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Reading program opens door for learning

KIM DAME, Hernando Today correspondent Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 9, 2013 at 08:35 PM

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Nathaniel Curtis rarely sits still. The curious 5-year-old with tousled sandy-colored locks and inquisitive eyes is more than just overactive. Diagnosed with various challenges including Autism and ADHD, Nathaniel is nonverbal, hypersensitive and delayed when compared to his typically functioning peers.

It is difficult sometimes to get Nathaniel's attention. Yet when his mother, Terri Fava, pulls out a book, Nathaniel cheerfully climbs into her lap and listens to her read. Sometimes, he initiates the activity by bringing her a page from his favorite book.

Nathaniel is one of 16 preschoolers in Darryl-Lynne Ilsley's Exceptional Student Education classroom at Pine Grove Elementary. Each child in the ESE class struggles with some challenge that has prevented him or her from reaching certain necessary milestones at expected levels.

The parents relay similar stories when asked how the inclusion in a special reading program has impacted their child's learning and behavior patterns.

Reading to preschoolers is a fundamental stepping stone to building competitive learners. Yet some parents of these challenged children didn't see the significance until a seed had been planted.

Pine Grove Elementary actively partners with the Accelerated Reading Program (AR) and rewards students with special t-shirts when they complete specific reading goals. The preschool classes have participated in the reading program for three years, earning their shirts after reading 40 books each.

Last year, Ms. Ilsley raised the bar with her class and challenged the children to keep reading. "I wondered what would happen if they went beyond the forty books," she said.

A note went home with a brand new goal. Then, she and para-professionals, Dianna Rybka and Mary Gaither, attached paper crayon cutouts, color-coded by month, to the children's agendas each night and asked parents to track their child's progress by logging the titles read.

"We wanted to see how far we could reach," Ilsley said.

Each morning the children were asked to place their "crayons" on the dry erase board that was transformed into a tracking display.

As the goals were met, another was issued and the board grew more colorful. 1,500 books earned a pizza party, 3,000 a trip to the petting zoo, 6,000 earned a water party.

By the end of the school year, the class had a combined total of 6,032 books read.

"It was unbelievable," Ilsley said, "and far exceeded my expectations."

Incentives aside, the class as a whole began demonstrating documented improvements in both academics and behaviors. They became hooked on books. Some who never sat through a complete book were now initiating story time. Others came into class with several crayons filled each morning.

Ilsley's compelling need to push her students' learning beyond expected levels had helped her stumble on an amazing teaching tool. It infused a bond between the three fundamental tiers of each child's team (the teachers, the parents and the student) that set a platform for an early love of reading.

The class as a whole became more vocal during circle time, shouting out words that began with prompted letter cues. The connection between sight letters and sounds had taken flight and expanded daily into broadened vocabularies.

Ilsley reinstated the same challenge this year and the habits already implemented were expounded upon. The display board blossomed with color.

Amazingly, not a single monetary incentive was needed as numbers grew beyond even last year's totals.

And the evidence in support of early intervention reading grew as well. Even Ms. Ilsley was surprised when parents began highlighting the benefits they witnessed as a direct result of reading to their children.

Emma Whitman's grandmother, Lisa, noticed a dramatic improvement in the clarity of her granddaughter's speech. Emma, 4, started repeating words she'd heard during story time. "That's just one way that it helped us."

Dalton Schambach, 5, had trouble expressing his feelings in words. After seeking out books that dealt with feelings, his mother, Marie, noticed a significant decrease in his frustration. "He grew a little more articulate and was able to tell us how he was feeling," she said.

Tasha and Mike Lang became regimented with story time for daughter, Salina, when they witnessed its impact on Salina's speech. A micro-preemie weighing just one pound at birth, Salina struggled with clarity and vocabulary.

Now, she sounds out letters and reads the words. In fact, Salina recently brought in the book, Bubbles, from her home library that Tasha said grew to a collection spreading across five rows of shelves.

Salina read the entire book aloud to her class.

Eleanor Kies often repeated what was said to her, a condition known as echolalia, when she first entered Ilsley's preschool class last year.

"Now she's sounding out letters, writing sight words and reading simple books on her own," said her mother, Susan. "She's always questioning, wanting to know more, because of the reading."

Cameron Smith, a newcomer to the class this year, had a reading routine already in place. But the crayons inspired his mother, Linda, to read even more. And like his classmates, Cameron's communication has dramatically improved.

After witnessing firsthand these amazing results, Debbie Shaw, PGES Assistant Principal, is now planning to present the program as a county-wide initiative for impacting early intervention reading.

"It is a true gift that was given these children," Ms. Shaw said. "It's going to start their whole school career in a very different direction than it might have gone."

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