New program serves as safety net for struggling readers

Soar to Success offers experimental approach to boosting skills of young students

Posted: Monday, January 24, 2000

As other students sit quietly and read in Sarah Seagrave's third-grade class at Auke Bay Elementary, five children form a circle with the teacher in a corner.

They also read silently for a while. Then Seagrave asks them to read aloud from their separate books.

One girl, whose book is about whales, starts to read out ``sea animals,'' but catches herself and says ``sea mammals.''

``That was a really good self-correction. Nice job,'' Seagrave tells the girl.

The children are among about 175 Juneau students in grades three to eight who are trying out a new program to bring them up to their grade level in reading.

It's called Soar to Success, a trademarked program published by Houghton Mifflin. About 25 teachers in the elementary and middle schools are using it with small groups of students, before or after school or during class, as an addition to their regular reading lessons.

``We really have been looking for something as a safety net for our struggling intermediate students,'' said Laurie Schoenberger, the literacy leader at Auke Bay.

The school district has paid attention to younger struggling readers, but there's still a need to catch up in the intermediate years, she said.

Schoenberger piloted the program last year with seven students. They gained an average of one and a half grade levels of reading growth in 16 weeks, she said.

The program offers students literature, fiction and nonfiction, in a gradually more difficult sequence, said Nina Massey, the literacy leader at Riverbend Elementary.

In the typical remedial program, students read books below their grade level and are kept there, said J. David Cooper, an adjunct professor of education at Indiana's Ball State University who helped develop the program.

Students were pulled out of class for remedial lessons, often with books rewritten to be easy. Students learned vocabulary and isolated skills, the Soar to Success researchers said.

But Soar to Success focuses more on understanding the book than on puzzling out individual words, although there's still some of that ``decoding.''

Students identify words in the context of reading, with the teacher constantly showing them how to do it, and the children constantly having a chance to repeat the process, Cooper said.

Under a teacher's guidance, students ask and answer questions about the book. Workbooks help them organize their thoughts by requiring them to graphically chart the stories.

Back at Auke Bay, Seagrave asks her students ``Who would like to summarize what we read yesterday?''

They're reading a fairly technical book about rocks. She shows them a page about materials under water being squashed together to form a hard rock.

``Remember what that kind of rock is called?'' Seagrave asks.

``S . . . E . . . D,'' one girl says, searching her memory.

``Sedimentary rock!'' another girl calls out.

Seagrave asks the students to predict what the next part of the book will be about. She wants them to understand the book well enough to see a logical sequence of thought.

They've already read about two out of three types of rocks. She wants them to figure out that the third type will now be discussed and that it's called metamorphic rock.

Riverbend reading specialist Massey said the program is different from anything she's tried before. Children learn by constructing their own meaning from the story, rather than the teacher telling them what it is, she said.

``It used to be that the glass was empty, and the teacher filled it up,'' Massey said. ``In this, the kids fill it up with their own understanding.''

That means it's often the kids who are doing the talking.

``Kids really listen to each other,'' Massey said. ``That's the neat thing about it - they teach each other a lot of the time.''

The program also expects the children to graphically chart the book's meaning on work sheets. Children who have trouble reading do better if they can see things put together some way, Cooper said.

A book might be charted in a series of ``bubbles,'' or oval spaces to write in key ideas. In a book about the Exxon Valdez oil spill - and there is one in the program - the concept of spill prevention might be one bubble, with examples of prevention stemming from that in other bubbles.

Or students might fill out a story sheet, writing in the title, setting, characters, problem, major events and outcome.

Massey said her students have enjoyed the books and the structured lessons.

``A lot of the kids I work with are having trouble reading because their life is so unstable they can't focus on school,'' she said.

In the lessons, ``they know what's going to happen minute to minute, and they feel safe and secure.''

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