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A Multisensory Reading Program in Lower School

The following article by Lower School Reading Coordinator/Learning Specialist Kristen Healy appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Saint David's Magazine.

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

The Gordon Library

Many years ago, Charlotte’s Web was just one of E. B. White’s novels that my mother read to me on summer evenings between first and second grade. I vividly remember curling up next to her as she read a chapter or two to me each night. I could not wait to hear more of Wilbur’s adventures with his friend, Charlotte.

As a teacher herself, my mother knew the value of reading aloud to children. It was a gift she gave to me that fostered my lifelong love of literature. Ultimately, this is what we want for all of our children—a lifelong love of literature.

To do this, one must first master the process of “cracking the code” or learning to read. Learning to read is not something that comes intuitively to every child. Research shows that children need a phonics-based curriculum for effective instruction.

A National Reading Panel report published in April 2000 stated that to be good readers children must be taught phonemic awareness, phonics, to read accurately and fluently, and apply reading comprehension strategies.(1) This report highlights the foundation of our Lower School reading program at Saint David’s School. By the time the boys finish Third Grade, our hope is that they have nearly mastered, if not fully mastered, the process of learning to read and are making the shift toward reading to learn. Using fiction and nonfiction texts, the boys can successfully understand the process of reading in order to focus on the meaning. 

The Lower School remains dedicated to small-group instruction. Boys are placed into reading groups to meet their instructional needs. The groups are skills based and appropriately paced for each child. A common language allows effective and thoughtful instruction. In First through Third Grade, there are six reading groups of approximately five to eight boys that meet daily for an hour, five days a week.

The Kindergarten divides into half-groups. While one half-group attends sports, the other half remains in the homeroom where it is split into two smaller groups. In addition, every fall a team of reading teachers assesses each child individually. Then, we meet as a team to review proper placement. The teachers at each grade level continue to meet weekly to review students’ profiles, and frequent assessments throughout the year are administered to monitor their progress.

Several years ago the Lower School began working with our reading consultant, Phyllis Bertin. Through training, observation, and in-house workshops, she has assisted the Lower School in developing a multisensory reading program. Each reading teacher is trained in this approach, which simultaneously appeals to the visual, kinesthetic, and auditory modalities. Within each lesson, the boys are explicitly taught phonics, reading, spelling, and grammar.

Each sound in the English language is represented by a letter or letters. Through a specific sequence, the boys learn isolated phonograms (sounds). Each sound has a specific keyword. For example, the keyword for /t/ is tiger. Therefore, the boys learn that “t” says /t/. While it is important for them to be able to identify the letter by name, it is crucial that they understand the sound. Following the review, the boys practice the individual sounds through spelling and reading.

Regardless of his reading ability, each boy’s lesson is structured the same way from Kindergarten to Third Grade. The teacher begins with a review of reading and spelling concepts from previous lessons. Using skywriting, which develops and reinforces handwriting skills (the formation of letters) and uses large muscles, the review may include phonograms, non-phonetic words, suffixes, or homonyms learned. Next, there is an introduction of new material which is then incorporated within a spelling dictation, oral reading, and a reinforcement activity.

The boys have daily spelling dictations, which provide practice and reinforcement of the new concepts. They may be asked to write sounds, individual words, phrases, formal sentences, and original sentences. The dictations are controlled and include only the new material or words from previous lessons.

Each lesson provides an assessment of their skills and immediate feedback for the teachers. By the end of the dictation, everything on the page is spelled properly. While there are no weekly spelling tests administered, the boys are given proficiency tests every four to six weeks to evaluate their progress within the program. The results provide useful information and help analyze patterns of errors for individuals or the group. The assessments assist the teachers when planning  for future lessons and identify specific skills that may need to be retaught. Last, the assessments/tests are very useful to share with parents throughout the year.

At times, students are asked to compose an original sentence on a spelling dictation or proficiency  test. Although the boys are held accountable to correctly spell words they have learned, they are also encouraged to sound out unfamiliar words on their own for the original sentences. In writing class, many of the writing teachers are also reading teachers; therefore, the teachers will hold the boys accountable for the spelling rules they have learned in reading class while again encouraging them to try spelling unfamiliar words on their own.

A key piece of the program is that the spelling (expressive) and reading (receptive) skills are taught together. Through phonetically controlled materials, the boys learn to read without picture cues. Boys read word, phrase, and sentence lists to develop their accuracy and fluency. Often these lists are compared to the scales a musician practices or daily drills completed by an athlete.

If you were to take up playing the piano, you would not be asked to play Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major during your first lesson. Instead, you would learn each individual note and practice the scales. Similarly, Alex Ovechkin requires daily sessions to reinforce his passing and shooting skills rather than taking the ice at the start of a game.  The word, phrase, and sentence lists provide the same practice and reinforcement of skills as a reader.

Developing their reading comprehension goes hand in hand with oral reading. Through phonetically
controlled texts and trade books, boys learn to identify main ideas, sequence key events, reread for evidence to support their answers, and make predictions. As they progress through the program, they may move onto summarizing and inferencing. In 2010, a team of reading teachers, The Primary Meaning Makers, created their Teaching for Understanding comprehension unit. The teachers focused on how the boys could examine comprehension strategies for fiction and non-fiction as well as make connections within, beyond, and about text to deepen their understanding of a particular topic or theme.

As part of the unit, we integrated new fiction and non-fiction titles to the Guided Reading library at the boys’ instructional level. For example, the boys may read Cynthia Rylant’s Poppleton followed by Gail Gibbons’ Pigs. After reading these texts, they complete activities such as using a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the pigs in both stories followed by creating a pig fact book. Often times, the boys’ cognitive ability is far greater than their decoding abilities. It is important to provide lessons that instruct and challenge our young readers.

The boys are strongly encouraged to read nightly. This can be accomplished in various ways. Reading a book independently requires the boys to be able to decode with 95 percent accuracy. We ask the boys to use the “Five Finger Test” to check if it is the “just right” book for them. If they have five or more errors on the page, simply put, this is not the right book for them to read on their own. Miscues or errors lead to a breakdown in understanding the meaning of the text, and may suggest that this is a text better suited for a shared reading.

Shared reading is a practice in which the parent and child take turns reading orally. For example, the parent reads a sentence, paragraph, or page, and then the child reads a sentence or paragraph. At the early primary levels, they may point out words they know. Finally, as Susan L. Hall and Louisa Moats shared in an article from American Educator, “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”(2)

This is the third type of reading and what we consider the most cherished time for a family—reading to your child. Parents frequently ask when they should stop reading aloud to their children. We recommend reading aloud nightly for as long as they are willing. What boys can understand when material is read to them is far greater than what they can read on their own, particularly in the primary grades. In addition, listening comprehension activities will inevitably enhance their reading comprehension.

Recently, we have seen a resurgence of the classics. Boys are devouring the tales of Dr. Doolittle, Moby Dick, and Dorothy’s adventures in The Wizard of Oz. Summer is the perfect time to take a visit to your local library and choose a chapter book to read together as a family. It is a great opportunity to spend time together while expanding beginning readers’ vocabulary with rich language experiences. Perhaps afterward, your son could even write a postcard to send to a classmate, teacher, or relative to share his thoughts on the family read aloud. Happy Reading!

1. Report of the National Reading Panel—An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction www.nationalreading April 2000.
2. Susan L. Hall and Louisa C. Moats, “Why Reading to Children Is Important,” American Educator vol. 24 no. 1 pp. 26–33 Spring 2000.


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