projects and cooperative play.

The Setting: Von Humboldt Elementary School serves some 1,350 children in West Town; about 97 percent are low-income and 17 percent have limited English proficiency. In 1995, only 7 percent of 3rd-graders scored above the national average in reading. Due to exceptionally low scores on the state IGAP tests, the school is on remediation. Kindergarten classes are all day and part of the school system’s Child Parent Center program. For the past nine years, the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development has been working with Von Humboldt’s preschool and primary-grade teachers.

Soon after breakfast, Connie Diaz’s kindergartners are gathered on a rug in front of the chalkboard, talking about yesterday’s visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.

“What did we do there?” asks Diaz. Hands fly.

“We played with the sand,” says Alicia.

Diaz invites Alicia to add a sentence to “Our Trip,” a story already underway on the chalkboard.

Clutching the thick chalk, she prints, “We plad with the sand.”

Tapping “plad,” Diaz asks: “Anything wrong with this word?”

“I forgot to put the ‘y,'” the girl replies. Then she squeezes a “y” into place, spelling “playd.” Close enough. Her spelling will improve with time, Diaz believes. For now, “what’s important is that she knows she’s communicating.”

From the start, children need to know the purpose for reading and writing or, later on, they won’t be motivated to continue, says Marie Donovan, a consultant with Erikson Institute. “If it doesn’t mean anything,” she says, “why do it?”

At Von Humboldt, children become “authors” before they can spell—or even write. A brightly papered bulletin board on one wall displays one- or two-sentence stories that children either dictated to a teacher or wrote themselves with “invented spelling.”

The mechanics of writing are taught, but only as children appear ready to learn them. Today, each student completes a version of “Our Trip” and gets an individual conference with Diaz or her assistant. A girl who wrote only three words, “We Mata Boat,” is coached to continue her story aloud in complete sentences. A more fluent writer gets help with punctuation and capital letters.

Children’s daily stories are kept in portfolios that help Diaz track improvement over time and assess “readiness skills” for 1st grade. For instance, do spellings show children grasp letter-sound relationships? She pays attention to story content, too.

One boy, asked to write what made him happy, wrote, “I am happy when they stop shooting paeple.” He’d narrowly avoided a recent neighborhood shooting, according to Diaz, so she used his story to open a class discussion on violence. “It takes away a lot of the stress that he has,” she says, “knowing that his friends are going through the same thing he is.”

The message children receive from this activity, according to Donovan, is both personal—your “feelings are important”—and instructional—”you [can] use language to express them.”

Children are “more open to learning” when their emotional needs are met, she points out. “We can never lose sight of the whole child.”

Getting ready

As in writing, children learn the purpose for reading before they are taught the mechanics. Listening to story books and talking about the pictures helps students understand reading as a process of “making meaning,” according to the Erikson Institute. Even before they can sound out a word, students need to see themselves as readers.

Reading time comes just before lunch. Diaz’s pupils make their selections from a table stacked with books and then seat themselves on the rug. Six of them do know how to read; the other 24 look at the pictures silently or discuss them with neighbors. One boy flips the pages of a ghost story, tracing his finger along each line of print from left to right. He invents his own narrative, consisting mainly of nonsense syllables perhaps meant to represent the babble of ghosts.

“That’s what we call pretend reading,” Diaz explains. “That’s how the child gets the urge to read.”

Phonics are taught through games and activities that match children’s ability levels. This afternoon—Von Humboldt’s kindergartens are full-day—an aide helps non-readers write the initial consonant for a row of pictures on the chalkboard. Meanwhile, Diaz works with her readers on worksheets that require children to fill in the first and final consonants of words to spell “pig,” “dog,” “cat” and the like.

Children learn new language most rapidly through activities that are meaningful to them, progressive educators believe. To learn what tools are, for example, Diaz’s children listen to stories about people who use tools, draw pictures that retell the stories, use tools to plant seeds, and play with toy doctor and carpenter tools.

Building vocabulary means, says Donovan, “You hear it, you see it, you read it, you talk about it. That’s how you get the words in. That’s how you get the concepts in.”

