Poor Readers Turned On : 1st 'R' Graduates to Computer Age

Times Staff Writer

At Pacoima Junior High School, where half the students read at no better than the fifth-grade level, educators are hoping that computers will do for their students' reading what the machines did for their math.

"There is no reason, if we were able to improve our math scores, we couldn't improve our reading scores," Principal Augustine Herrera said Friday at a press conference called to announce the names of 304 schools in Los Angeles County--20 of them in the San Fernando Valley--that will share $2.8 million of the $9 million in state money for school computer programs. Pacoima Junior High will get $12,000 of the funds to develop a reading program.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), author of the bill that resulted in the statewide allocation of the money for such programs, predicted that computers "are going to become known as the fourth 'R' of education. . . . This is really the start of something that is going to be very, very productive for California schools."

The legislation, the Computer Education Act of 1984, provided funds to public schools to create or enhance computer programs.

66 City Schools Getting $660,000

Los Angeles County will get almost one-third of the money released statewide this year to elementary and junior and senior high schools for the program. The Los Angeles Unified School District has been allocated $660,000 for 66 schools.

The Legislature authorized the program for three years, although funds must be approved in Sacramento each year.

The program has been instantly popular. In Los Angeles County, only 47% of the applicants received money. Computer experts at the Los Angeles County Office of Education selected the county schools that would receive the grants based on the merits of their proposals.

At Pacoima, where Herrera said students fare worse in reading test scores than at all but one other public school in the Valley, money will be used to create a computer laboratory for poor readers.

The lab is based in part on what the school did 15 years ago, when students had math scores as lackluster as today's reading scores. With the help of computers bought in the 1970s, Herrera said, the school has now nearly matched the average math test scores of the Los Angeles school district as a whole.

All students reading at least two levels below their grade--50% of Pacoima's 1,500 regular students--will take turns using the lab, which will open next fall. The school already has the computers, but it needs its English teachers to become as familiar with computers as they are with Mark Twain. That costs money, since teachers must be sent to computer classes.

Software to Be Purchased

Software also must be purchased or designed to facilitate the teaching of reading, said English teacher Sally Smith, who is attending a computer class.

In the lab the computer will help children master the nuts and bolts of language, such as synonyms, prefixes, suffixes and spelling, Smith said. The computer also is expected to help develop in a child the more complex, intangible skills needed to comprehend the meaning of a string of words.

For instance, a novel could be programmed into the computer so the machine could ask a child at different intervals questions about the sequence of events and what conclusions or inferences he or she could make about the characters and plot.

Pacoima teachers say the beauty of a computer program is that it can be tailored to a student's need, it can free teachers and it passes no judgments on a child's progress. Children can make a mistake on their computers and no one else in the room will know, which is a lot less threatening than providing the wrong answer in front of a class.

And students like computers.

"I believe it's been shown the use of computers has given the students a greater interest in learning," Herrera said.

Katz's announcement was made in the school's computer math room, which is gaily decorated with posters clearly meant to fight apathy. One sign encourages students to "Make Math a Fiesta Not a Siesta," while another reminds students that computers are not smarter than people. While their teachers praised the computer, a handful of students, seemingly on their best behavior, kept their eyes trained on their computer screens as they progressed through some sample lessons.

One lesson used the very limited language instruction already available on Pacoima computers. It looked more like the Hangman game, in which a stick figure inches towards execution if the player cannot guess the letters in a secret word.

"It's more fun this way . . . than learning out of a book," said Marco Bratina, an eighth-grader, who appeared to be close to losing a round of Hangman, which a teacher later explained helps with word development.

"It looks like it's fun, but with it is coming solid learning," said Elaine Lindsey, the head of the math department, who helped the English teachers draw up the grant proposal.

The English computer program will be put to good use, Lindsey promised. "It's not going to be a toy we buy and set in the back room the next year."

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