Program Helping Pupils Get 1 Foot Up on Reading

Times Staff Writer

There are footprints on the wall and footprints on the ceiling. Hundreds of them marching heel-to-toe around the room in Joan Govan's fifth-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Escondido.

The prints don't mean that the veteran teacher has an especially unruly class. They herald the exploits of her 30 youngsters in the world of reading--a realm most fifth-graders (and teen-agers, too) consider old-fashioned and definitely not rad.

The reading program, Best Foot Forward, has one goal: to hook the younger generation on the pleasures of reading. It was developed in 1981 by two Corona del Mar educators: librarian Mary Doutt, now retired, and Barbara Scott, a specialist in integrated language arts for the Newport Mesa Unified School District.

Personal Interviews Test Comprehension

Scott said the home-grown program is used in a dozen school districts in Orange County and is now being considered in Los Angeles schools.

The idea is simple. Lincoln Elementary buys the program for a modest price. The package includes a list of books at each grade level and a set of questions the young readers must answer to prove they have read and understood the story. (The answers are provided, too, so that the volunteer interviewers do not have to read the books themselves.) Govan, who acknowledges that she has "taught longer than I care to say" all over the United States and in Germany and Japan, calls Best Foot Forward "by far the best reading incentive program around."

The footprints, each representing a book read and comprehended, are cut from colored craft paper and bear the reader's name. They are incentive enough to prompt even the most reluctant non-reader to pick up a book, Govan said. Another surprising incentive is the oral testing done by the volunteers.

Not only do the interviews "get away from the humdrum book reports we've done since the flood," said Principal Martha Law-Edwards, but they give each reader a one-on-one experience with an adult volunteer or teacher aide. "Just how often does a child

get the sole attention of an adult for 10 or 15 minutes?"

Larry Rinehart, one of three Escondido Host Lions Club volunteers who drop in at Lincoln weekly to test the youngsters, has developed a rapport with the students and feels he is "like a father figure" to some of Govan's 10-year-old charges.

"I get a kick out of doing it, out of working with them," Rinehart said.

"I think I get as much out of this as they do."

Hard to Break It to Them

Jerry Nelson, another Lions volunteer, has only one problem with testing his third-grade readers. He hates to tell a kid that he will have to read the book again.

If a reader misses more than two of the eight or 10 prepared questions on the book he or she is reading, there's no footprint reward until the student bones up again on some of the finer points of the story.

Nelson isn't always sure if the youngster has read and understood the book and just does not understand the questions, or whether the language barrier is too high for the youngster to hurdle. Nearly half the students in his reading group are Spanish-speaking, he said, "and I think that some phonetically sound out the words but don't really comprehend what they are reading. Either that, or they just don't understand the questions."

Law-Edwards knows about the problem and says the school is working on changing its teaching methods to handle it. Enrollment of non-English-speaking youngsters jumped an unexpected 78% at Lincoln this year, she explained, and the school is still adjusting to the change.

'Wonderful to Watch'

The non-English-speaking youngsters are frightened of the new environment at first, but gradually become "filled with excitement and want to learn how to do it all," Law-Edwards said. "It's wonderful to watch it happen."

Lincoln, the only school in the county to use the Best Foot Forward program, started three years ago with only two classes involved. In the second year, the program grew to a single classroom in each of the first through fifth grades. This year, two classrooms at each grade level are participating, Law-Edwards said, and "all the other classes are asking to be included."

In a few years, the entire school will be involved, she said, giving the reading incentive program "an A, most definitely." Its only drawback is that it requires a part-time clerk to keep track of all the hundreds of books that must be bought. That means a $5,000 to $7,000 bite out of Lincoln's annual budget, including the price of the books.

Each time the footprints make a complete path around Govan's classroom, the students get a special treat. On one circuit, the class voted for a fast-food restaurant, where they built their own burgers and ate them, accompanied by fries and unlimited refills on soda. They also toured the Wild Animal Park on a Best Foot outing and are now mulling over where the footsteps will take them when the third circuit is completed, probably in May.

Although the program is voluntary, and no grades are given or quotas set, some competition does creep in. Everybody in Govan's class knows their own footprint count and almost everyone knows that Angela leads the race with 56 and Brandon is closing in fast with 43. For each 10 books read, the reader wins a coupon for a pizza or a voucher for an ice-cream treat.

On the best-seller list of fifth-grade readers are well-used copies of the Encyclopedia Brown series, a juvenile adventure-mystery hit, and Beverly Cleary's works, including "Runaway Ralph." Golden oldies such as "Charlotte's Web" and "Wind in the Willows" remain on the shelf.

"In the past, I would take my class to the library once a week, where each would check out one book," Govan recalled. "No one ever finished a book in the 20 minutes before recess. Then the next week, each one would take back the unfinished book and check out another one.

"Now each child has two books, one to read at home and one to read at school for as long as it takes to finish," she explained. "They are learning to finish what they start, and they are learning that reading is fun."

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