Friday, October 16, 2009

Knowing Where to Begin

I am John Funk, Manager of Educational Programs for Discount School Supply. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work as a specialist for teacher support in a fourth-grade classroom where all of the children were classified as ‘learning disabled.’ I am sure there were different levels of disability within the group. I was in the classroom to provide support for the teacher and his aides, so I did not examine the students’ IEPs (Individual Education Plan) to see where they were functioning. One thing I did know is that they were all functioning far below grade level in reading. Most of the children in the group were reading on kindergarten-to-first-grade reading levels.

Since I had served on a reading research committee a few years before, I wondered if some of the problems these children were experiencing came from missing pieces in the development of each child’s reading skills. The classroom teacher and I decided to go back and work on kindergarten and first-grade reading skills. Because the children had the maturity of fourth graders, we had to adjust some of the teaching materials to be more age-appropriate.

For example, we couldn’t really use nursery rhymes very effectively (“that’s baby stuff”), so instead we had the children write their own rap songs. The only rule was that the “songs” had to rhyme. This was a great activity for these children, especially since school had not been a very positive experience so far in their educational careers. Before long, the students were identifying sounds in words without any help, and easily choosing rhyming words.

What we discovered through this experience was that these children did not have the basic skills of phonemic and phonological awareness. These skills should be addressed in preschool through first grade, yet somehow these children had missed that important brick in their reading foundations. Other bricks that we continued to work on were alphabet knowledge (identifying every letter automatically with no hesitation), listening comprehension, print awareness and oral language. I’m pleased to say that these children made significant gains during the school year. Almost every child exhibited more progress in reading than they had during the three previous years put together.

I have taught reading methods courses to pre-service elementary teachers at the university level. They always question why I make them work with preschool and kindergarten children. I always tell them that they must know how reading begins and what skills build that literacy foundation. If they know those skills, they can help any struggling child they may have in any grade. This same strategy will help the teacher work with special needs children who may be mainstreamed into their classrooms. Although a special needs child might progress at a different rate than a typically development child, she will still need the same skills. Knowing and using early childhood content and teaching strategies (the reading foundation) can benefit the teachers as they work with children.