Students Take Quicker Steps To Literacy

Amanda Greenland, a first-grade teacher at Tolbert Elementary, coaches students through new words.
Amanda Greenland, a first-grade teacher at Tolbert Elementary, coaches students through new words. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Two dozen first-graders in a Leesburg classroom recently sorted through laminated paper squares on their desks, arranging red squares printed with consonants and blue ones stamped with vowels until they spelled a word: T-H-E-R-E.

"Now, scramble those words like they're in a blender," said their teacher, Amanda Greenland, after all the students had their letters in place. "Do it again," she said.

The students at John W. Tolbert Jr. Elementary School are learning to read in a fast-paced program that Loudoun County is phasing in systemwide to accelerate student literacy skills and eliminate achievement gaps.

In a school district that hires hundreds of teachers each year -- each with a distinct approach to instilling one of life's most critical skills -- administrators thought it was important to train everyone in the same reading curriculum.

The program they selected, Steps to Literacy, covers phonetics, vocabulary, spelling, writing, word recognition, reading comprehension and fluency in kindergarten through second grade. One of the program's strengths is that it appeals to students with different learning styles and ability levels, advocates say.

Greenland's class, like most classrooms nationwide, has some students who excel and some who struggle. Some are learning English for the first time, and others have disabilities that qualify them for special education. Although a few students may still be learning to identify letters or spell basic words, others can write advanced sentences.

The Loudoun County School Board has an ambitious goal of teaching every student to read at grade level by the end of first grade. Administrators say Steps to Literacy is helping them get there.

In a study involving first-graders at more than a dozen Loudoun schools that use the curriculum, the school system found that about 88 percent met targets in a statewide literacy test last year, compared with 74 percent three years earlier. A quarter of the students were from low-income families, and more than a third represented racial or ethnic minorities. That kind of progress can help eliminate achievement gaps, administrators said.

The gains were smaller in a cluster of schools that were not using Steps to Literacy -- 86 percent of those first-graders met literacy targets, compared with 83 percent three years earlier. In that group of more than a dozen schools, 5 percent of the students were poor and 11 percent were minorities.

Thirty-one out of 47 county elementary schools use Steps to Literacy. The school system introduced the program five years ago and intends to expand it at the rate of six schools a year.

The program costs about $700,000 a year, including the salaries of four full-time staff members who coach teachers in the methodology. Preparing new teachers requires seven full days of training the first year, two days the following year and extensive monitoring and feedback.

Reading specialists and those who work with English-language learners also receive the training so they can build on what students learn in their main classrooms. First-graders work on reading skills for 2 1/2 hours every day, and second-graders have a daily two-hour reading block. The curriculum also dominates most of the half-day program for kindergartners.

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