Small classes, computer program may give boost in literacy

Posted: Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A boy in Teresa Kissel's summer class Thursday looked over his writing about the Fourth of July and struggled to understand why "drak" was a misspelling for "dark."

With Kissel's help, the boy, one of just six kids in class, tried out different vowels to put before the "R."

In a computer lab later that morning, another boy was listening for which cartoon animal on the screen had made a "ba" sound. Sometimes the animals said "va" and sometimes "ba," and he had to catch the difference.

The Juneau School District hopes the combination of small classes and the Fast ForWord computer program will give students a boost in their literacy- and in other courses because, after all, every subject is taught through language.

Most students showed academic gains after last year's summer school, district officials said this winter.

The district operates the five-week Summer Scholars Academy for students who don't meet academic standards in English or math. It enrolls 95 students from grades one through five, and 30 middle school and high school students. Classes began June 20.

The academy's budget is about $88,500, drawn from a state grant, other grants, and federal funds, said Assistant Superintendent Charla Wright. The district also offered about $25,000 in scholarships for the academy and its other summer school programs.

"We're attempting to meet as many students' needs as possible," she said.

One hundred and fifty students, out of 5,300 in the district, were referred by their schools to the summer academy. But parents have to agree to enroll them and pay a $220 fee or seek a scholarship.

"Just about everybody did qualify in some shape or form for scholarship help," said summer school principal John Wahl.

In the elementary classes, held at Glacier Valley Elementary, students alternate between class time and computer time over the four-hour day. They also take a snack break and short recess.

Kissel, who teaches English as a second language at Auke Bay Elementary, is used to working with small groups of children who don't know the language well. She uses many of the same techniques in her summer class.

On Thursday, children painted red, white and blue flags on pieces of newspaper for the Fourth of July. On Friday, when the paint was dry, they would fold them into three-cornered hats, which, not coincidentally, were the subject of a song they had learned.

Kissel asked two girls to put together the song's lyrics on the carpet from words printed on pieces of colored paper.

The grammar, with a conditional clause couched in the negative, and the word order were fairly complex for kids going into third grade: "My hat it has three corners / three corners has my hat / and had it not three corners, it would not be my hat."

When the girls put "had" in the first line, making it refer to the past, Kissel read the lyric out loud.

"'My hat it had. It had. Did they lose it? Let's read it through to see if it makes sense," Kissel said.

On other occasions, the students sang the song with gestures, such as touching their elbow to connote the word "corner." They substituted humming for some words, in a set pattern, so they'll be forced to pay attention.

A lot of children in the summer program read one word at a time. Singing and repetition help them read more fluently, Kissel said.

In the social interactions with the students, Kissel looked for every opportunity to enlarge on their language skills.

When a girl wanted to wash her hands, it wasn't enough to hold them palms up. She had to put her question into words.

Students spend about half their school day in the computer lab, where they walk through increasingly more complex game-like programs.

The Juneau School District has used the Fast ForWord program for several years in the regular school year, gradually expanding the number of schools that have labs, and in the summer school.

Students progress through the stages of "processing" sounds, pairing sounds with corresponding images, and reading sentences, said Brenda Weaver, a reading teacher who supervises the summer lab at Glacier Valley.

The computer program allows children to hear sounds spoken slowly and then at faster rates until the sounds match the natural rate of human speech.

"These games are based on the premise that the brain has neural plasticity - that you can continue to grow neurons and make these neural connections that create a memory," Weaver said.

"To learn to read, we need to create a good working memory; we need to be able to process sounds. And those two things will work to create comprehension," she said.

The district also offers a summer program for some special-education students as part of their individual education programs.

And it holds summer classes for 80 middle school students who are academically capable but aren't doing well in English and math, and for 80 high school students who need to make up credits. The budget for those programs was about $40,000.

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