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Finding the readers within 

Jose Valentin, a small boy with big brown eyes behind thin wire glasses, liked the summer reading clinic at Nazareth College so much that he never missed a day. On the one morning he was late because he missed his bus, his teachers immediately began to worry. But staying home was not an option. Valentin got his parents to drive him to Nazareth, and then he found his classroom himself — a big accomplishment for a 6 year old.

Valentin was one of 20 children selected from the kindergarten class at School 9 for the Rochester City Schools Summer Literacy Program. The students at School 9 and another 20 students from School 17 were chosen by their principals because their low reading skills threatened their ability to move up to the first grade.

The four week reading intervention program, which just ended, is specifically designed to help students like Valentin catch up. School officials are also trying to prevent the erosion of skills during summer break.

The program typically ran from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, but students arrived between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. They rushed to several tables where mounds of age-appropriate books were spread like a colorful smorgasbord: "Llama Llama Misses Mama," "Beverly Billingsly Borrows a Book," and "The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat."

The students broke into small groups where the adults, usually Nazareth grad students who participate in the program as part of their training, read to them for 20 minutes.

After a brief snack of fresh fruit, students went to work on what veteran teacher Jeanne Crowther called the morning message: a few simple sentences carefully printed on large white paper tacked to the wall. One read, "Sadie is a girl. She is 6. She has a pink scarf."

Crowther was teaching the basics of early reading and then building from there, something reading teachers call scaffolding.

"Can they rhyme, recognize letters, and the sounds that those letters make?" Crowther says. "Do they read from left to right, instead of all over the page? And do they know what happens when you reach the end of that sentence? That you have to come all the way back to the left side of the page and start again?"

She quizzes the students, first asking them to find the word "she." One child circles the words with a fat red marker. Crowther then asks for someone to frame the word "pink" with their hands, and for another child to frame a whole sentence.

The framing exercise indicates that the students are beginning to see how sentences are structured, Crowther says, and more importantly, that text represents an idea or thought in print. It can also represent speech.

City schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has made reading proficiency a key component of his strategy to improve academic achievement. And with good reason. Last week, the State Education Department released the results of the last round of state exams, which showed that only 5.4 percent of city students in grades 3-8 are proficient in English.

Research clearly shows that children who are not reading to proficiency standards by third grade are at an increased risk of not graduating. That's because children are learning how to read up to the third grade.

But somewhere between third grade and fourth grade, children must transition from learning how to read to reading to process new information. If they can't read to grade level, they gradually slip further behind until it becomes extremely difficult for them to catch up.

One recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University showed that disadvantaged urban children are at greater risk of developing literacy problems. While they may be progressing well when they are in school, instead of maintaining what they've learned or adding to it during the summer months — as is frequently the case with children from more affluent families — the reverse occurs. They lose ground, according to the study.

There's also a psychological component to developing reading skills, says Naomi Erdmann, director of Nazareth's graduate literacy program and the college's reading clinic.

"Once a child loses confidence in reading, it's very hard for them to get it back," Erdmann says.

Reading is the gateway to all kinds of experiences and endeavors in and out of school, she says. "Failure at first grade reading leads to failing at everything else, and this is very difficult for children," she says.

It can be so traumatic that she often cautions her graduate students and teachers in the field about referring negatively to the challenges their students have with reading. Often they already know something is wrong and they've developed fears that can start to block learning and cause them to retreat, Erdmann says.

"Every child comes with a suitcase, and we have to unpack it," she says. "No judgments. We're here to help them develop a love for reading."

And it's important to remember, Erdmann says, that reading is a highly advanced human capability. It involves multiple senses, oral and cognitive skills, as well as short- and long-term memory.

"If a child is not progressing and they have to sound out every word, they will forget where they started," she says. "Long-term memory carries past experiences. They may already know that there is something called a dog, but then they learn that there is a type of dog called a poodle."

But the most difficult milestone for most children in mastering reading, Erdmann says, is learning how to listen.

"They don't know the difference at this age between hearing and listening," she says. "We learn more from listening than probably anything else we do."

That's partly because listening requires concentration and engagement. Children at this age are still developing their attention span, Erdmann says.

"We're constantly pulling their attention back to us," she says. "It's not until about third grade that they can control their own listening."

As important as the summer reading program is for students, there were some unresolved issues. For starters, even though Nazareth's Erdmann says that she is confident that the students made significant progress, it's not completely clear how well the program prevented the summer slide in students' reading skills.

The students were assessed before starting the program, during, and they will be assessed again in the fall to see how much they retained.

And attendance was also a problem, as it often is in city schools. While the district funded the program, provided door-to-door bus service, and breakfast and lunch, some students didn't show up at all and others showed up sporadically.

Caterina Leone-Mannino, the district's director of expanded learning, says that the concept of summer school is new for many families. The district is trying to shift the community's mindset to year-round learning, she says, which is imperative to improving achievement in city schools.

"It's going to take time," she says.

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