Playtime gives children a chance to practice the language they learn with their peers. For about 40 minutes a day, Diaz’s kindergartners choose from activities like listening to taped stories, writing on the computer, playing with puzzles or visiting the dramatic play corner.

Because low-income children often come from homes with few toys and areas unsafe for outdoor play, school must take up the slack, Donovan insists. Play develops “a flexibility of mind [and] a disposition towards being active,” which are essential for academic learning. “They’re never going to read if you don’t let them play.”

Over in the play corner, a girl named Giselle looks carefully at plastic dishes set on a mini-kitchen table. “There are five,” says a boy standing beside her. She pulls out five plastic tacos from a plastic bucket and sets them around, counting, “One, two, three, four, five.”

Analyzing the action, Donovan notes that Giselle has applied a math concept, 1-to-1 correspondence.

Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute, says learning must serve a child’s own purposes rather than be “something that you do because the teacher asks you to do it. You should do it because you want to do it.”

“Absolutely the most important part of early childhood education,” she says, “is to create in kids the desire to learn.”

Direct Instruction kindergarten

The Approach: Reading lessons begin in kindergarten with phonics-based instruction intended to accelerate the mastery of “decoding” skills, or skills that enable a reader to identify printed words. Disadvantaged children typically need to learn faster in school to keep up with children who are exposed to more literature and language at home, DI proponents insist. Therefore, lessons are scripted to ensure clear, efficient communication.

The Setting: Goldblatt Elementary School serves some 685 children in West Garfield Park; about 97 percent are low-income. In 1995, about 18 percent of 3rd-graders scored above the national average in reading comprehension. Goldblatt has long been part of the Paideia Program, which includes Socratic seminars that promote analytical thinking. In 1992, the school adopted DI to improve students’ decoding and comprehension skills. (See Catalyst, December 1993.)

It’s 9:10 a.m. on an early May morning, and nine students in Loujean Nelson’s all-day kindergarten sit up straight—eyes forward, hands folded—and get ready to review the letter “y.”

Goldblatt has two kindergarten classes, and Nelson has the more advanced of the two; most of her pupils had attended Goldblatt’s Direct Instruction preschool and were ready for reading instruction when school opened. The other class didn’t get to reading until midyear.

Nelson has divided her 33 youngsters into three groups, based on an oral language test, experience in preschool and teacher observations. At the moment, she is working with the “green” group, the lowest of the three, on a reading lesson that begins with a phonics drill.

Nelson holds up a spiral-bound book with six letter “y’s” scattered down the first column. Some have a bar above them, signifying the “y” as in “my,” and some are plain “y’s,” signifying the “y” in “yard.” (As an aid to beginning readers, DI’s early lessons use marks and other devices to distinguish the different sounds that one letter can have.)

“OK,” says Nelson, “when I touch [the letter] tell me the sound. Let’s see who can do it without getting tricked.”

“Get ready …” As she taps on each letter, children respond instantly with a chorus of “iii” [as in my] or “yyy” [as in yard]. “Excellent job,” Nelson praises.

Several “decoding” tasks come next. The first teaches students to sound words out slowly. Flipping to a new page, Nelson points to the word “fill” printed in large black type. “When I touch [each letter] you say it until I go to the next sound,” she reminds them. “Get ready …”

Nelson runs her finger under the word, connecting each letter with a small arc. “Fffiiilll,” the students pronounce slowly. “Say it fast,” she directs, running her finger rapidly under the word. Fill! “What word?” Fill!

“That’s ‘fill,’ ” she confirms. “Next word, get ready.” Nelson and her students move rapidly down the column of words, sounding out “stop,” “never” and “jump.”

Now it’s time to read words. Nelson will tap randomly on words the children just practiced, and students must read them “the fast way.” She warns them to watch her finger “because it is going to try and trick you.” Nelson points at “stop.” Stop! At “never.” Never! And so on.

Students also learn to break words down. Nelson covers the “er” in “teacher,” and the children read the familiar word “teach.” Then she uncovers the ending and the children blend the two parts together. Teacher!

The group goes through similar exercises that involve irregular words and rhyming words. Throughout this 15-minute phonics lesson, Nelson monitors the group’s choral responses carefully. Corrections are immediate and painstakingly thorough.

For example, while reading a list of four words “the fast way,” two girls mispronounce “bringing.” The group pauses to sound out the word together. Then the two girls each get a turn to read the entire list by themselves.

One girl gets the first two words right but again misreads “bringing.” Nelson directs her to sound it out, read it the fast way and then start the list again.

The goal is for every student to achieve 100 percent mastery on each task in every lesson. The extra practice now saves time later, says Nelson, and getting the answers right builds the children’s confidence. “They do feel good about themselves.”

When the girl reads “bringing” correctly her second time through, Nelson praises her: “Good job! What did she do?”

“She did a fantastic job!” one boy shouts, and the rest of the group echoes him. “A fantastic job?” says Nelson. “OK!”

DI lessons are relentlessly positive; teachers are trained to praise students for successfully completing a task, particularly when they had difficulty. Even misbehaviors are corrected without criticism.

Catching a few students with wandering eyes, Nelson praises a girl sitting near them: “I like the way Michelle’s eyes are on the book.” The others quickly imitate Michelle.

The phonics lesson through, the “green” group opens their booklets to today’s story, “Will the old car start?” They read in chorus, Nelson clapping to keep them in time. When she hears a mistake, students sound out the word, say it fast and repeat the sentence.

Nelson has heard the charge that students taught with DI reading are simply calling out words without comprehending. “That’s baloney,” she says. Once a sentence is read fluently, she checks to see what they remember: “What did the old man say?” Can you start an old car? “Who was he talking to?” A rat.

The group answers in unison with phrases from the story, but without looking at their books. The message: You must remember the words that you read in order to comprehend.

Virtually any veteran DI teacher will admit to making slight deviations from script. Nelson is no exception: earlier she compared the irregular word “tart” to a McDonald’s apple pie and announced an upcoming cooking project—fig tarts.

Other times she’ll connect the theme of a DI story to a book she previously read aloud to the children.

“You have to follow the script, but you have to use your brain, too,” she points out.

To track performance, children are tested individually every five lessons for speed and accuracy. Low scorers review tasks from earlier lessons and retake the test. And those who score well consistently may jump to a higher, faster moving group.

At the end of the lesson students get a reading worksheet (to complete at their desks) and two animal crackers (to gobble like Cookie Monster.) Their teacher shows them how—crunching noisily on her crackers and humming, “Mmmm, mmm!”

Stories in the first two DI reading levels are designed for decoding practice, not literary analysis. DI Reasoning and Writing aims to fill in the gap by teaching story structure and the reasoning skills good readers and writers need.

As the “green group” turns to seatwork and Nelson calls over the “yellow group,” teaching assistant Angela Harris helps the “reds” tackle a tough logic problem in their Reasoning workbooks.

Students examine a picture of three 4s, each with a checkmark beside it. They must fix the picture so that this statement is true: “Some of the 4s have a checkmark next to them.”

Most work accurately, adding one or more 4s to the picture. However, one girl adds 4s with checkmarks; another adds checkmarks with no 4s. After reviewing possible answers, students with errors are asked to erase and correct them.

Another exercise teaches “if-then” statements: If Harris puts a finger on either her nose or her chin, students are to say the word “three.”

“I’m going to fool you,” she teases. “No, no way!” the kids shout.

One boy does get fooled when she puts a finger on her nose and her chin. But they hold fast as she puts two fingers on her nose, and they giggle as she scratches her ears, standing on one foot and then the other. She taps her chin. Three!

At the end of each lesson, students listen to a story that features a character who behaves in nonsensical yet predictable ways. Today’s tale is about a cow named Clarabelle who wants to sit on a wire with some bluebirds.

