Her level best
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 2, 2004
Ofelia Madrid

Teacher's task: Get all kids reading well

NORTHEAST VALLEY - A group of third-graders in Marisa Sandoval's class started reading Stuart Little this week.

The importance of that goes beyond just a bunch of 9-year-olds reading a popular children's book. It means to Sandoval that a handful of her students are reading above their grade level.

E.B. White's Stuart Little is a fourth-grade-level book. Sandoval's goal is for all 24 of her students to make one year's growth in reading.

The Tavan Elementary School teacher takes her task of teaching children to read very seriously. One of the main objectives of a third-grade teacher is to get all her students to read at least at third-grade level by the end of the school year.

If students fall behind in reading at this point, it could affect their
education later and ultimately their futures.

The Scottsdale Republic has been following the progress of Sandoval and her class since the first day of school, when she immediately began working with her students on analyzing their reading skills.

About half already were reading at or above a beginning third-grade level. But Sandoval also started the year with 10 students just learning English, and reading was a challenge for them.

A few weeks after school started, Sandoval divided the class into groups based on their reading levels. Students were assigned books they could read but which also would help them progress.

Progress comes book by book, week by week.

Once a week, students turn in a book report, based on a book of their choice. Sandoval asks students to identify the main character, time, place, setting, problem and solution of the book. Sometimes she'll remind students that they can read books a bit more challenging than what they have

"The goal is for them to read every day at home, be able to understand what they read and to be able to summarize it," she said.

Setbacks come in different ways.

Recently, within a two-week period, three of Sandoval's students moved away, and she gained three new students.

"Losing or gaining students can change the class dynamics," she said. "Luckily, the addition of the students livened up the class a bit."

It also presented Sandoval with a teaching challenge she hadn't encountered before. One of the new students is from Somalia. Sandoval has to communicate through the use of hand gestures.

"She's very expressive and lets me know when she's not getting it," Sandoval said.

Students learning English are pulled out for 30 minutes a day to work on phonics and reading fluency, with the goal that they understand what they're reading.

It's teaching these students where Sandoval feels the most pressure.

"You are under the gun to get them to be reading at grade level," she said.

Their futures are most at stake.

Many times the students who aren't fluent in English are a grade or more below grade level. So far this year, Sandoval has been pleased with her students who are working with her and the English-immersion specialists. She sees a lot of growth in the reading fluency of these students.

Sandoval tests her students three times a year, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the school year.

Sandoval is conducting individual reading tests on her students now. Each test takes about 30 minutes per student.

It will take Sandoval a few weeks to test all of them. She's hoping that each will show at least three months' growth or better. Over winter break is when she'll decide whether she needs to change how she's teaching.

"As a teacher, you always ask yourself questions after you get the results," Sandoval said. "Are they showing adequate progress? What do I need to do differently? Is it alarming?"

The results, she said, can be encouraging or discouraging.

At the end of the year, the Scottsdale Republic will check on Sandoval and report on how her class did on reading.

Reach the reporter at ofelia.madrid@ scottsdalerepublic.com or (602) 444-6879.