A boost for literacy

West Boulevard Elementary students
get a double dose of reading, writing
Monday, November 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:36 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

To improve their reading and writing, West Boulevard Elementary students are turning to some new arithmetic:

Literacy instruction times two equals language arts proficiency.

This fall, Columbia Public Schools’ only model school opened a literacy center for its first- and second-graders. Three days a week, more than 70 students shuffle into the school’s basement lab, where they review letters, craft words and read books with literacy specialists.

The children’s requisite time in the center gives them a double dose of reading lessons this school year. In addition to their daily two hours of language arts instruction during class, West’s first- and second-graders spend an extra 30 minutes in the center every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The students’ ritual half-hour in the literacy center is one of the new interventions West Elementary is employing as part of its model school curriculum.

While the curriculum mirrors that of other elementary schools in the district, model school students participate in extra programs like the literacy center that reinforce particular skills in reading, writing and math.

“Beh-eh-eh-ehd,” said second-grader John Williamson, uttering a slowed pronunciation of “bed” during a small group exercise in the center. He strained the syllable, hoping the sound of his voice would tell him if the word demonstrated a soft “a” or “e” sound.

With a smile, he triumphantly placed a black-and-white drawing of a bed on a pile of cards marked “e.”

Such activities — enunciating syllables, reading to adults or forming words from letters on laminated slips of paper — are an attempt to give students interesting and individualized literacy tutoring according to Leslie Ferguson, the school’s head literacy coach.

“I think when you’re working with children in education, you constantly have to be innovative and coming up with ways that are going to help the children read and write,” she said. “If they can’t learn to read and write, it’s difficult for them to do anything else.”

In April, Superintendent Phyllis Chase announced West would be revamped into a model school.

Chase said West was selected as the model in part because the school’s former administrator was retiring, offering an opportunity to try something new at the school.

The superintendent also said the school’s declining test scores over the last five years were a consideration in selecting West for modification.

According to Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent for administration, the school’s budget was increased by $210,000 this year to implement the new model curriculum.

In the center, students are divided into groups of two to five members who share the same reading comprehension level. Within their groups, students are monitored by an education

specialist or an MU student volunteer from the “Way with Words” tutoring program. The literacy coaches keep written records of each student’s progress or regression in reading, Ferguson said. “We know if it’s too tough for them, or just right for them,” Ferguson said.

The literacy intervention was targeted towards primary grade students who are just beginning to read, said West Principal Vickie Robb. She said the literacy center is patterned after a similar center at a school in Kansas.

The model school’s goal is to have all students achieve high levels of learning, and data indicated that West students needed extra assistance in developing reading skills, Robb said.

When West was named a model school in the spring, it was the only one in the district that had not met state standards on the Missouri Assessment Program exams in both math and communication arts.

This year, West did not progress on the MAP communications arts test for the second year in a row.

“We already knew from our previous data that the literacy area was a need and then when our 2004 (MAP) information came back, it only supported that idea stronger,” Robb said. “We were going in the right direction.”

Weekly assessments by teachers, written assessments by students, and test scores on the GRADE and Developmental Reading Assessment tests will be used to measure students’ reading and writing progress, Robb said.

“Not only do we want to see the model successful and students achieving at higher levels, but certainly we want to find out if they’re the significant learning and best practices that we can replicate in other our schools,” Chase said.

Will an intervention like the literacy center work?

“We’re not sure yet; it’s new,” Ferguson said. But unlike in classrooms — where teacher-student ratio is high — adults can offer students individualized attention in the literacy center, she said.

“With this (center), every single child is actively engaged for a half hour, because they have an adult with them to make sure they are working at their level, bringing them a step further each day in their reading,” Ferguson said.

Reading to her literacy coach, first grader Myia Newman slid her tiny finger across a glossy page of words.

“Are you a lady bug?” she read in an unbroken cadence.

“No,” Myia read, “I’m a…”

She scrutinized the words for familiar letters, recognizing “pray” and “man.”

“I’m a praying mantis,” the first-grader said.

“We’re not reading to them,” Ferguson said. “We want them to become independent readers.”

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