The purpose of these stories is to make students familiar with story patterns. Knowing, for instance, that character traits influence story events, a reader can focus on details that improve comprehension. In this lesson, students discuss the relative weight of cows and bluebirds, examine a workbook picture of a cow jumping off a narrow wire and infer cause and effect.

“Why are [those bluebirds] in the sky?” asks Harris.

“When the wire came up, the blue birds came off,” one girl explains.

Eventually, the students will work in teams to act out or write story endings consistant with a given characters’ behavior.

Direct Instruction lessons—which include language and math—take up most of the day. Overall, Nelson’s students spend about a fourth of instruction time each day on non-DI activities such as practicing handwriting, listening to story books and singing songs. Learning to read means less time for games, but Nelson finds the trade-off worthwhile. “They’re going to be behind if you don’t start off right away with them. They just are.”

Progressive 1st Grade

The Approach: Children must read for pleasure and information from the start, progressives say. Stories designed to practice decoding skills are rejected in favor of children’s literature, which often relates to a theme such as rainforests or arctic animals. Teachers provide a variety of reading strategies to match all student learning styles.

The Setting: Woodson South Elementary School in Grand Boulevard serves some 535 children in preschool through 3rd grade; 93 percent are low-income. Woodson has seen test scores rise dramatically since 1990, with 39 percent of 3rd-graders scoring above the national average in reading comprehension in 1995. A Reading Recovery program provides intensive tutoring for some 1st-graders, and the Erikson Institute has worked with the school’s primary grades for the past nine years. Four years ago, most Woodson primary teachers switched from reading textbooks to literature that draws in science and social studies topics.

In early June, 1st-graders are just finishing a “habitat” theme, which focused on the lifecycles of chicks, butterflies and frogs. Among other activities, students watched a tadpole grow to a frog, recording their observations in daily journals; wrote math story problems about frogs, and read theme-related stories.

Seated around two classroom tables, Patricia Litberg’s top eight readers share copies of Jump, Frog, Jump! Earlier in the year, they enjoyed the story but had difficulty reading it on their own, Litberg reports. Now she thinks they’re up to the challenge.

Some words may still give them trouble, so she printed 20 of them on a chart they’ll look at first.

“When I point to the word, if you know it, raise your hand,” she says. Some quickly identify words like “fly” and “jump;” for others, she provides the beginning sound, “brrr. …” “Branch!” they say.

Many of the words are long or irregular (climbed, swallowed and wrapped). These she reads first, and the group repeats. When the list is done, she leads the youngsters through a second time.

This “sight word” preview serves several purposes. For one, it allows children to become familiar with words they might not be able to sound out. Litberg points out the difficult “wr” blend in “wrapped” and the “b” in the irregular word “climbed.”

Two, it appeals to readers with different learning styles, according to Patricia Horsch of Erikson Institute. “If they’re visual, they may look at patterns of words. If they’re auditory, they might listen to sounds.”

Three, Horsch notes that building a “sight word” vocabulary allows students to tackle more challenging material. “You want them to get into the rich literature,” she says, “so they can begin to see the books as a source of information.”

During the lifecycle and habitat theme, Litberg’s students studied pond life. A discussion before the story helps them recall what they learned about ponds and allows her to correct misconceptions.

On a large pad of paper, she writes the word “Pond. “That was one of the words we learned last week. Tell me what a pond is.”

“Somewhere where people live,” one girl suggests.

“What is the pond made up of?” Litberg coaches. “Is the pond made up of glass?”

“Water,” says another girl .

“Ponds are water,” Litberg agrees and writes that on the pad. She compares ponds to rivers: “Does a pond move really fast?”

“A pond can be still” says a third girl. Litberg writes that down, and asks students to name some pond animals.

The discussion “makes a connection in their brains” between familiar concepts and new ones they’ll encounter in the story, Horsch explains. Today’s new concept is the food chain. Their assignment: to look for pond animals that eat other animals.

Before the story begins, Litberg quickly reviews strategies for decoding unfamiliar words. Students may either sound them out or look at the pictures and choose a word that makes sense.

“You want them to use whatever strategies work for them,” she explains. “If somebody is real visual maybe that illustration is going to be what helps them.”

