Sam sat at a table in the Reading Room drumming the hard surface with his pencil and starting off at the blackboard or the ceiling or the floor. Seated next to him was Billy who tried to answer all the questions put to Sam.
The two boys, fifth-graders at Montpelier Elementary School, were receiving special instruction in the "ow" vowel combination. Billy is a slow reader. Sam has a serious learning disability and both are regularly assigned to this room for intensive reading drills. (Their names have been changed at the request of school officials.)
"Can you name a word that uses this sound?" asked Carolyn Mangel, the school's part-time reading teacher.
"Cow," Sam answered, moving next to a board where he correctly pointed to a picture of a cow. Five minutes later, when asked to name another word with "ow" sound, Sam made a mistake and then got lost trying to find the cow picture again on the same sound board.
After thirthy minutes reading lists of words with this sound and practicing exercises using the sound, Sam was able to name sucessfully five words using "ow" and find cow on the sound board.
"When I first started teaching I had all kinds of experiments I wanted to try out," said Mangel. "I quickly learned that contsana repetition, monotonous and patient repetition were the best tools."
Classes for children with learning disabliities are only one of half dozen programs set up in all 234 Prince George's County public schools in the last two years to try to insure that their students can actually read. There are other programs for the gifted, tutorial programs for the average and slow readers and there are laboratories with audio-visual equipment for all readers.
Like schools all round the country, the Prince George's system has been assaulted by parents who insist that standards are crumbling and children are growing up illerate. And, like Prince Georges, schools across the country are making reading the new centerpiece of education in response.
"It's not just the parents who think our children can't read. Teachers, legislators say our kids can't read. I think the problem is much broader," said Louise Waynant, acting director of the school system's instructional services.
Acheivement test scores, one reading matter only for school bureaucrats and academics, are now awaited with same anticipations as politicians waiting for election results. They are becoming the bellwether of the chool's success.
For the first time in recent years, the country's pupils showed a general improvement in thir achievement test scores this year. Since 1968, the county's students had steadily scored below their previous performances. Prince George's students are still generally below the statewide average, however.
"We're making a concerted effort to reach the seventh-graders and the elementary students," said School Supt. Edward J. Feeney. "I was pleased with the test scores but, they still aren't good enough."
Crystal Hill, 13, did not read at her grade level. Rather than put her in a slow-reader class, the reading teacher at Mount Rainer Junior High School made her a reading tutor for two elementary age students.
Every school day Crystal boards a bus carrying a led satchel filled with her teaching material. With the 30 other young tutors who are part of this program, she travels to her elementary school to meet her students.
Pulling out a basic reader and graph that rates her student's progress, Crystal first greets Dimitri Seletzky, an above average second-grade reader. For half an hour she patiently guides Dimitri through the lessons: "little lamb walks with brown colt in the meadow . . ."
His occasional errors are as important as his successes. The mistakes allow Crystal to help Dimitri unravel the kinks in the wildly confusing exercise of reading. She explains how to pronounce a word teaching Dimitri how to spell and read a word by identifying the sounds of letters and then making the sounds into whole words.
Dimitri is excused to make way for William McNeil, a third grader with a short attention span and reading problems.
He'll be reading and then turn around and start fighting with his friend. I'll tell him he's read a word wrong and he'll say he is right," Crystal said. Meanwhile, she has started reading after school since she became a tutor.
Crystal was carefully matched with these two youngsters last spring when her sixth-grade scores reached the desk of Essie Calhoun, the junior high's reading teacher.
"Kids this age wouldn't sit still for a review of reading on a level they consider simple, but tutoring is something different. They pick up the reading skills they missed, the vocabulary and the comprehension as well as the self-confidence," said Calhoun.
Students not touched by any of these special programs are supposed to be receiving reading instruction in their regular academic classes. During the last school year the system's teachers, especially those in junior and senior highs, attended classes after school to learn the art of reading.
There was a two-fold purpose. Many teachers found it easier to blame their student's failing in science, for instance, on reading problems rather than perhaps their own teaching techniques.
"An eighth-grade science teacher might complain that none of his students can read when the (mental) block has more to do with the context," explained Dr. Waynant. "Sure, the child can read out the words "constellation" or "solar system" but he may only have a vision left over from third grade of silver stars pasted on black cardboard. He doesn't really know the word until he understands the concept."
At junior high schools some teachers say they are also fighting a losing a battle against what some consider the greatest enemy of reading, the television tube. To cut into the hours consumed by the daily television habit, teachers have stocked their classroom shelves, with books that children are supposed to like.
Titles about spies, children who run away from home, horses, jockeys, myths, sports figures, anything that beats out the afternoon serial, can now be checked out of English class or science class as will as the library.
"I tell my kids that reading takes practice after school just like basketball practice," said Moira Little, Mount Rainier's reading lab teacher.
Reading instruction, say the county's experts, also requires a thorough briefing of students on what the written word is. Betty W. Lee, for example, uses and exercise designed to show students that what they read is the same language that they speak.
In her first grade class at Montpelier Elementary, she sets up "experiences" for her students in which they engage in some concrete activity, dictate a narrative about it to her. Seeing their spoken words instantly transformed into writing is supposed to make the point.
On a recent day, nine of the children had a "magnet experience." Sprawled on the floor were magnets, paper clips and the children.
"Magnet . . . it picks up things . . . it sticks to a chair . . . no not to the plastic part . . . mine's shaking and walking right down the side," one child said, laughing.
The children dictated three sentences that Mrs. Lee dutifully took down and then had them read out loud.
In different corners of the same room, the other first-graders were making words and sentences in other exercises following their own "experiences." One student was reciting the new words she had learned during her magnet experience the week before. A volunteer mother was checking off the words on cards and then dropping those cards into a small file, the child's "dictionary."
Other pupils were carefully putting together puzzle pieces - called "linkletters" - to reproduce the words they had learned in their experience. Still others were writing their own stories using words from the experience.
"These are all searching and sorting exercises that reinforce the children's reading, spelling and writing," said Lee.
None of these reading programs involves anything but the traditional methods teachers have been using for years. The only new practices are those used to encourage the child to sit down and read; the classroom libraries, the tutorials, the excitement of an "experience."
What complicates matters for reading teachers are things they say are beyond their control. The child with a chaotic background or a family that doesn't encourage reading is likely to explode with frustration when exposed to the sometimes painful experience of reading. Absenteeism, the high rate of transient students (in some county junior highs the turnover rate is over 70 per cent each year), too much television, and a society that demands literacy but seldom encourages reading are other problems.