Building new skills in reading
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 4, 2005

Karina Bland

As soon as Miguel Santiago gets home from school, he climbs into a big brown chair in the living room to do his homework.

There's no time for a snack or even to take off his uniform. In fact, there's no time for anything, his mother says, until he has done his homework.

Miguel is in second grade at Creighton Elementary School in Phoenix, and he has a lot of work to do. Like all 180,000 second-graders in Arizona, Miguel is facing the most difficult material of his academic life.

He's still learning to read, but not the stuff of alphabet songs or sounding out words. The words are longer now and the sentence structures more complex. They are studying the silent "e," three-letter blends and vowel teams, like the "ai" in train. The children are expected to read faster, more like the way they talk and less like little robots, and understand the story beyond the words.

It's a challenging time. Second-graders are at a crucial juncture, when how well they learn to read can determine not only how they fare academically in years to come, but also how they gauge their self-worth.

If they do well, children learn to love, or at least like, reading. They carry dog-eared paperbacks in their backpacks and beg mom and dad for money for the book fair. They're confident and excited about school.

But second-graders who struggle to read can give up, becoming frustrated and angry. They say things like, "I'm stupid" and "Reading is dumb." They won't raise their hands to answer questions, let alone read out loud. Some kids misbehave to avoid reading, sometimes to the point that they're sent out of class.

Without the intervention of caring grown-ups, their struggles can be the start of a downward spiral. Children who fall behind can be held back a year, and retention is the single biggest indicator of which kids become dropouts.

Teaching children to read is tough, especially in Arizona, where just 52 percent of Arizona's fourth-graders read at a proficient level, according to the 2005 Nation's Report Card.

Last year, The Arizona Republic teamed up with Creighton in a three-year partnership in hopes of getting all first-graders up to speed in reading.
Now, the children are in second grade. They're better readers but still behind. The hope is to get them up to grade level by the end of third grade.

Miguel has a lot of hard work ahead. He opens Bob Hartman's The Wolf Who Cried Boy and says, "Listen to me read."

The problem, impact

The boy reading in the big chair used to drag his feet all the way to school. When it was time to read, he would pull his knees to his chest and wrap himself into a ball. He mouthed the words as his classmates read aloud.

At home, his mother says, Miguel cried whenever he had to read, frustrated because it was so hard.

"Kids who are encountering that first difficulty with any kind of academic or life event have to re-imagine who they are," says John Barton, who heads the Clinical Psychology Center at Arizona State University. "When the conclusion is that you're stupid, which is what most kids conclude, I think that has long-lasting, pervasive effects."

Barton, also a psychologist at Phoenix Children's Hospital, evaluates children for reading disabilities. It's difficult even for him, with all the diplomas on his wall, to convince children that they're not stupid once they have decided they are.

Struggling to learn how to read can be emotionally and mentally exhausting, he says. Children can get frustrated and grow angry. Their self-confidence can erode to the point that they feel incompetent, passive and reluctant to take risks, not only in school but also in other aspects of life, such as friendships or sports.

Kids who are struggling to read also will act up in class sometimes and, conversely, children who misbehave in class often have trouble reading. No matter which problem came first, studies show that if teachers address the reading, the behavior also improves.

At this age, children are very aware of how they compare to classmates, says Becky Bernard, a teacher for 28 years, all but two in second grade.

They'll do practically anything to avoid embarrassing themselves. Bernard has had students have sudden coughing fits or a desperate need to go to the bathroom just when it was their turn to read.

In second grade, children read constantly, out loud, silently and to their teacher. They're expected to read instructions on math worksheets and procedures in science.

"It just seems that everywhere a second-grader turns, there's something that needs to be read," says Bernard, who teaches at Tempe's Broadmor School.

At all schools, second-graders are assessed regularly to see how much they've learned, and there's pressure to do well. By now, second-graders should read 40 to 50 words a minute and 90 words a minute by the end of the school year.

Most of the children in Miguel's class hover at about 20 words per minute. All but one are learning English. Many are poor, without shelves full of books at home or the life experiences most kids take for granted.

"This is where you need to be by the end of second grade," their teacher, Jill Browne, tells the class, pointing to a spot on their progress reports that marks 90 words per minute. "It's going to be a lot of work."

The kids groan.

Miguel's willing to do the work. These days, he is the first one up and ready for school in his house. He's still behind, but what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in ambition.

"The important thing is, the desire is there," Browne says.

That's half the battle won.

How teachers help

Miguel's best hope for learning how to read well is his teacher. It's her job to help him figure out the complexities of the English language.

"Maggie had a bad day," Miguel reads, sitting across from Browne on a recent school day.

"She lost her . . . "

Browne gives him the next word: favorite. " . . . favorite hat. She needs a hug hug," Miguel continues.

Browne stops him and asks, "Does that make sense? A hug hug?"

