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PROGRAM HELPS YOUNG READERS
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
Some Willow Elementary School students are starting their summer vacations with extra spring in their steps.
And for good reason the children took memorable steps up the reading skill charts during the past school year.
A new reading program at Willow that uses technology to help students overcome obstacles may be an important reason for their improvement, according to Principal Charlotte McLaughlin.
The computer-based program is the Waterford Early Reading Program. About 45 Willow students in kindergarten through fourth grade participated in the Waterford program and a number made dramatic improvement. The list includes several first-graders who were reading at the kindergarten level in the fall. By June these students had progressed to the second-grade reading level.
The children boosted their reading skills almost without realizing that they were involved in an academic exercise.
They all seemed to love it, McLaughlin said.
The Waterford Early Reading Program teaches children to read by involving them in songs, games and stories. Throughout each computer session colorful characters dance across the screen almost as if they were visitors from a Saturday morning cartoon. The characters entertain while educating.
For example, there is:
An alligator who curls up into the shape of a capital A to teach children about the first letter of the alphabet.
A magic hat out of which flow the letters of the alphabet.
A pasture filled with words that start with m. Each time the children click on a word that starts with m an empty bottle of milk at the bottom of the screen is filled.
A Syllable Safari in which children are taken through a jungle and are asked to identify syllables in the words for jungle animals and plants.
Every response made by the children is recorded by the computer. The Waterford computer program adjusts the level of difficulty in what it asks of children, based on the responses it receives. Children experience little frustration because they are not asked to do things they are not ready for, said Denise Johnson, who served as Willows Waterford Early Reading Program coordinator this year.
They receive a lot of encouragement, Johnson said. She noted that students receive positive feedback in a number of ways. For example, the first time a child spells his or her name correctly, a certificate honoring the child appears.
Students hear songs and instructions throughout each session, allowing them to hear how words rhyme. For example, children are shown that although bug and mug are spelled differently they are the same in terms of rhyme.
The kindergarten students worked with the Waterford program 15 minutes a day and the other students worked on it 25 to 30 minutes a day. Students selected for the program were those at risk of falling behind their peers in reading.
The number who could participate was limited because Willow does not have enough work stations to serve all of its students.
The Waterford program is filling a valuable need because it is helping young readers who enter school behind their peers to catch up, McLaughlin said. She noted that children who have been read to regularly by their parents enter school with far greater reading skills. There is often a significant gap between children who have been read to and those who have not.
The Waterford Early Reading Program will be in place again next year at Willow, the only school in the La Grande School District to use it.
McLaughlin said it is too early to determine the precise effect the program is having on student reading skill improvement. She noted that other factors may also be involved. She said that Willows teachers do an excellent job of teaching reading and that the school also has an adult reading buddy program.
The Waterford Early Reading Program was developed by the Waterford Institute, a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to improve education through technology. It was released five years ago and is now used by 100,000 students nationwide.