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How Schenectady first-graders learn to read

How Schenectady first-graders learn to read

Reading proficiency efforts gaining new momentum as students struggle
How Schenectady first-graders learn to read
Van Corlear Elementary teacher Sharon Eddy reads and asks questions of her students.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

EDITOR'S NOTE: Literacy is the bedrock of our educational system. So when a community like Schenectady fares poorly in literacy, the whole community suffers. This is the first in a three-part series focusing on Schenectady's dismal literacy rates and what the school and community organizations are doing to address the problem. On Monday, we address summer programs and what other communities statewide are doing, and Tuesday's installment looks at volunteer groups' efforts in the region.

SCHENECTADY — Sharon Eddy, one day in the third week of school, turned one of her regular class read-aloud sessions into a chance to drive home the key goal of first grade.

“What are things we can’t do yet but will learn in first grade?” Eddy asked students who were gathered on a rug before her. She jotted down answers as students blurted them out: how to tie shoes, how to share, how to put letters together.

Mrs. Eddy then wrote READ on the white board in letters so large she nearly ran out of space.

“Why do you write too big?” asked Isaiah Jones, now 7, a student who joined the class a few weeks into the year.

“Because that’s one of the important things,” Mrs. Eddy said. “That’s one of the things Mrs. Eddy is going to teach you: how to read.”

The challenges of that plainly-stated goal are immense in Schenectady, where many students enter kindergarten with reading skills that are already below national norms and expectations. High levels of concentrated and prolonged poverty further complicate the task.

District officials in recent years standardized literacy instruction in the earliest grades and extended the amount of time devoted to reading each day. And a series of "community conversations" this spring spurred momentum to strengthen partnerships and literacy resources for the city's youngest kids.

Meanwhile, hundreds of read-alouds in classrooms and homes aim to inch the ball forward each day.   

Mrs. Eddy sits down for a class read-aloud as often as she can. Her Van Corlaer Elementary first-grade class gathers on the large, well-worn rug in front of her rocking chair, next to a white board easel, and she reaches for a book about dinosaurs or families or students or dancing animals. That day she read “Giraffes Can’t Dance” - a story about Gerald the Giraffe, a tall, gangly, long-necked animal who embarrasses himself during a junglewide dance-off before eventually redeeming himself. 

In a first-grade class – as in most classes – one lesson feeds the next, and Mrs. Eddy rarely missues a chance to impart the bold-faced importance of reading. 

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“‘Hey, look at clumsy Gerald,’ the animals all sneered,” Mrs. Eddy said as she read from the book. “‘Giraffes can’t dance, you silly fool! Oh, Gerald, you’re so weird.’”

Warthogs waltzed and rhinos rock ‘n’ rolled. Lions danced a tango and the chimps cha-cha-chaed.

“All the animals can dance except the giraffes,” said student Rey Acosta, now 7.

After leaving the dance, sad and alone, Gerald stumbled across a violin-playing cricket who insisted Gerald could dance if only he had the right music. The rhythm hit, and in an instant Gerald was flipping and shuffling to the beat, eventually joined by the other animals, who were shocked to discover his newly-found skills.

“‘We all can dance,’ he said. ‘When we find music that we love,’” Mrs. Eddy said, finishing the story. Mrs. Eddy started to tweeze answers from the students, driving at the deeper lesson that sat waiting for the students to grab hold of.

“Rey, how did Gerald change? In the beginning, he thought he couldn’t what?” Mrs. Eddy asked.

“Dance,” Rey answered emphatically.

“And now he can?”

“Dance.”

The implict message was clear: like Gerald, the first graders can find the music and learn to dance, read or tie their shoes. 

Sobering statistics

In first grade, students learn how to write and count by 10s, how to work independently and in groups, how to raise their hands – at least sometimes – and, yes, how to tie their shoes (a notably time-consuming problem in the fall. Later in the year, wiggly teeth appear to take over as the distraction du jour.)

Above all else, first-graders learn how to read. One of the most complex things that kids learn to do, and one of the biggest challenges facing Schenectady and cities across the country.

It doesn’t take long to find statistics that paint a troubling picture of reading in Schenectady public schools.

  • Just 18 percent of Schenectady students in grades three through eight scored proficient on state English language arts tests last year, while statewide 38 percent of students scored proficient.

  • More than half of the district’s tested students registered the lowest score possible.

  • Internal district assessments measured 31 percent of kindergartners scoring at or above the 50th percentile in letter-naming at the start of the school year; 27 percent of first graders scored at or above that level on a similar reading measure.

  • During an academic progress report earlier this school year, district officials told the school board that Schenectady’s high school seniors, on average, read at a sixth grade level. Board members described the report as “sobering,” and “horrifying.” (Superintendent Larry Spring and other district leaders point to rising graduation and Regents passage rates as signs of progress.)

Those findings are largely mirrored by decades of national research that shows students from low-income backgrounds enter kindergarten already well behind their wealthier peers. Those differences are exacerbated over time. Those wealthier students, on average, come from homes with far more access to books, and students from wealthier families are read to more often than their peers. In a 2013 study, Stanford researchers found that literacy disparities as a function of socioeconomic status emerge in children as early as 18 months old.

“By the time they enter kindergarten, children from disadvantaged backgrounds differ substantially from their more advantaged peers in verbal and other cognitive abilities, disparities that are predictive of later academic success or failure,” the Standford researchers wrote. Among 2-year-olds, the researchers found, there was a six-month gap between wealthy and low-income children's processing skills essential to language development.

An oft-cited and sometimes criticized 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who observed dozens of families over two-and-a-half years, estimated that there is a 30 million-word gap between the number of words low-income and wealthier children are exposed to by age 4.

“Even if our estimates of children’s experience are too high by half, the difference between children by age 4 in amounts of cumulative experiences are so great, even the best intervention programs could only hope to keep the (disadvantaged) children from falling still further behind,” they wrote.

But in Schenectady, like communities across the country, organizations, educators and others have long put in the everyday work of teaching kids to read. As the science around brain and language development becomes more refined, communities are also looking to reach kids at earlier ages, developing tools and programs aimed at working with parents and the other caregivers who spend so much time with kids in the earliest years. 

In recent months, the Schenectady County library has fostered a fledgling groups of advocates set on studying what Schenectady as a community offers to develop literacy skills starting with newborns and advancing to third graders. After spending the coming months hosting focus groups and reaching out to parents, guardians, teachers and more, the group's leaders hope to strengthen collaboration and potentially establish new programs or alter existing ones. 

Effects of words

Language development starts at birth – if not earlier – and as children's brains rapidly develop in the first years of life, they gradually acquire associations with books and words and letters. The more they are exposed to words and books, the stronger their foundation will be once in a formal class setting. By the end of kindergarten, kids are expected to be “ready to read.” They are supposed to leave first grade as fully-fledged readers.

When Mrs. Eddy reads aloud to her class – around five or six times a day – a lot is happening. She picks books that are more advanced than what the kids are reading on their own, exposing them to more and more complicated texts. By the end of the year, she is reading early-grade chapter books. By engaging students in the read-aloud and playing with voices, Mrs. Eddy is working to foster a love and passion for reading.

As she reads, embodying both the story’s characters and the role of teacher as she engages the students or tries to knock down a potneital disturbance, Mrs. Eddy is modeling good reading habits, instilling the importance of pronunciation, tone and expression, exposing students to new words, demonstrating how to think through a problem or issue. When she asks students about the book – sometimes fiction, sometimes nonficiton – they are developing listening and comprehension skills and being forced to consider what was just read.

Read-aloud books are often the foundation of weeks-long lessons that end up moving from reading and writing to math, science, social studies and the arts.

In many ways, the rest of the classroom revolves around the rocking chair and multi-colored rug where Mrs. Eddy and her charges sit for shared story time. On two sides, the rug is lined by bookshelves filled with hundreds of books Mrs. Eddy has collected over a dozen years at Van Corlaer and nearly 30 years as a teacher, in total.

One shelf is full of labeled bins of books: animals, fiction, littler critters, transportation, nonfiction, science, cats and dogs, Disney, dinosaurs and teacher's pick.

A series of daily calendars and schedules, including a running count of the number of class days so far this year, measured in groups of ones, tens and hundreds, hangs above those shelves. The board above a second row of shelves houses the room’s “word wall.” Each week until the last couple months of school, Mrs. Eddy introduced her students to a new groups of “sight words,” common words the students need to know without having to sound them out. The sight words are reinforced in group lessons, individual worksheets and packets sent home during long school breaks.

The rules

On the first day of school, Sept. 7, Mrs. Eddy sought to calm nerves, set out expectations and start to get the students used to classroom routines.

“Class, class, class,” Mrs. Eddy said mid-morning, already establishing what becomes a common refrain.

“Yes, yes, yes,” the students responded, stopping in their tracks and turning to their new teacher. There is calm in the room – not the room’s natural state as the year progresses.

“We’re still in the honeymoon,” Mrs. Eddy said.

The ground rules of the class -- there are five -- had also quickly been established, as students repeated them over and over and over.

Rule 1: Follow directions quickly.

Rule 2: Raise your hand for permission to speak.

Rule 3: Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.

Rule 4: Make smart decisions.

Rule 5: Keep your teacher happy.

The students were tasked with a scavenger hunt, searching their new classroom for different-colored items: red apples; brown teddy bear; purple grapes; pink pig; white duck; green leprechaun. They matched the color to the picture and then colored a picture the right color on a worksheet they carried with them.

“This helps me see handwriting and following directions and all sorts of stuff,” Mrs. Eddy said of the activity.

“I like just watching,” Mrs. Eddy said to me as she looked over the room. “See who talks to who.”

The kids are wandering around the room – young student nomads – with clipboard and pencil in hand.

“Hi, pig.”

“I’m looking for you pig.”

“I have one, two, three, four, five, six.”

“I know where all of them are,” Michael Solomon, now 7, said.

But some of the students are easily sidetracked and distracted.

“I love rocking chair,” Michael said. “It’s my favorite.” He writes down a letter and then erases it. Slowly. “I love rocking chairs.” He was looking for a yellow lemon. He finds the smaller rocking chair. “What? That’s a rocking chair, too...”

“Class, class, class,” Mrs. Eddy said.

“Yes, yes, yes,” they answered.

Making progress

Mrs. Eddy tries to meet her budding readers where they are, sorting the students into groups based on reading skills. For roughly an hour each day, the students cycle through group reading, reading to self and reading with a buddy stations. They also work on "word work" packets tailored to the student's level. Every couple of weeks, she reads one-on-one with students to assess where their reading skills officially stands - conducting assessments both for her own classroom use and for district use.

At the start of the year, a vast majority of Mrs. Eddy's students are reading at levels below expectations for the beginning of first grade, according to the Fountas and Pinell reading measure, which scores students at reading levels that start at A and progress through much of the alphabet. To Mrs. Eddy, Fountas and Pinell is the gold standard measurement of a student’s reading level. 

The Fountas scale rates each book with a letter: A being the simplest and intended for kindergartners. Subsequent letters indicate more complex texts for older students. The student folders laid out at her table were labeled with the levels at which Mrs. Eddy was testing different students that day: A, B, C and D. An A reading level, for example, is considered an early-kindergarten level; eight of Mrs. Eddy's students started the year out reading at or below a level A. 

"That's what I want to know," she said. "I want to know how challenging of books they read.”

So Mrs. Eddy faces the challenge of getting her students up to speed and then advancing them along first grade reading levels to what is expected of second graders. Since the students start the year at dramatically different places - the most advanced readers in the class start the year at a higher level than where many of their classmates will end the year - Mrs. Eddy is constantly teaching across disparate reading levels. 

During a Nov. 4 one-on-one assessment, student Aliyah Burns, now 6, read through a book about a smelly skunk and animal party gone bad. Mrs. Eddy marked how well she read each word and each sentence. When Aliyah gets stuck at “then,” Mrs. Eddy pulls out a laminated sheet labeled “Tricky Word Strategies” and points to “say the beginning sound.”

That helps Aliyah get back on track.

“Tell me what happened in this silly story,” Mrs. Eddy said to Aliyah, moving from reading to comprehension.

“The skunk made the animals get out of the house,” Aliyah said.

“Why? Why did everyone get out of the house?”

“Because he stinked up the house.”

As Mrs. Eddy focused on on student, other students stalk nearby. Some want to show her something in a book; others want to go to the bathroom or need their shoes tied. But they all come with the same call: “Mrs. Eddy.” “Mrs. Eddy. “Mrs. Eddy.” Oftentimes a classroom aid is on hand to help keep the class on track. But Mrs. Eddy is constantly scanning the room, keeping track of her cohort.

She is also constantly looking ahead, foreshadowing future lessons or insisting the students will soon be reading books like what she reads aloud to them – or even harder texts.

“This is where I hope they will be at the end of the year,” Mrs. Eddy said, reaching into a box of Fountas books and pulling out a J-rated text. She holds up “Our New Neighbors” and points out the extended dialogue, complex two-clause sentences, non-intuitive structure and other literary hurdles that would trip up the students that day in early-November. But the students weren’t necessarily deterred.

“I can read that book,” Isaiah said, diving into the text. “‘Well,’ said mom -- well, I don’t know that word.”

Not yet.


Other stories in this series

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