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Teachers Get Creative With Reading Techniques

Courtesy of Lois Solomon, Sun-Sentinel

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Third grade teaching team at Forest Park Elementary

To improve third-graders' abysmal reading skills, Forest Park Elementary School teachers threw out the teaching techniques they had learned in college. Lecturing in front of the class: gone. Mixing students who can't read with students who can: no more.

"It's been a radical year," reading coach Jean Downs said. It's been closer to two years of change for Forest Park, said Carole Shetler, who supervises south-county principals. Thompson's techniques appear to be working: The percentage of students who may have to repeat third grade fell to 48 percent this year from 68 percent last year, which at the time was the worst rate for third-graders in the county.

Thompson decided last summer the school needed total transformation to emerge from two years of humiliating D ratings from the state. Teachers agreed the school could no longer use its high number of immigrants as an excuse for low test scores. More than half the students speak Haitian Creole as their native language. Nor could it blame poverty, they decided, even though more than 90 percent of students qualify for free lunches.

Teachers from each grade level began to meet every six days to dissect the performance of their students. They often found patterns, such as students having trouble figuring out the main idea of a story, an important FCAT skill. Downs, the reading coach, offered techniques to help tackle comprehension skills.

Students were assigned to classes based on skill levels. One class consisted only of students who were repeating third grade. Another was filled with students who had just arrived in the United States from Haiti. These students learned skills such as math in the morning with teacher Greg Yodowitz and had the same lessons reinforced in Creole in the afternoon with teacher Ninalynn Bradshaw.

"The kids needed their native language spoken to them in a small group setting," Bradshaw said. Thompson told teachers to stop giving lessons to the whole class and instead divide students up based on skill levels. Teachers briefly introduced a topic to the full group and then worked with individuals, pairs or small groups.

"They don't remember anything when you stand and lecture," third-grade teacher Kim Waters said. Some teachers had to get accustomed to the noisier classroom these small groups created. As for students, they said the FCAT reading tasks were challenging but they felt well-prepared. Third-grader Destiny Shelton said she liked when teachers encouraged them to use science textbooks to develop their reading skills. "It was better than a regular book because you learned new stuff and there were more pictures," she said.

For more information about Forest Park Elementary: http://www.palmbeach.k12.fl.us/forestparkes/