• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

In our schools, Exposing their, students to ‘all, components of literacy

This is the first in a series of stories that will take readers inside Woodford County’s schools and classrooms. Periodic stories will highlight programs, changes and what’s new in education locally. Teachers are using many different strategies to focus on literacy at Simmons Elementary School. This school-wide initiative began a year ago with the arrivals of Principal Tiffany Cook and literacy coach Debbie Baker.

Baker provides ongoing guidance and support to classroom teachers so they have tools to figure out a student’s literacy needs.

“It’s not about the program,” said Cook, “it’s about the actual instruction that (our teachers are) doing … It’s about making sure that one: every kid is taught at the level they need. And two: they’re exposed to all components of literacy.”

Having taught fifth-grade science a Reading Recovery teacher for 13 years. before becoming a first-grade teacher at Simmons Elementary, Patty Burchett knows the value of students being able to read at grade level. If they’re not proficient, confident readers, she said, “it’s going to affect everything they’re doing.”

Being able to reduce the number of second-graders who read “far below grade level” – from 18 to 4 – “speaks volumes of how we’re doing,” said Baker, who has been

She said one of her students only knew how to spell three words when he came to Simmons, and now after eight weeks of intense intervention he’s writing complete sentences.

One of the keys to Simmons Elementary’s success in helping students become better readers, according to teacher Rose Thrush, has been small-group instruction.

“The instructional level that the child needs is specifically matched to what we do in that small group,” she explained. “And then within that small group we still differentiate” to meet the needs of each student in a tightly-structured system that helps them understand how words fit together and work.

Students manipulate magnetic letters to form words and they write in sound boxes to learn how to “break up the words and break up the sounds,” said Baker.

Using The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading by Jan Richardson, a former Reading Recovery trainer, Simmons teachers are not implementing a program. Instead they are designing their instruction so students can become more proficient readers by learning “how reading actually works,” said Baker.

“It’s a framework that makes sure that all components of literacy are addressed,” explained Cook. “So we’re hitting word work, which is phonics, we’re hitting comprehension, we’re hitting being able to write about it … So all the components of literacy are automatically in the framework.”

Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all book series to help students become more proficient readers, teachers are using guided reading strategies to focus on specific needs while assessing a student’s strengths and weaknesses along the way, said kindergarten teacher Kelsey Brewer.

“It’s minute-by-minute decision-making on what does it look like for these students individually,” she said. A student’s needs drive the instruction.

“And you always build on the known,” said Thrush. “What they know, and then you add just a little bit more. That’s the key.”

By working with students in small groups, teachers are better able to meet the needs of every student – no matter what he or she needs. Students are moved to a different group when their needs change. “So it’s very fluid on what skills you’re working with and what their needs are,” said Brewer.

Having been trained as a Reading Recovery teacher while in Virginia, Kim Haury said she has always used guided reading strategies in her classroom. “Now that Debbie’s here,” she added, “she’s able to show other (teachers at Simmons) how to use guided reading.”

While some other teachers have already been using guided reading strategies in their classrooms, they weren’t fully implemented until last school year. “Now,” said kindergarten teacher Barb Rush, “we’re all on the same page.”

With the support of their principal, a literacy specialist and an expanded book room (housing an array of reading materials for specific, individual reading levels), the teachers said they are better able to help students become proficient readers. For example, Brewer said students can now follow characters in a book series “from kindergarten up to second and third grade.”

As their vocabulary expands, students become confident readers who are more receptive to writing about the stories they’ve read.

“We get to see their growth in writing,” said Brewer. Her students – and their parents – also see their progress as writers. And students are starting to express excitement about putting their thoughts on paper, according to teachers.

This year, kindergarten and first-grade students, identified as English Language Learners, are learning together in Thrush’s class. So their specific literacy needs are the focus of ELL instructional assistant Robin Miller. She speaks Spanish and also received training in guided reading strategies.

“It seemed more efficient to have one expert in the room with the kids all together,” said Thrush. And she described the progress being made by her students as “pretty amazing.”

It was because of the “great gains” made at Lexington’s Picadome Elementary School, while Cook was there as an assistant principal, that she sought out a literacy coach who could lead a similar effort focusing on student literacy when she came to Simmons Elementary before last school year.

With the administrative support of Cook, Baker said she saw an opportunity to make a difference at Simmons Elementary. And because she’s regularly coaching teachers and providing them with literacy strategies to use in the classroom, Cook said, “It’s continuous. It’s ongoing. It’s all day, every day.” A two-hour block has been set aside for literacy at all grade levels every morning at Simmons. And a four-year Read to Achieve grant will train and mentor additional teachers to give them a deeper understanding of literacy and reading-intervention strategies.

“That’s where the achievement gap starts is in that reading and literacy piece,” said schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins. “So the more we can do in (the early primary grades) to help narrow that (gap) then we’re giving our kids a chance to be more successful going forward.”

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