At first glance, it was hard to see that first-grade teacher Dale Tepper was doing anything revolutionary: Sitting next to a short poem written on an easel, she handed a strip of paper with the word "like" on it to a wiggly little boy.

"Joseph, I want you to match this word to one in the poem," the Brooke Grove Elementary School teacher said. The boy shyly took the strip, marched to the board and plastered it against the "like" in the poem's opening line, "I like the rain."

Everything about Tepper's class is cutting edge: Its size is limited to 15 students, its length is stretched to 90 minutes, and even the exercise, called "one-to-one matching," is unique. It is an innovative approach to reading that intensely focuses on each first- and second-grade student and that student's individual learning style.

And, based on teachers' experiences and a new report, it appears to be paying off.

The first measure of how Montgomery County's year-old Reading Initiative is working shows two things: African American and Hispanic students lag far behind their white and Asian peers even at this young age. And with such concentrated attention, they made significant progress over the course of a school year.

"The really good news is that African American and Hispanic students made the greatest gains," Superintendent Jerry Weast said at a Board of Education meeting yesterday where the results were presented. "That suggests there's a lot of potential for the Reading Initiative. It also suggests that we go at it a lot harder."

The report gets to the heart of what Weast hopes to accomplish: getting Hispanic and African American students to score just as high on tests, to earn comparable grades and to take honors and advanced courses as frequently as their white and Asian classmates.

There is a long way to go. Scores for Hispanic students dropped 22 points on the most recent Scholastic Assessment Test. African American SAT scores have stayed level for years.

"Intervention has got to come early if we're going to be serious about tackling this gap," he said.

And that's where the Reading Initiative comes in.

One of the most impressive gains was made by Hispanic students at Bel Pre Elementary. In November, fewer than 10 percent of the second-grade Hispanic students read fluently. By June, nearly 80 percent could, tests showed.

"This has had a profound effect at my school," said Bel Pre Principal Margaret Yates.

The Reading Initiative was launched in response to years of flat or falling reading scores. After piloting in 54 schools with high poverty levels last year, the reading initiative method is now used in every first- and second-grade reading class in the county, with plans underway to extend it into kindergarten. Hundreds of new teachers were hired in the last two years, and every first- and second-grade teacher went through special training.

The hallmarks of the program are smaller classes and longer teaching periods, and the combination of instructional techniques.

For years, teachers taught by reading a book aloud, asking questions and giving phonics work sheets, said Suzanne Clewell, who retired in June after helping create the program. The Reading Initiative helps children recognize words, then break them down into their sounds.

Whether students learn to read better and faster in the Reading Initiative is not fully clear. The report presented yesterday looked at 18 of the 54 pilot schools. And while researchers found that the proportion of second-graders who could read fluently jumped from 51 percent in February to 69 percent in June, they did not test students in regular reading classes.

"The Reading Initiative was begun at schools where we felt students were most at risk," said Suzanne M. Raber, one study author with the Department of Educational Accountability.

Next year, Raber said, researchers will look at how Reading Initiative students scored on the third-grade countywide reading tests and compare them with their schools' historic scores.

Back in Dale Tepper's class, piles of books were stacked in colorful plastic bins. She'd just finished reading a few chapters of "Raggedy Ann" to the squirming first-graders, teaching them to look at the pictures for cues to the story.

Two other new Reading Initiative teachers watched.

"The kids really thrive on smaller classes," Jessica Goldstein said. "You can really concentrate on each student, rather than telling them to wait their turn. This works."