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Schools Act to Beef Up Reading Programs

Times Staff Writer

After watching reading test scores decline for three years, administrators at Camarillo High School this fall are making reading classes mandatory for students who have difficulty deciphering the written word.

This year, 38% of the school’s 444 ninth-graders have been assigned to a reading class. About 15% of the rest of the students at the school, where the students are mostly white and come from upper-middle-class families, will also be taking reading this year.

Although high schools have long offered special help in reading for students who need it, Camarillo’s new program is indicative of a nationwide trend toward beefing up reading programs at the secondary level.

“Many of these kids have never read an entire book,” said David Smith, a Camarillo High reading teacher. “And they’re not necessarily television watchers. They just aren’t interested in reading. They are more inclined to physical activities like dirt bike riding.”

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Camarillo High and other secondary schools have always offered reading courses for slow or poor readers, but traditionally enrollment was low. The reason, educators say, is that older students were often reluctant to voluntarily take the courses because they believed there was a stigma attached to taking a reading class.

Have Poor Self-Image

According to Smith, many of the students who read poorly have a poor self-image. He said that they tend to be less mature than their peers and that more boys than girls are in his classes.

Educators say that most teen-agers who read poorly are not illiterate, although there are some who cannot identify, pronounce and explain the meaning of even common words. For the great majority of teen-agers, however, there are a variety of other reading problems.

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For example, some students have poor comprehension; they can read but do not get any meaning from what they have read. Others cannot draw inferences from what they read or they have difficulty following the main idea of an article or the plot of a story. And still others have never learned to differentiate various types of reading--they skim their textbooks the same way they skim People magazine.

“It isn’t that these children aren’t intelligent,” said Jeanne Chall, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the university’s reading laboratory. “Some just take longer to learn things and they’re in a system that won’t wait for them.”

For years, educators say, generations of poor readers could coast through school, making average or below-average grades, often bluffing their way through most classes.

‘Slipped Between Cracks’

“These were kids who slipped between the cracks,” said Richard C. Anderson, director of the University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading and chairman of the National Commission on Reading, which last year published a landmark report, “Becoming a Nation of Readers.”

“Today there are too many kids who aren’t reading up to their potential,” Anderson said. “This has forced all educators to come up with ways to close those cracks, to make sure every child can read and understand that reading is a pleasurable activity.”

According to a 1985 National Assessment of Educational Progress report on students’ reading abilities, American schoolchildren generally were reading better in 1984 than they were in 1971. Most of the gains were made among black and Latino children living in lower-economic urban areas. But, according to the report, there was little improvement in reading ability among white students living in communities such as Camarillo and others in the West San Fernando Valley.

Secondary schools in these communities and others around the country are trying to improve reading through a number of methods.

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The Orange County, Fla., school system, which serves the Orlando area, has created a “schools-within-schools” program in which students take regular high school courses that have an emphasis on reading and comprehension.

In New York City, eighth-graders are taken out of their regular classes and given extra instruction in reading and study skills.

One of the most popular reading plans is the so-called sustained reading program, in which students are allowed to read any book or magazine for 10 to 15 minutes. At Webster Junior High in West Los Angeles, students take time from their English classes to read. At A. E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, all afternoon classes stop for 15 minutes for reading.

Two-Tiered Approach

Administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District have designed a two-tiered approach to improving the reading ability of junior and senior high students. The first part of the program, which began three years ago, encourages teachers in all subject areas to help improve student reading skills in the area they teach.

For example, a geometry teacher could make assignments for students to pick out the key words in theorems and postulates that will give them a clue on how to solve geometry problems. A history teacher could discuss vocabulary words that are unique to the period students are studying. And a physical education teacher could give reading assignments about the sports students are involved in.

The second part of Los Angeles school system’s plan, according to district reading specialist Sherryl Broyles, is the Schoolwide Reading Program.

Each school, Broyles said, was directed to establish a committee of administrators, teachers and parents to assess the reading needs of the school and to establish a program based on the needs of the students and the goals of the community.

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“It usually turns out that the program is unique to that individual school,” Broyles said.

Belmont High Cited

For example, at Belmont High in Los Angeles, where English is the second language for 60% of the school’s 4,400 students, all ninth-graders take a yearlong class in which they spend 10 weeks in a reading class, then 10 weeks in a language arts class, such as one in which they would learn grammar. Both classes emphasize the speaking of English. The students then are assigned to a second round of the reading and language arts classes.

