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Software helps children read

Teachers are finding success with a computer program that uses phonics to supplement reading education.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


Six-year-old Sergio's reading tutor sits in the back of teacher Clair Wade's classroom in Lacoochee Elementary, its disk drive humming softly, its mouse waiting to be clicked.

A sweet woman's voice rattles off a series of sounds that the boy must repeat and blend into words. The computer's microphone records the words as Sergio says them, and plays them back through his padded gray headphones.

"I like it because it reads to me," Sergio said.

The nifty program is part of an experiment at four Pasco County elementary schools that are using a new reading program called "Breakthrough to Literacy." Several teachers and principals said the program, although new, holds an exciting mix of conventional reading lessons and computer-driven word games that emphasize basic phonics skills.

The program is unusual for commercial reading curriculums in a number of ways, teachers said, starting with its computer component.

The computer software tracks student progress and adjusts the difficulty of its lessons according to the user's ability. The computer also tabulates the data and reports it to teachers so they can track the strengths and weaknesses of their students.

The curriculum comes with two years of workshops and seminars for teachers provided by "literacy coaches." Educators say the amount of training from a commercial publishing company is unprecedented. And it's of unusually high quality.

Pasco's literacy coach is Carole Holt, a former kindergarten teacher at Lake Myrtle Elementary with a background in early literacy. Holt left Pasco several years ago to join the company that publishes Breakthrough to Literacy. The program isn't cheap. It costs $12,000 per classroom. For the money, schools get the computer software, two years of teacher training, hundreds of classroom story books, wall charts and posters. For schools that generally get only a few thousand dollars each year to buy classroom materials, it's a big commitment of resources.

One school, Shady Hills Elementary, bought the program last year with its Title I money, additional federal aid designated for schools that teach large numbers of low-income children. Two other elementaries, Fox Hollow and Lacoochee, purchased the program this year through a $300,000 federal grant that the district won last spring.

Chester Taylor Elementary used some of the money it got from the state for its good FCAT scores to bring the program there.

While the program still is too new in Pasco schools to draw any definitive conclusions, teachers using it say they're excited by the results so far, especially the computer component.

"It's almost as if they have their own teacher working with them one-on-one," said Lacoochee Elementary teacher Marie Pike. "I like its thorough background in phonics and how it enriches their vocabulary."

One part of the computer program breaks words down into their component sounds that the children repeat into a microphone. The computer records the children and plays back their replies through the headphones so they can hear if they are saying the sounds correctly.

Another part of the program tests children in their knowledge of the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes.

"It's especially good for kids who aren't read to a lot," Pike said. "Many of these kids didn't know any of their sounds, but they do now."

The program was developed in the mid 1990s by a speech pathologist at the University of Iowa. After years of research, Carolyn Brown began seeing similarities in how disadvantaged students struggled to develop their language skills. But while she saw common threads throughout many of their efforts, each child needed individualized lessons, Brown said.

"We began very slowly and very deliberately," Brown said. "We wanted to create a program that gave children the ability to break up the language into units that they could perceive."

In the politically charged field of reading instruction, such statements sound an awful lot like a boost for phonics instruction, which teaches children to read by showing them how to blend the individual sounds of letters into words.

But Brown said Breakthrough to Literacy owes a lot of its lessons to whole language, a method of instruction that believes children learn to read much like they learn to talk, by watching adults read and by being surrounded with good children's literature.

Brown said her program strives to tailor itself to the specific needs of each child. If the student needs more explicit phonics instruction, the computer adjusts its lessons toward that. If the child needs more exposure to complete stories, it can do that, too.

"It really is a complete reading program," said Shady Hills reading specialist Deborah Wedding.

Teachers at Fox Hollow and Lacoochee are monitoring the progress of children in the program. All the kids were tested at the start of the year and will be tested again before school lets out for the summer. Their scores will be analyzed to see if their improvement was better or worse than other students.

That said, nobody -- not the teachers, principals or even the program's author -- say the children's progress in reading will be attributed solely to the new reading program. Breakthrough to Literacy is only as good as the teachers using it, they said. It's meant to supplement the basic teaching that educators give, not supplant it.

"It does seem to have some advantages for early readers," said Susan Rine, the district administrator in charge of Pasco's elementary schools. "But it's not the be-all and end-all."

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