‘Reading First’ program opens door to success

Published 2:58 pm Saturday, January 31, 2009

AHOSKIE – Students learning to read at Hertford County public schools have had an advantage for the past five years.

According to a team of reading experts at Bearfield Primary School, Reading First has been a huge success in the district and has teachers teaching better and students learning more about reading.

“It is a scientific-based way of teaching reading that is explicit, systematic instruction,” said Angie Jilcott, Reading First Instructor at Bearfield.

Bearfield Primary School Principal Julie Shields said the program came about because of a directive from the Hertford County Board of Education to pursue the Reading First grant.

“The grant was available and we were charged to write the grant,” she said. “There was a group from each school – Bearfield, Ahoskie Elementary and Riverview.”

The $1 million grant was spread over five years and was designed to provide instruction to teachers for a new way to teach reading in grades kindergarten through three.

“There were teachers who had been teaching 30-plus years who had to change the way they taught,” Shields said. “At first, I think it was tough – the whole grant, but it has turned out to be a huge success.”

Beverly Melton, also a Reading First Instructor, echoed that thought.

“It was new to the state of North Carolina, so for the first year it was tweaked every time we went to a meeting,” Melton said. “That was hard. Teachers wanted to do what they were told and then it was changed on them.”

But, as the Reading First method became refined, it became successful.

“It is the biggest change in education I’ve seen, but it has also had the biggest impact,” Jilcott said.

Reading First is based on a 90-minute reading block with emphasis on five essential components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency ,vocabulary and comprehension.

Phonemic awareness is hearing the sounds while phonics is being able to relate the sounds to written words. Fluency comes in reading at an accurate rate per minute and vocabulary involves teachers going over words in the reading that the students need to know. Comprehension goes hand-in-hand with fluency.

The 90-minute blocks are a mandated part of Reading First and something that allows students to focus a large time frame on reading. While the 90 minutes is a long time frame for younger children, it is broken down into segments.

There are 30-45 minutes with the teacher providing whole group instruction while the rest of the time is broken into stations to allow teachers to provide more one-on-one intervention.

Melton and Jilcott said they believe the testing results that have come from Reading First have shown the program works.

“There are assessments that show where progress has been made,” Melton said. “Teachers keep the assessments and share them with parents.”

“Not only do the parents and teachers know, but the students do as well,” Jilcott added.

Shields said the program is important because reading has improved in the lower grades and reading is a key to success in life.

“It gives every child the opportunity to be successful,” Shields insisted. “When they master reading, they can open every door. In the past, we weren’t meeting every child’s needs.”

The main concern for Hertford County Public Schools is the end of the grant, which was written five years ago.

“The future of Reading First is up in the air,” Shields said. “With a new administration coming in, we just are not sure where it will stand.”

Shields said Bearfield just completed the first audit of the program and had to produce every document from the five years, but did so without problem.

The principal said the program will continue one more year in Hertford County regardless because they have the funds to continue.

“It will continue in the classroom regardless,” Melton said. “Now that the teachers have the knowledge, the strategic plans are in place.”

“You can’t take that away,” Shields added.

The principal said the school district was writing a sustainability plan to attempt to keep the program in place and felt it was an important part of the success the school district has had.

“We need to continue Reading First,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael G. Basham said. “It’s an important part of what we’re doing at the earliest grade level.”

Jilcott added, “It’s working for our children.”