Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


New teaching tactics aim to increase reading skills


September 1, 2011

Veteran teacher Jeanne Kitayama is on special assignment for the Haines Borough School District. Her mission: To help ensure that all Haines students are reading at proficiency by the end of third grade.

Kitayama’s part-time position, established on a trial basis this year, grew out of new research about developing brains and borrows from some recent, pioneering work aimed at "intervention," or intercepting students who are falling behind and catching them up.

In interviews, school board president Carol Kelly and superintendent Michael Byer said that success in reading largely determines success at school and that third grade is a critical jumping-off point.

"Students learn to read through third grade. After that, they read to learn," said Byer. Importantly, research shows that students who, for example, fall one year behind classmates in reading skills, tend to stay a year behind throughout their school careers.

That’s why it’s important to catch straggling readers early, Byer said.

Averaged during the past five years, 91 percent of Haines third-graders have reached proficiency. While that number is encouraging, the score that defines "proficient" gets higher each year, under federal education law.

Using a model developed at schools in Kennewick, Wash ., Haines educators are aiming to improve reading skills by concentrating efforts at the youngest children. Part of the district’s reasoning is that recent brain research says children are learning language earlier than was previously known.

"The number of (brain) synapses in the language area reaches its maximum at about one year (of age)," writes teacher and psychologist Eric Jensen in his 2006 book "Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every Learner’s Potential."

"This is the time when parents and caregivers should pay special attention," Jensen wrote. "The more the parents’ conversations (more words, longer words, complete sentences) between birth and age three, the greater the infant’s vocabulary… When mom talks, infants listen."

Full sentences and conversation, Jensen wrote, are much better than one-word commands like "stop" or "no."

Kitayama will work with area preschool teachers and programs such as "Parents As Teachers" and ones offered through the Public Health Nurse office.

Kitayama said she’s hoping to get the attention of families who don’t already participate in library reading sessions or similar programs, perhaps by starting a local chapter of the Children’s Reading Foundation.

The new position is evolving, but Kitayama said she also envisions efforts aimed at public awareness of the importance of reading to and speaking with young children.

In the school, Kitayama’s role will be collaborating with district teachers to identify primary students who need extra instruction, and make sure they get personal and direct help.

"It used to be that we almost waited for children to fail," said Barbara Pardee, a 20-year primary teacher and reading specialist. "Now we don’t want to rescue them after they fail. We want to build them up right where they are."

Pardee said she’s excited about the new approach that includes teams of teachers focusing on a single student. "Every teacher who’s had that child is on that team. We meet and come up with an action plan" and follow-up a few weeks later to see if it’s working.

The district saw "incredible gains" last year through the collaborative approach, Pardee said.

Kitayama also is looking to integrate reading into other classes. In math, for example, students can learn language skills by explaining their reasoning. In science, students can learn writing by keeping notebooks of science projects.

"My goal is to make reading enriching and fun and the way to do that is to spread it across the curriculum," she said. Among her tools will be a new computer program that finds "holes" in students’ learning and identifies needed skills.

Poor reading skills diminish a student’s potential and add considerably to the district’s costs if not remedied, Kitayama said. "You save time and money in the long run if you start promoting literacy at an early age."

school board president Carol Kelly said she’s cautiously optimistic about the program.

"At this point we’re trying it for one year. We’ll see. What works somewhere else doesn’t necessarily work here, but I don’t think there’s anything more important than a person being able to read, and it starts at the cradle," Kelly said. "We have to work with the parents and with the library and with preschool programs. A child has to be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten."