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Teachers use a variety of methods to get students of wildly disparate levels up to reading speed

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Reading abilities in a first-grade classroom range from students who read with near fluency to those who don’t know which letter makes the sound at the beginning of “he.”

In a group with such variety, and with an increasing emphasis from state officials on ensuring all students can read by third grade, elementary teachers must use a whole host of strategies as they try to reach every student.

“It is a lot of different things going on, and it’s whatever will work,” said Jami Jacobson, the executive director of curriculum and instruction at Albuquerque Public Schools. “And every classroom is different, the needs of the kids in a classroom are going to vary … those days where we all sat at our desks and worked on one thing together, those days are gone.”

In Yvonne Sanchez’s first-grade class at 7 Bar Elementary, students spend part of their morning on separate reading and writing activities, giving Sanchez time to work with individual students. Sanchez assigns students to different activities, so they don’t do the same one every time.

Some students went straight for the classroom computers — perhaps not intuitive to adults, but computers are part of reading instruction in 2012. Since there aren’t enough adults in a classroom to read to each student, the computer “reads” while students listen through headphones and see the book’s words and illustrations on the screen. Some of the illustrations even come to life.

Several pairs of students were assigned to read together. Sofia Gonzalez, 6, is a strong reader, so she helped her partner with words he didn’t know. She said she likes reading in pairs.

Other students did “word work,” with activities based on several assigned words to improve their understanding. They were practicing words with “short i” sounds, like hit and win. They had to write the word five times, draw a picture showing its meaning and use it in a sentence.

Lucia Garrett, 6, was working with the word “win,” last week, and she used it in the sentence “I can win games every time.” She said she enjoys reading, and immediately started talking about her favorite moment in the children’s classic “The Polar Express.”

“Some words I have to sound out, but some I don’t, because I know them,” she said.

The value of sounding out words, versus figuring them out from context, is an ongoing conversation in the world of reading instruction. Through the years, the pendulum has swung from strictly phonics-based methods that focus on sounding out letters to methods that emphasize “whole language” by encouraging students to figure out words from context.

Jacobson said the best way to teach reading is with a combination of both — teaching students how to decode their language, but also how to understand what they’re reading.

“You need to have a balance,” she said. “You need children to have phonemic awareness. They need to understand how their language works, the mechanics of it and how to sort it out when they get stuck.”

But she said if that’s all students learn, they won’t be strong readers.

“What we find is we have kids who can decode until the cows come home, but they don’t know what they’re reading,” she said. “They can sound out a 17-letter word, but they may not ever understand what it is, how to use it or to use it in context with anything else.”

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, is passionate about making sure phonics are included in any reading program used in New Mexico. He unsuccessfully pushed a bill in 2011 that proposed defunding any college of education that doesn’t teach reading instruction in line with “scientifically based reading research and the science of reading.”

Hall said the bill meant to ensure that phonics are included in any reading program.

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