‘Street’ smart in language skills

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent


Check out the action in kindergarten and first grade classes in Lyndhurst public schools.

Instead of sand creatures and tinker toys, kids are creating reading and writing portfolios and parents and/or guardians are being asked to take an active role in helping their kids mount the ladder of academic success.

School administrators are deploying a language arts curriculum called “Reading Street” to get their young charges on the march to literacy mecca.

Last school year, the district introduced the concept to grades 2 to 5 and now it’s being widened to include the youngest children, K and 1, 420 of them spread among Washington, Franklin, Columbus and Jefferson schools.

Superintendent of Schools Tracey Marinelli said that teachers deploy a wide ranging packaging of workbooks and technology to get the message across.

“We knew we needed to increase rigor in our primary grades, and based on what our second- through fifthgrade teachers were seeing from their experiences working with the system, staff liked to go with the same thing for our youngest kids,” Marinelli said.

Elba Castrovinci, elementary instruction supervisor, and Shauna DeMarco, principal of Washington School, said the program is designed to teach kids concepts aligned with the state-mandated Common Core standards and “21st century skills.”

In a classroom setting, a visitor is likely to see some of the same traditional teaching tools associated with the early learner, such as a big picture book on animals with basic vocabulary, but, as explained by Castrovinci and DeMarco, instead of just sounding out the new words in the story, children are asked to “make predictions” about story outcomes.

In this way, a lesson doesn’t become simply a rote recitation of words and phrases without context; rather, kids – even at this tender age – are prodded to get into the habit of using critical thinking skills, making inferences.

In teacher-guided small group sessions – where you can still see young ones positioned on comfortable area rugs – children are encouraged to revisit the lesson to which the entire class was previously exposed, and discuss it in more depth, at a level appropriate to the group.

Technology is incorporated, in some instances, with the use of “Smart boards”, which, with the teacher’s guidance, help kids build word recognition skills by dragging a particular image on the monitor to match the word that accurately describes what the image represents.

Each classroom has a library of books that are carefully geared to varied reading levels – and, which these days, favor non-fiction versus fiction, to help young readers get oriented to a recognition and interpretation of concepts like caption, illustration and chart, which, in turn, teachers can use to prompt students’ understanding of a story’s main idea and to measure how well they can synthesize pieces of information.

These are the kinds of skills that the state’s new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) testing mechanism is designed to monitor, the administrators note.

Mastery of such skills will, hopefully, carry over to science and math disciplines, they say.

Washington School first grade teacher Alyssa Marino said she finds the application of Reading Street techniques lends itself to being “very interactive” with her 20 students. “The kids get excited when they see videos that go along with learning phonics skills,” she said.

An animated grammar lesson, somewhat akin to the “Sesame Street” kids TV show, that features a catchy tune is another turn-on for her kids, Marino said. “They sing it all day long,” she said. “It sticks with them.” And, at the same time, they’re practicing good gammar. “[Reading Street] gives us a chance to meet the students’ needs,” Marino said. “It gives us the resources to help each student get to where they need to be.”

Among other things, Marino – who, like her peers, went through district-sponsored training in the new approach – said her students are “reading a lot of non-fiction,” and, in the process, picking up skills like “learning how to use a glossary, a road map, map key or a graph,” which, she says, they can apply to a social studies or math lesson.

Back in late January, nearly 50 parents and guardians turned out for an orientation on the Reading Street program and learned how they could help build their kids’ literacy abilities by, for example, setting up a daily reading routine with them and engaging them in an active discussion about the text to check on how well they understood what they were reading.

At the workshop, parents got lessons in how to help their child “decode” a strange word, to look at pictures for clues, to accentuate “fluency” (proper speed, phrasing and expression), to probe for the author’s intent and to discover why characters in a story behave the way they do, among other things.

Down the road, Marinelli is hoping to see positive results from travels on Reading Street as measured by the PARCC assessments upcoming.

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