Students take turns reading, and along the way she coaches. “Look at the picture,” Litberg says to a girl stuck on the word “wrapped.” The picture shows a turtle caught in a net. “What’s one of our new words?” The girl hesitates. “OK, I’m going to give it to you, ‘wrapped.’ “

The girl continues: “around the turtle that swallowed. …”

“Slid,” Litberg corrects.

“Slid into the pond,” the girl continues.

“If they don’t get the word, eventually you have to supply it,” Litberg notes, or children may lose track of the story line.

For the same reason, she says, “I try not to say ‘sound it out.’ If you focus on the sound, you are going to lose sight of the meaning more readily.”

A group reads the story together a second time, and then tries to recall which animals ate which other animals. Litberg draws a chart to illustrate their findings.

The story also becomes a “meaningful context” for learning phonics: To finish off the lesson, students flip through the pages to look for words with -ed endings. Litberg writes these down and invites volunteers to underline the “ed.”

“Now when you’re reading those words and you see an -ed on the end, right away you know how that’s going to sound,” she tells them.

Tracking progress

For formal assessment, Litberg has children read to her individually twice a quarter. She takes notes on whether they’ve mastered decoding strategies, such as using picture clues and letter sounds, and whether certain sounds give them difficulty.

Based on her notes and daily informal observations, she selects phonics activities that address the needs of individuals, small groups or the entire class.

For example, to learn the “sh” sound, students recitied, copied and illustrated this tongue twister: Shy Sheila shook Sharon’s shaggy sheep. To learn vowel sounds, they might copy and illustrate a rhyme like “big pig,” “tall wall” or “broom room.”

In addition, students occasionally complete worksheets from commercial phonics programs. Three times a week, they also visit a phonics computer lab.

While Litberg was meeting with her top group, the lower groups worked with an aide. Typically her lower readers read the same story for many days. The stories are usually ones with repetitive phrases—aimed at giving them some words they can recognize on sight.

Only about two reading lessons a week are grouped by children’s level of ability. Other times, students are grouped according to their interest in reading particular stories. Many lessons are whole-class projects: for example, students read a story as a play, with each assigned a different part. Such activities encourage students to focus on the purpose for reading, Erikson Institute believes.

“Making meaning is the core of all we do in language arts,” agrees Sunday Uwumarogie, Woodson South’s instructional coordinator. “The idea is not drill, drill, drill but, rather, have the kids understand that learning is making sense of what you’re learning.”

Direct Instruction 1st Grade

The approach: Reading and language skills are the foundation for success in all academic areas, according to DI developers. Where students are far below grade level, teachers may cut back on other subject areas to concentrate on these basics.

The Setting: Abbott Elementary School serves some 400 children in Armour Square; 98 percent are low-income. In 1995, 10 percent of 3rd-graders scored above the national average in reading comprehension. Abbott is on the state’s so-called watch list of schools with exceptionally low test scores. It adopted DI reading several years ago, but implementation has been a struggle. Last year, it cut science and social studies from nearly every classroom. “How can you [do] science and social studies when you’ve got kids who can’t read?” asks Principal Carol Hardin.

In Cindy Stawski’s 1st-grade classroom, DI is an all-day affair. Reading and language lessons fill the morning. Math, spelling and writing workbook exercises complete the afternoon.

For much of the day, students sit at their desks filling out worksheets. The situation is hardly ideal, Stawski feels. Yet, in her opinion, this is the best school year she and her Abbott students have ever had.

When Stawski first arrived at Abbott in 1990, she searched her room and storage closets for reading textbooks but found not a one. Finally, she fished some old readers out of a trashcan on another floor. “I can’t even explain how disorganized it was,” she says of Abbott’s curriculum in those days. “You just did with whatever books you had.”

The following year brought one improvement: brand new reading textbooks for her 2nd-graders. “They were the most beautiful books you ever saw,” Stawski recalls. But there was one big problem: “Nobody could read them.”

