News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

School works to improve reading

The Sisters Elementary School (SES) teachers and staff are making strides to increase literacy and reading levels at the elementary level, particularly in kindergarten and first grade.

Principal Joan Warburg presented to the Sisters School District School Board in January the highlights of SES Literacy Instruction Programming. Warburg outlined the new adoption of a core-based curriculum that offers literacy experiences around a common text at the elementary level.

“There were gaps we needed to address in the area of phonics, and creating the sounds of letters and recognizing symbols,” said Warburg.

There are some skills in which elementary students require instruction to gain foundational reading ability. Those include phonemic awareness (isolate sounds), phonics (decoding — reading the sounds and blending), and writing (encoding — writing the sounds to form words).

First-grade and kindergarten teachers at the elementary school recognized gaps in the reading skills foundation, and are starting to implement additional phonics practices in their curriculum.

First-grade teacher and former instructional coach Erika Velikonia said, “A lot of what we do is look at school data and figuring out areas to target and strategize, and reflect on those strategies we put in place.”

According to Velikonia, the first step to improving foundational reading skills is to screen the kids to see how to help in specific areas and to refine the curriculum.

Stephanie Burke, a kindergarten teacher, spoke to the impact of the pandemic on students in the early years of school.

“At the very basic, with the masks in general, they were struggling with the formation of the mouth and being able to produce sounds,” she said. “They couldn’t see how anything was being formed, so in the stage, the very basic level, that was our earliest aha moment, we are trying to teach them how to make a sound after recognizing a symbol as a letter, and they don’t know how to make that mouth formation to correctly have the placement of it.”

“Reading is very sequential, so learning to read is like a code, and it’s sequential in how they learn to read. It’s making sure that our instruction follows those sequential steps, essentially,” said Velikonia.

The sequential, foundational skills students learn in elementary school set up their success later in their school career, in being able to comprehend what they’re reading, and also to improve their writing skills.

The elementary school teachers — in all grades, but particularly in the foundational kindergarten and first grades — work hard at implementing multi-sensory and phonic awareness programs into the preexisting curriculum. The teachers now implement into daily routines the use of Heggerty templates, which is a phonic awareness program, and zoo phonics, which is a program that allows students to associate a letter with an animal.

“We noticed that some of our students needed another toolbox to put the sound to the symbol… and seeing a letter is just another symbol, but then we have to attach what the sound is, so we began using zoo phonics, which is a way for students to see a letter, and that animal has a sound and a movement,” said Burke.

First-grade teacher Cameron Croisant spoke about “secret stories” that the first-graders move into. Secret stories fast-track the critical “code-based” phonics skills needed to read and write.

“We take that great foundation a step further with secret stories, which involves sort of cracking the code and really integrating that science of reading research, and keeping reading interactive, and we see that carry over into their writing,” said Croisant.

Over the last 15 years, there has been a huge increase in brain research focused on the science of reading, and it is clear that learning to read is foundational for many other subjects. Teachers in Sisters are making themselves aware of the research, and how to respond to what they are seeing with kids, especially at the earlier stages.

“We are looking at how do we do better in what we know now,” said Velikonia.

“The teachers are constantly desiring to grow in their own practice and are constantly researching…doing the work to continue to improve and to grow not as an individual, but as a team, especially at kindergarten and first grade, and bring our knowledge together to do what’s best for the kids, the passion is definitely here,” said Warburg.

Long-term, the teachers at SES want to see students have a love for reading and to encourage students to read at home with their families. Early childhood learning can really boost a student’s love and desire to read.

They work with the SMART reading program getting books into the hands of the kids, and creating an environment to build a love of reading and desire to connect with books.

“We’ve been trying hard to get more books here at kids’ levels so they can really practice and see themselves as readers,” said Velikonia.

They are emphasizing not only the skills but the enjoyment of the written word.


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