Curriculum That Clicks

St.Petersburgh Times Online

As a second-grader, Karley Bender hated to read.She couldn’t make out what the words said. They looked like nonsense. Trying to get through schoolwork, much less a book for fun, was unpleasant at best.”I used to have to fight her every time to read,” Karley’s mom, Renee, recalled. “She would cry.”

Entering the third grade, Karley got into a program, once reserved for special education students, that changed everything. Over the course of 80 intense hours, the Chocachatti Elementary School student learned how to visualize words on a page in a way that made sense. One day, reading clicked. Karley passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this spring with room to spare and was named one of her school’s most improved readers. Perhaps more exciting, Karley now grabs a pleasure book – usually from the Junie B. Jones collection – almost every night.

With Karley as but one example of success, Chocachatti teachers are singing the praises of the Lindamood-Bell reading method. Principal Michael Tellone guessed that the program will expand over time, as the strategies “just make such doggone good sense.”

Educators are saying much the same about Acaletics, a math instruction program that has boosted student performance at Moton, Eastside and, most recently, Pine Grove elementary schools.

“It’s a way to make challenging math more accessible and more fun,” Moton teacher Phyllis Haas said, after leading a fourth-grade class through a noisy math contest. “Acaletics has just simply opened a lot of students to see success they may not have seen.”

With students held to ever-rising state and national standards, local schools are always on the lookout for better ways to help. The image of the old-fashioned teacher unwilling to turn on the classroom computer is, by necessity, changing.

“The bottom line is, it’s for the good of the child,” said Moton resource teacher Carol Marks.

And in Hernando County, two programs added to the regular curriculum that seem to be winning accolades despite the extra cost are Lindamood-Bell and Acaletics.

Each is what educators call “prescriptive.” That means students get individualized attention, based on the strengths and weaknesses identified through regular testing.

Each builds upon the existing school curriculum, rather than replacing it. Each also strives to get past just knowing a child gave a wrong answer.

The goal, as Lindamood-Bell consultant Matthew Gardner described it, is to fix the underlying learning problems, rather than to continually ask students to do something they cannot do.

“Kids see why exactly they got it wrong, not just that they got it wrong,” Moton Title I lead teacher Ruth Flaspeter said of Acaletics.

Initial results have been positive.

The first group of Chocachatti students pulled from their classrooms for intensive Lindamood-Bell training this year averaged 2.5 years of improvement in reading comprehension after an average of 75 hours.

Chocachatti and three other schools – Eastside, Suncoast and Floyd – that piloted the methods in all classrooms had some of the best third-grade FCAT reading scores in the county.

All three schools using Acaletics improved their FCAT math performance among third-graders. Moton and Eastside, which have used the program more than one year, have seen steady increases in children scoring at the top levels.

Inside the classrooms, Moton fifth-graders averaged 55.9 percent on their required skills when the academic year began. By midyear, they were averaging 72.6 percent. They haven’t taken the post-test yet.

Originally used just for third through fifth grades at Moton, Acaletics quickly is taking off in Hernando County.

Moton, now in its third year with the program, has extended it to first- and second-graders. Eastside adopted Acaletics last year, Pine Grove joined this year and five more elementary schools are slated to adopt it next year.

Key to the program are regular timed tests that cover all five FCAT math skills – number sense, measurement, geometry, algebraic thinking and data analysis. Gone are the days when a teacher would do fractions for a set period, then drop them, never to be seen again until final exams.

The tests help children overcome test anxiety. At the same time, they give teachers a question-by-question breakdown of who did well on which problems. Teachers then focus their instruction on the most troublesome areas.

Even looking at answers has changed. Each incorrect response highlights where children took a wrong step, so the teacher can redirect them.

For example, a question might ask students to transpose 120 yards into feet. One answer might be 40, which would show that the student divided instead of multiplied. Another might be 120, which would show that the child did not distinguish between yards and feet.

Teachers review these results as a group weekly. They share ideas about instruction and students.

A highlight for the students is “quick picks.” At the start of each math class, the children must complete five problems aligned with the five FCAT skills.

Teacher Phyllis Haas has turned the activity into a competition, and the kids love it.

On Thursday, a fourth-grade class sat in small teams, whispering fervently in an effort to agree upon the correct answer faster than the others. At stake: candy.

They covered mean, median and mode, converted 16/7 to a mixed number, and figured the volume of a rectangular box.

“We practice math problems, so testing is easier,” said Timothy Robbia.

“Math is easy, and Mrs. Haas makes it real fun,” added his classmate, Edward Williams.

Haas said the program has boosted the level of math instruction at Moton to the point that young children use a sophisticated math vocabulary that she did not hear when she joined the school four years ago.

“I will always use this format, it works so well,” the 24-year teaching veteran said.

Lindamood-Bell, a sophisticated literacy program that focuses on brain functions and learning, generates similar enthusiasm. Consultant Gardner explained that in the younger grades, the goal is to help children break the code of reading. The older students work on comprehension.

Those who participate become more aware of the actual processes behind reading.

In the classroom, one sees children using their fingers to “write” words in the air. That helps them visualize the letters and words in their minds. Teachers might have students “feel” the words in their mouths, or create mental picture stories about the sentences they have read.

The effort is to “slow down the brain and have them think through the reading,” Gardner said.

Sometimes students resist, because the work is hard and it focuses on their weakest points, teacher Wanda Vyborny said. Once they realize it works, though, she said, the excitement grows.

“It makes sense,” Vyborny said. “Not only does it make sense to teachers, it starts to make sense to the students, too. It gives you the language to help your students figure out the problem.”

As many as 30 percent of children do not learn in traditional ways, said Chocachatti teacher Carol Ballard, one of the district’s leading Lindamood-Bell proponents. This program helps reach them, she said.

Third-grader Karley is not the exception, Ballard said. She talked about a class of second-graders, all at prekindergarten reading levels, that aced the Stanford Achievement Test after being taught the Lindamood-Bell way.

There’s another way to tell the program works.

“When a child is reading and laughing,” Ballard said, “then you know they’ve got it.”

Lately, she’s been hearing a lot of laughter.

- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 352 754-6115 orĀ

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