IN GRASONVILLE, MD. With fingers and pencils, Destiny Wallace-Jenkins and Aiden Priest took turns prompting each other to pronounce what they saw on the page. K-i-n-g – king. S-l-a-m – slam.
“Don’t cover it up, Aiden. Let her see it,” teacher Allison Torrence said one December morning at the elementary school here. “Destiny, you get ready and point for Aiden. Okay. Put it together.”
Letters were becoming sounds, sounds were becoming words and these first-graders on the Eastern Shore were becoming readers through a program that has won a major grant from one of President Obama’s signature education initiatives. The money will help Success for All, as the program is known, expand across the country.
Success for All groups students by reading skills, letting them move to the next level as soon as they’re ready. Teachers follow a script. All possible teachers in the building, including administrators, special-ed, P.E and music teachers, handle a 90-minute literacy block. That keeps class sizes small.
Detailed descriptions of daily objectives were posted outside the rooms. Example: “Use elements of narrative text to facilitate understanding. . . . Identify and explain character traits and actions.”
Beginners, including Destiny and Aiden, paired off to help each other on the teacher’s cue. They spent half an hour on phonics and then shifted to lessons geared to stories, story telling, retelling, comprehension and thematic writing.
Teacher Debbie Sparks guided more advanced students – all fifth-graders – through analysis of a nonfiction text on dinosaurs. Students formed groups of four for “team talk” to discuss scientific theories on why the dinosaurs died out. Then they gave their findings to the class – another of many examples of the emphasis on oral language development – and were awarded points for the quality of their presentations.
Some teachers dislike the regimentation, but less-experienced teachers often like the structure. Teachers told the Post that SFA “enables them to work directly with students for long stretches of time. That would not necessarily be the case if teachers were juggling small groups of varying ability within one classroom.”
Over the past twenty years, the only reading programs I have seen that have consistently proved to be effective are Success For All and Direct Instruction, the work of two University of Oregon pioneers, Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker, who have also been hurt by the educational practice of discarding programs that aren’t considered cool any more.
In my San Jose Mercury News days, I observed a Success for All school in San Jose that credited the program with identifying fourth- and fifth-graders who’d never mastered first- and second-grade reading skills. Placing students in classes at their own level let them catch up — and reduced discipline problems dramatically. Kids no longer needed to keep the class disrupted so nobody would notice their inability to read, teachers said. Other SFA schools in San Jose also reported fewer discipline problems. SFA’s structure and sense of purpose carried over for the whole day, principals told me. Teacher absenteeism fell significantly as well.