Frost Junior High in Granada Hills takes a different approach. The daily 20-minute homeroom period is devoted to a program Principal Gerald Horowitz described as “learning skills for life,” many of them aimed at improving reading. Monday is study skills day, Tuesday focuses on reading and comprehension, Wednesday on writing, Thursday on computation and Friday on test-taking skills.

To assess the reading abilities of students at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, counselors give incoming students a reading test. If they score below a certain level, and school reading specialist Clytee Netzer determines that they have a history of poor reading test scores, students are directed to take basic reading or reading improvement courses.

At El Camino Real High, which is also in Woodland Hills, about 13% of the 2,900 students need additional help in reading, reading coordinator Karen Jones said. In addition to being assigned to a special reading class, many of these students are enrolled in the Reading Emphasis Program, which features regular academic courses emphasizing development of reading skills. There are even reading emphasis electives, such as Reading for Pleasure.

‘Aren’t Reading Enough’

“Across the board, kids aren’t reading enough,” Jones said. “They don’t read books, they don’t read newspapers and they don’t read magazines. We have to motivate them to read for pleasure.”

The impetus for the Camarillo High program was the three-year slide in reading scores on the California Assessment Program test. In 1982, Camarillo students correctly answered 67.9% of the reading questions. In 1983, the percentage dipped to 67.6% and in 1984 they slipped even further, to 67.1%. Last year, reading scores fell to 64.3%, the lowest point in recent memory for school administrators.

Although Camarillo’s reading scores remained higher than the average for its Oxnard Union High District, the scores did not satisfy school leaders or parents.

“The community our students come from is more affluent, so the expectations for our students are higher,” Camarillo Principal Donald Bathgate said.

Low enrollment in Camarillo High’s reading classes coupled with the desire to improve the school’s reading scores led Camarillo administrators to decide last spring to make reading courses mandatory for poor readers. In the first year of mandatory courses, the number of reading classes doubled to 10 from five.

Test Scores Reviewed

To identify poor readers, Camarillo counselors review standardized test scores for all incoming students. Those with a history of poor reading scores are assigned to a reading class, a semester-long elective taken in addition to the student’s regular academic courses.

Once enrolled in the course, students find teachers have a variety of methods aimed at improving reading comprehension.

In David Smith’s reading classes, for instance, students use “Reading for Understanding” packets that include short stories aimed at developing skills such as learning to draw inferences from what they read. Each story comes with a short quiz. Students read the stories and answer the questions. Smith immediately corrects the quiz so that, within one class session, students can see how well they have understood what they have read.

Written reports on magazine articles are regularly assigned. After reading an article, students must write down six main ideas and six supporting facts from the story. According to Smith, this helps students develop methods of defining the key ideas of an article and gives them an outline for their reports.

Developing reading skills for real life situations is also stressed in Smith’s class. For example, students read job applications, tax forms, warranties, household product labels and voter registration forms.

Read Stories Together

Sometimes Smith has the entire class read and discuss stories together. Other times, he divides the class into small reading groups where students with the same reading ability can read aloud.

Mike Smith, no relation to David Smith, another Camarillo reading teacher, reads aloud to his students and has them follow along. Currently, Mike Smith is reading the Stephen King novel “Christine” to his class.

“By having them follow along while I read aloud, the kids are forced to move their eyes across the page quicker than they usually do,” Mike Smith said. “It also helps them with comprehension.”

When these teen-agers do read, David Smith says, they like stories about their contemporaries, such as S. E. Hinton’s “Rumblefish,” “Tex” and “That Was Then, This Is Now.” He said boys also like stories that feature violence and the occult. Girls also like stories about the occult and favor romance and soap opera-type novels.

Although educators are pleased with the reading programs now in place, they know that they could do more. Camarillo Principal Bathgate, for example, would like to lengthen required reading classes to a year.

Los Angeles school board member Jackie Goldberg is working on a plan that would place adolescent students who read poorest in a daylong program of classes stressing development of reading skills.

“Remedial programs have an underlying philosophy that the kid has some basic knowledge of the subject. It doesn’t consider the possibility that the kid can’t read at all,” said Goldberg, who chairs the board’s educational development committee. “For kids like that, remedial is too little, too late.”


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