He shakes his head. No. Browne points to the silent "e," which makes the vowel say its name. Miguel reads again, "She needs a huge hug." He smiles up at Browne.

"You did some really good things here, Miguel, just like good readers do," she says.

When Miguel got stuck on a word, he went back to the beginning of the sentence and started again. He looked at the picture for clues. He sounded out the first part of the word and then read to the end of the sentence. Then he tried a few words.

Browne asks, "Does it look right? Does it sound right? Does it make sense?"

What Miguel needs now, along with most second-graders halfway through the school year, is a lot of practice. Browne tells him to pick out a new book: "You did a great job, Miguel."

Encouragement. That's exactly what Miguel and other beginning readers need, experts say.

No matter how slow the progress, they need to know that reading can be fun, and that this memorizing of vowel teams and letter blends really is the means to an end.

"Even if you are not a really good reader, children should know that there certainly is an adventure to be found in every book," Bernard says.

To get her students excited about books, Browne reads aloud from books most of her students aren't ready to tackle on their own.

"What has happened so far, Carlos?" Browne asks, holding up Junie B. Jones Has a Monster Under Her Bed by Barbara Park.

"Junie B. didn't want to say cheese to get her picture taken," Carlos Viveros explains.

"And she had one eye like this," says Diego Covarrubias, squeezing one eye shut.

There are far fewer pictures in the books in second grade, so Browne, an art major, draws in marker on the board, reading at the same time. She draws children posed for a class picture, the tall ones in the back, in less than a minute.

Her students draw, too, as they listen. When Miguel is done with his picture, he rests his chin in his cupped hands, his eyes on Browne.

One day, Miguel boasts, he will read Junie B. Jones books for himself.

"Miss Browne said."

How parents help

Late on a Thursday in November, Miguel's mother, Rosaelia Biliebre, attends parent literacy training at Creighton, hoping to learn how to better help her children at home. She quit her job once her boys, Miguel and Edgar, 8, got to second grade so she could help them keep up with their schoolwork. She knows this is a crucial time.

Second-grade teacher Cecilia Anderson explains that it is important for parents to read to children, whether in English or Spanish, and have their children read to them.

Reading aloud builds vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

"You must be thinking, 'I don't know what to do to help my child. I'm not a reading teacher,' " Anderson says.

The parents nod.

So Anderson and Browne show them, with Browne pretending to be a child and Anderson the mother as they read aloud from a book about Clifford the Big Red Dog.

They model the reading strategies they teach in their classrooms. At the end of the book, Anderson tells parents, ask children what the story was about to see if they understood what they read.

Be sure, she says, to praise children's efforts. Learning to read is a difficult and sometimes frustrating task.

Experts say that parents can help children get better at reading by practicing and help bolster their self-esteem by praising their efforts and accomplishments in all areas, not just academics.

Be sure to let children know you are their biggest fan, Bernard says, no matter what.

Children learn to read at different speeds and times. Bernard says reading skills tend to even out by third grade, when the disparities between students are less obvious.

Assure children that they are not alone in their struggles, citing a neighbor kid or older brother as an example, and promise to help, Barton says. At home, Biliebre reads to her children in Spanish, and they read to her in English. Miguel and Edgar read to brother Armando, 5, a kindergartner.

Biliebre checks the boys' math and, if an answer is wrong, she erases it and makes them do it again. She uses a Spanish-English dictionary to help decipher the instructions. Their father helps, too, when he gets home from his job at a carwash.

Both have noticed a change in Miguel now that he's beginning to read. He's more confident. Biliebre says, "He wants so much to learn."

Hope from hard work

On the walk home from school two weeks ago, Miguel and his brother Edgar staggered under the weight of donated sacks of vegetables and fruit sent home with them.

They dragged the bags down a littered street, past rundown houses and trailers. Principal Rosemary Agneessens shows this area to people who tour her school to give them a better understanding of what her students are up against.

Miguel sometimes sees men who are dirty and beg for money. He asks, "Why are they like that?" His dad tells him, "They did not give enough attention to their studies."

The boys burst into the immaculate apartment their family shares with an uncle, aunt and baby cousin. Miguel climbs into the big chair.

His mother asks, "How did you behave in school?"

"Good," he tells her.

"If you brought homework, I want to see it," she says.

Miguel tackles math first, using his fingers to figure the problems. He says he's good at math and a lot of other things. He can tie his shoes. He's a fast runner and a good drawer.

And, now, he believes he can be a good reader.

With Miguel in the big chair on one side of a square table, and Edgar on the other on the couch, the boys spend at least half an hour on homework. Nearby, their little brother turns the pages of a Clifford book.

When they're done, they make a beeline for the bedroom to shrug off their uniforms for shorts and T-shirts.

Only then does their mother put the music on, and they dance around the living room.