At North Star Community School dedicated teachers and an astounding program help students learn to read
On a quiet, residential street in Minneapolis, Minnesota resides North Star Community School. The building—a minimalist modern structure of concrete and glass—contrasts with the 1940′s bungalows surrounding it. On a winter day, the streets are silent, except for the occasional crunch of tires on snow. But inside, you can hear the eager voices of elementary school children and teachers working together in open learning spaces and classrooms.
Despite the hard and expansive gray concrete walls, the school emits warmth and vibrancy. Hand-embroidered Hmong wall hangings, larger than life, fill the walls with patterns and color. The artwork has been donated to the school by parents. Fewer than 800 children attend North Star, which serves kindergarten through fifth grade students.
Just to the right of the front entrance you can find the offices of dedicated staff, like Valerie Sandler, an Educational Speech/Language Pathologist. Outgoing and enthusiastic, Valerie, has worked diligently to raise the reading scores of kindergarten students at North Star.
A turnaround in kindergarten class scores
At North Star, the kindergarten students’ entrance scores are among the lowest in the district. But by spring, the situation has changed entirely. According to Valerie, after using Sounds & Symbols Early Reading Program for a year, “North Star kindergarten classes have exceeded district averages especially in sound/symbol identification and blending.” Janet Kujat, a kindergarten teacher, adds, “We’ve had more kids able to sound out words than ever before.” It’s a major achievement, especially for children who are often economically disadvantaged and/or learning English as a second language. Valerie, who embraces a teamwork approach, introduced Sounds & Symbols to the kindergarten teachers, a communication prep specialist (K-Grade 1), and a special education teacher (Grades 1-3).
Another kindergarten teacher, Barb Stevens, who has taught at the school for four years, is amazed at the results they are getting with Sounds & Symbols. She explains, “Some kids come to school with nothing.” Many North Star kindergarten students are not exposed to reading and books at home. They haven’t been held in a lap and read to, and therefore lack many of the prereading skills other children learn at home. Valerie adds, “Some children even begin kindergarten without knowing how to count to one, use scissors, and color with crayons.” The teachers have been delighted with the comprehensive set of materials in Sounds & Symbols, the well-organized lessons, and suggested activities. All in all, they find the lessons adaptable to their own styles and creative impulses. It’s a pleasure watching teachers weave their magic with the children.
Storytelling introduces a new sound
Together, kindergarten teachers, Amy Goodrich and Kristin Jeness, teach a class of forty students. The children sit cross-legged on a floor watching Amy, as she begins the Sounds & Symbols story, titled, “Zoo Zoo.” Kristin takes a chair towards the back to make sure all the children are paying attention. She doesn’t have to worry, however, because, as soon as Amy begins to read about Zoo Zoo, the zookeeper, one girl puts her finger to her lips and whispers, “shh” to the children around her.
High Hat—the central character of the Sounds & Symbols program and the star in all the stories—wears a tall green and white striped hat. He solves problems by pulling things either out of his hat or a special pocket. “High Hat is my name, and helping people is my game.”
In today’s story, High Hat helps solve the zookeeper’s problem by bringing some new, unusual animals to the zoo. All these new animals have a “z” sound in their names like “Oze,” an animal with “three sharp teeth, five big toes, a tail, eight fingers, and one long nose.”
As Amy reads the passage, ” ‘Look at those!’ said Zoo Zoo. ‘We’ll have some real shows with our Oze, I suppose,’” the children are entranced. They listen attentively with their eyes focused on the colorful storybook pictures. To help them learn the “z” sound, the story incorporates rhyme, alliteration, and repetition. Many of the words contain the “z” sound—words like, “grizzly,” “zebras,” and “lizards.”
Without missing a beat, the children say the last line of the story out loud, “Because more than anything else, High Hat likes to make people happy.” They know that every story ends with this fabulous line and they relish the opportunity to participate.
Next, Amy holds up Zoo Zoo’s character card and asks each child to say its sound. So many of the children raise their hands ready to respond. Then she asks which symbol it goes with on the bulletin board. All the character cards and sound symbols the children have learned in previous lessons are displayed in a row. Posting the newest character card demonstrates visually the incredible progress students are making.
Learning sound discrimination and sequencing
The class moves on to reviewing other sound symbols like “w” and “b.” Amy uses an erasable white board and writes down several sound symbols. She asks students to come up one at a time and erase the sound that she pronounces.
Each activity takes less than a few minutes and children stay involved and interested. Amy next asks the children to put their hands on their shoulders when they hear the “z” sound. She reads a list of words including “zoo” and “zipper.” She then asks the class when did they hear the “z” in “zipper”? First? Middle? Or end?
Often children in the class are asked to come up with their own examples—ones that are even more difficult than the teacher’s examples. Today a child volunteers a word with a “z” sound, “Isabelle,” which happens to be the name of their teacher’s daughter. When the children individually or as a class answer correctly or provide brilliant examples, Amy offers lots of positive verbal reinforcement, such as the unique exclamation, “Kiss your smart brains!”
What Amy appreciates particularly about Sounds & Symbols is that “it asks you to use language, like blending sounds.” These skills are indeed the building blocks of learning to recognize words.