Weakley Readers Excel

Teachers Stressing Background Knowledge and Decoding
Posted on 11/05/2019
Teachers Now Stress Background Knowledge & DecodingOnce upon a time most stories began with “once upon a time” and teachers were more focused on the mechanics of reading than the rewards of unlocking mysteries held in science and the past.

In today’s Weakley County kindergarten through 3rd grade classes, kindergarteners are hearing about, meeting, and dressing as community helpers; 1st graders are digging in the dirt to discover the life cycle of a plant; 2nd graders are exploring habitats and animal adaptations; and 3rd graders are transported back in time with stories of Native Americans and Jamestown. And while they are absorbing information and experiences, they are also learning to read.

Gone are the days of class time devoted to identifying the main idea and other skills which hinted at the need to teach for the test rather than learning. Armed with background knowledge and the ability to decode letters that make sounds and sounds that make words, students can find success in reading, experts say. However, not every school is applying these practices.

Almost 35 years ago, a report summarizing 20 years of literacy research promoted Becoming a Nation of Readers. And yet, Tennessee’s education commissioner Penny Schwinn noted after the latest “national report card” (from the National Assessment of Educational Progress last month) that only 35 percent of 4th graders in Tennessee can read with proficiency.

The numbers may be low elsewhere but Weakley County has made reading a priority and it shows. In August, Weakley learned that it was one of five school districts from across the state to have improved 3rd grade scores by 10 percent.

And now as other districts and states grapple with what to do about NAEP’s findings, Weakley County administrators are hoping to continue what the state’s Read to Be Ready initiative started – upward trends in reading.

As far back as the Becoming a Nation of Readers report, originally sponsored by the National Institute of Education and released in 1985, the evidence was clear. To increase reading ability and achievement, support for students must exist at a variety of levels: parents reading in the home and supporting school instruction; teachers teaching phonics and comprehension strategies while allowing more time for independent reading, writing, and oral language development in stimulating classrooms; and administrators hiring good teachers who are prepared to teach reading and encouraged to pursue professional development opportunities.

The other key factor was that as proficiency develops, reading should be thought of not so much as a separate subject in school but as integral to learning literature, social studies, and science.

Fast forward to 2019 and a Weakley County Kindergarten through 3rd grade classroom and visitors will see these recommendations as realities. As Terri Stephenson, elementary supervisor of instruction, explains, no longer are Weakley County teachers stressing the mechanics of reading -- such as how to find the main idea of a passage. Instead, reading is the tool by which the mysteries of science and the stories of social studies are unlocked.

“According to research, ‘the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,’” she noted. “Through the state’s Read to Be Ready Initiative, the teachers in our district have begun building students’ background knowledge through hands-on real world experience as they incorporate science and social studies in their reading instruction.”

Using units of study, the class is introduced to a topic by listening to a story read aloud by the teacher. That book is usually a couple of grades higher than the reading level of the class and the teacher is provided questions to prompt students to think about the content. New vocabulary is highlighted and explained. Next comes reading in pairs or groups that is on the same subject but back at their reading level. Interactions with the material might take the form of dress up, creating characters out of pumpkins, going outside to work in a garden, making a poster, or asking guest speakers questions. And, on a regular basis, students are working on phonics, developing the skills needed to decode the words they are seeing.

In an article in this month’s School Administrator publication, Brian G. Kingsley underscores this approach is netting outstanding results as districts using the practices are seeing fewer students requiring additional assistance.

“Before educators can translate research into practice, they must ‘know better’ so they can ‘do better,’” writes Kingsley.

Stephenson agrees. “That’s why Dr. Gene Kerns, a nationally recognized educator, author, and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, will be working with our teachers at the beginning of next year. When the state introduced our current Read to Be Ready program, our teachers had to follow without benefit of knowing the ‘why’ of what they were being asked to do. Dr. Kerns will be able to provide that foundational rationale to practices we’ve already seen produce great results.”

Another critical part of the reading equation is parents.

“Parents can help their child become ready to decode by reading nursery rhymes to them,” Stephenson said. “This will develop a phonemic awareness that will build a foundation to help them become better readers because students will hear the sounds that they will later connect to letters and letter combinations. As children become older, parents will want to start reading a variety of texts to build background knowledge. The more students know about the world around them, the quicker they can make connections in the text that they read.”

Martin Primary students dressed as community helpers

The Kindergarten students at Martin Primary School have recently finished their community helpers Social Studies unit. For their culminating task, students dressed like the community helper they want to be when they grow up, and they created and presented posters to their peers describing how their chosen career would benefit the community.

Pumpkins decorated as storybook characters

Cari Malone’s third grade students at Dresden Elementary did pumpkin book reports in October. And Judy Martin of Greenfield School had a storybook pumpkin patch in the library last week. Clifford and Bob were top vote-getters at the Harvest Carnival on Saturday.

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