In an effort to boost reading scores, Abbott tried out DI in several classrooms that year. But the consultants hired to oversee the program found the administration’s commitment unsatisfactory and pulled out.

When Carol Hardin became principal in 1993-94, she invited Malcolm X to restart the reading program in kindergarten through 5th grade. Reading scores rose. But the following year, after expanding DI schoolwide, 3rd- and 6th-grade reading scores plummeted. The new principal decided to make a few changes.

Based on test scores and classroom observations, she fired a number of her untenured staff. Many of her tenured teachers, however, proved a greater obstacle. Some claimed they opposed DI on philosophical grounds, but Hardin doesn’t buy that excuse. “I think it was a resistance to all the extra work.”

“If you come from the ‘lecture school’ of ‘turn to page 42 and do number 9,’ Direct Instruction kills you because it’s interactive,” she says. “And it’s interractive all day.”

A sizable minority of Abbott staff are still performing inadequately or refusing to teach the program altogether, according to Hardin. Yet the paperwork required to dismiss a teacher daunts her. “It shouldn’t take two years or three years because they’re tenured.”

While faculty resistance has hurt the school’s overall performance, Hardin sees good results in individual classrooms.

Ultimately she wants her students to have it all: social studies, hands-on science, creative writing. But in her mind, their math and reading skills must come first. “I don’t see Direct Instruction being the answer, the cure-all,” she says. “But I do see it as a catalyst for getting our kids on the right track.”

For Stawski, who teaches the higher of two ability-grouped 1st-grade classes, the key to getting kids on track is DI’s intensive phonics instruction, which is geared to students’ reading levels.

Mid-morning, she meets with the middle of her three groups for a DI reading lesson. It’s a round-robin reading of “the magic pouch,” which gives children practice on the “ou” letter combination. When one girl gets stumped on the word “thousand,” she carefully draws her finger under the letters and blends the sounds together. Thousand!

Knowing how to blend sounds helped students tremendously with the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, according to Stawski. Before this year, none of her Abbott pupils could even read the test; some would fill in the answer bubbles randomly. She credits DI’s step-by-step approach to teaching phonics for the improvement.

“I could see them as they were touching under the letters and sounding out the words. I was like, oh, my God! That’s what they’re supposed to be doing!”

Stawski sees progress even in her lowest group, now plugging away at the very beginning of the 1st-grade reader. She points out one boy in particular: At the start of the year, “it was ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.'” But now he sees that “if he doesn’t know that word, he can sound it out and get it. DI gave him confidence.”

To speed their progress, the low group gets a second reading session in the afternoon—usually a review of the morning lesson.

The top group, meanwhile, finds their DI lessons equally challenging, according to Stawski, because the end of the 1st-grade reader requires a higher level of reading comprehension.

Today, the top group begins a series of 15 stories about a girl named Jean who visits the “Land of Peevish Pets.” Each story has a rule (e.g., “All little crumps are mean.”) that students must remember in order to “help” Jean solve problems in subsequent stories.

While the rules are nonsense, they are designed to train students in a pattern of logical thinking needed to comprehend science and social studies textbooks: for example, when a general rule about, say, plants or planets must be recalled and applied to a particular circumstance.

As each group meets for reading, the others work independently. During the morning, a few read along with a taped story in the listening center. Some read illustrated story books published in the DI program. Most of their time, however, is spent on DI seatwork: math, spelling and reading worksheets.

Overall, Stawski finds students get more out of DI than they used to from hands-on projects. “It’s less creative, but I feel they learn more.”

In previous years, Abbott teachers followed the Board of Education curriculum for science and social studies. “We had no materials but we had to follow it,” Stawski notes. “We did what we could.”

On her own, she researched topics, planned lessons and bought all of the needed materials—scales, maps, a globe, soil, seeds, paper and so forth—out of her own pocket.

Students planted seeds and grew flowers; they watched butterflies hatch from cocoons; they drew detailed maps of their neighborhoods. But in the end, Stawski questioned whether the work had been worthwhile. “You can be creative and wonderful, but if at the end of the year your kids can’t read, what’s creativity?”

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