Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/families/education/articles/1210creading10Z6.html

3rd-graders excited by new vocabulary
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 10, 2003

Carolyn Sheehan frets that she has begun to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher to some of her third-graders at Galveston Elementary School in Chandler.

Even if "Wah wah, wah wah, wah" is what they're hearing, it's what they're reading that really matters to her.

When we looked in on her class at the start of the school year, Sheehan had begun an aggressive strategy to promote reading fluency among her 23 (now 24) students. She devotes three morning hours each school day to reading and writing, in activities that are "whole group" (as a class) or "guided" (small group).

Although a third of the class remains far below grade level in reading, she said students have benefited from the use of new Harcourt Brace materials mandated by the Chandler district. Recently, she paired students in a "buddy system," in an effort to accelerate learning.

"Some are progressing faster, and I'm pairing them with students who are having more difficulties," Sheehan said. "I'm hoping by February to see if that's helping."

The week of Thanksgiving, the class performed poetry plays from the book. It's Thanksgiving, which boosted confidence. Sheehan has been giving each student an informal reading assessment every other week, and she will provide a more formal evaluation before winter break. For this, students will answer questions about a book aimed slightly above their previous reading level.

"Most of the growth will come from the second quartile, kids who are approaching grade level but need a little extra assistance," she said.

The students, many of them transitioning from Spanish to English, have taken a special interest in the half-dozen new vocabulary words Sheehan introduces weekly.

"I've caught them finding the words in books and reusing them," she said. "The most excitement from them is with vocabulary."

The students' major challenge of the spring will be the AIMS and SAT-9 standardized tests. Reading is seen by the district as a key to boosting scores on AIMS, which is taken for the first time in the third grade.

In today's accountability driven environment, it would be understandable if Sheehan fixated on raw test scores. But she said she doesn't.

"My focus is more on improvement (within the year) than on if they're where they need to be," she said. "It's more about competing against themselves. That's really what works."

To motivate her class, she works assiduously at building self-esteem.

"It's finding the one thing a student excels at," Sheehan said. "You've got to find it and let them feel confident about it. Everyone has a strength."

Sheehan said she draws strength from her hard-working colleagues at Galveston, which has shed its "underperforming" label of a year ago under the direction of Principal Gina Vukovich.

"I've never seen teachers come up with so many strategies to help a kid," Sheehan said. "Of the four schools I've been in, I've seen some of the best teachers here."

Reach the reporter at doug.carroll@arizonarepublic.com or at (602) 444-7945.