WHEN THE TEACHER made us do an essay in the first part of the school year, I was scared to death to write a paragraph," says Richard Anderson, 15. "At the end of the year, I could write a whole page."
Richard Anderson perceives words and letters differently from the way many of us do. The word "have" on a bulletin board becomes "heva" on his school paper. "In copying down from the board, the letters get all mixed up," he says. "It makes reading difficult."
Anderson spent the past year in the learning disabilities program at Langley High School in Fairfax County, and became exposed to a unique reading and writing program developed there by an English teacher named Anne Obenchain. It is a very structured program, founded on the premise that students must master basic language skills in a logical sequence, one at a time, much the same way mathematics are taught. And it is a program that has produced stunning results.
"It was used for kids diagnosed at the very bottom of the freshman class," says Anderson's English teacher, Bob Murray, "and for many of them it was their last hope for being successful at acquiring any new skills at all."
Obenchain calls her remedial program "Signals and Symbols." The entire class is assigned to read a very short story and then to answer a set of questions about it. The questions must be answered in carefully designed declarative sentences and the students can then correct themselves. The lost art of proofreading is integral to the process. The sentences are designed to limit the number of errors the student can make so that the teacher can clearly explain what a student has done wrong.
Unlike traditional methods, all the students read the same story. "That way," says Obenchain, "I'm limiting his errors to those I can explain to all the students simultaneously. What we have here is a uniform problem, without frustrating him and making it seem too complicated.
She says she has had "fantastic results with boys. They love structure. The disorder with which language is taught has turned off boys."
Murray says the program works even with children who are quite turned off to education. "It just forces them to continue writing and to continue correcting their errors. Proofreading to them meant absolutely nothing at the beginning of the year. They could have cared less as long as they put something down on the page.
"By the end of the year they were very conscious of any error and were even picking up errors on handouts. The most significant thing about the program is it makes kids work and these kids in particular were not at all willing to work. They didn't want to but they had to, and the results were fantastic."
Obenchain also has developed a program she calls "Links to Forceful Writing," for students reading above the eighth grade level, which has been routinely taught to most incoming Langley students since 1971. It, too, emphasizes basic writing skills such as constructing sentences and paragraphs and punctuating them skillfully. Langley consistently scores well above the county and national averages on standardized language arts tests.
"I've taught 30 years," says Obenchain. "I've been refining this process year by year. I've found if I stuck to a single sentence, I could develop any skill I wanted to isolate. And I found a lot of skills should have been developed earlier."
Obenchain was teaching structure, repetition and drills at a time when schools here and across the country were engaging in what they called "innovative education" and "individualized instruction" and "open classrooms" and "letting children develop at their own pace." But Langley administrators realized her system works and had her teach it to other teachers.
"We had bureaucrats frowning on us the whole time because we were requiring students to read specific short stories. We were grouping them," Obenchain says. Other English teachers in the county wanted to learn her methods and Obenchain - with the backing of Langley administrators - was willing to teach them, but she says a sucession of county education officials weren't interested. Structured teaching was not the fashion in the seventies.
Anne Obenchain retired from Langley last week, with gifts of gold jewelry from the English department and with a champaigne reception. She wants to do something new now, something she thinks will work for young students in big-city schoils such as those in the District of Columbia. She thinks she has found a way to reach them before they lose interest.
She has spent the past two years developing a program for children in the first, second and third grades that will teach them basic reading and writing skills one step at a time. She tested it out on a group of first graders at Chesterbrook Elementary school and a few second graders there who had diagnosed learning disabilities. After six lessions, she got back 39 papers with not one word misspelled. "It was such an incredible success, I know that's where it's got to begin.
Obenchain has copyrighted her system and has approached D.C. school officials about doing a pilot study here to see how it works. She knows she probably will have to get a grant to pay for reproducing the teaching materials and says she is willing "to work for practically nothing" on the study and to teach teachers how to use the method.
Dr. Helen Turner of the D.C. schools said reading specialists were "very impressed" by what Obenchain presented to them in March and some specialists are interested in trying it. She says it might be worked into the competency-based curriculum Washington is implementing now.
Obenchain's methods, like those of so many teachers who have designed successful programs, may not work without Obenchain. But papers like Richard Anderson's and the 39 papers from Chesterbrook are powerful arguments that it ought to be tried. Anne Obenchain has found ways of teaching high school students how to read and write the English language, and she thinks she knows how to teach little kids how to do it too. Her methods work. Ask Richard Anderson, who will tell you quite frankly how poorly he read and wrote, how poorly he did in school, how turned off he used to be.
"It's turning out really nice for me," he says. "I can cope with a lot more things now."