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Early Start on Reading Spells Success Later, County Says

Kindergarten Classes Now Teach Basic Skills

By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page GZ31

Kindergarten teacher Laurie Weaver's classroom is a kaleidoscope of colors. Nearly every available inch of wall and blackboard is covered with the alphabet, words and pictures.

Everywhere her students look, they see clues designed to help them tackle their first steps on the road to reading and writing.

Laurie Weaver teaches reading to her students at Georgian Forest Elementary in Silver Spring. Below, Lautaro Brizuela, 6, takes in a lesson. (Photos Hans Ericsson For The Washington Post)

"You cannot turn anywhere in this room without seeing prints," said Stephanie Mirmina, reading specialist at Georgian Forest Elementary School in Silver Spring. "You can see the whole thought process in kindergarten."

Kindergarten in Montgomery County schools is no longer a place where children come to get their introduction to school, focusing mainly on learning to play well with others and recognize the letters of the alphabet. Although social skills are still important in the county curriculum for kindergartners, it has become more intensely academic. One of its main goals is to teach students to read before entering first grade.

"By the time children leave kindergarten, we want them reading a very simple story," said Sophie Kowzun, curriculum supervisor for reading and writing for the county schools.

The county's kindergarten curriculum focuses on building such foundation skills as phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and isolate sounds orally), knowledge of letters and sounds, the ability to hear and repeat sentences and their patterns, and word recognition.

By the end of the school year, kindergarteners are expected to spell and recognize a list of 25 words, in addition to being able to read a simple text. Among other skills, students also should understand concepts about print, such as how to hold a book and where to find its title and knowing that sentences flow from left to right.

Teaching those skills requires a multifaceted approach, as Weaver demonstrates daily in her classroom at Georgian Forest. Mornings are spent in a class lesson focused on reading skills, followed by independent work in "literacy centers" and "guided reading groups" in which Weaver works with small groups of students on specific skills.

On one wall, a classroom sign titled "Reading Mastery Objectives" states a goal for the year: "Children will be able to recognize that written words are separated by spaces and that sentences are made up of separate words. They will match oral words to printed words."

By late January, there are 17 words, such as "it" and "the," listed on the classroom "Word Wall." Some students have mastered simple texts while others are continuing to work on recognizing letter sounds.

On a particular Friday, Weaver is continuing her efforts to teach the mastery objectives by gathering her students around her in a semicircle to read a book called "Fishing Facts." She passes out copies of the book, which is filled with colorful photos, and then reads the pages of simple sentences out loud as the students try to read along with her.

Weaver pauses often to ask questions about the text, working on building students' ability to comprehend what they've read. She also asks them to pronounce the beginning sounds of certain words and tell her which letter produces the sound.

"We have learned that by looking at pictures we can get information," she tells the class. "So what have we learned about the fish?"

After finishing the book, Weaver moves to the blackboard, where a giant fish cut out of yellow paper hangs. It is about to become the "graphic organizer" that students will use to marshal their thoughts about what they just read.

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