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Kindergarten teacher helps students read--for trophies, for fun, for life

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Zinser Elementary teacher uses a "more is better" approach to reading, in which kids read as many books as they can and win trophies--and reading skills--as a result

/Kristin Brace

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Share your love of reading with kids

Volunteers in Ryan's class don't have to commit to a certain day or time or number of hours--they can just show up during designated "reading times." Anyone interested in volunteering to read with her kindergarteners can email [email protected] and mention volunteering in the subject line.

What does it take to motivate a child to read?

During her first year teaching kindergarten at Zinser Elementary, teacher Mary Anne Ryan asked herself the same question when one of her students declared, "Reading is stupid."

The child wasn't alone in this sentiment, nor was he the only student who lacked confidence in the classroom.

"What would make you want to read?" Ryan asked him.

The little boy thought for a moment, then his eyes widened. "I'd read for a trophy!"

And so began the innovative, sometimes controversial reading program in which children read books for trophies. The awards, which are out-of-pocket for Ryan, are kept on display in the classroom: a medal for 50 books, and trophies of increasing size for increments of 100 books, all the way up to a huge trophy for 1,000 books read (the record is 1,102 books read by a single student). The recipient chooses the color and motif.

The kids also get to choose their own books. In class, volunteers work one-on-one with each child a minimum of twice a week, being sure to pre-read take-home books with students who may not have academic support outside the classroom. At home, students read with their parents and fill out a book log recording their progress. They bring a "cheer sheet" back to class, which records the running total of books they've read. Ryan doesn't read this number out loud--she just announces that "so-and-so read a lot of books" and everyone cheers.

"It's not a competition," she says.

In Ryan's program, children go through a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to determine their reading level at the beginning of the school year and start taking books home immediately. Children who aren't ready to read receive "letter bags" with activity sheets to work on with their parents. While the goal for the end of the school year is for each student to be at an "independent level three," many children exceed this milestone. Some even advance to a second-grade reading level.

Ryan says of her students, "They're self-motivated, self-directed."

Practice is key. For each 100 to 150 books read, Ryan says, a student's DRA level goes up. The first book in a take-home batch must be at the student's instructional level; the rest can be at a lower level. Not only does this build the child's confidence, but it promotes fluency, recognition of sight words and a greater understanding of one-to-one correspondence.

So far this school year, Ryan's children have read over 1,340 books combined. Over the years, students have read an average of 400 books each. Once, Ryan continued to work with a student over the summer just so he could receive a trophy. Since she started the program, her students have read a collective 18,000 books. This is her last year of teaching and she hopes to reach 20,000.

The reading seems to be paying off. At the beginning of last school year, 62% of Ryan's students tested below grade-level in reading; 22% were above. At the end of the school year, their Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) reading scores were only 4% below grade-level and 88% above. That nearly 90% of her students ended the school year exceeding their grade-level expectations isn't an achievement Ryan takes lightly.

She asks, "But what if you're in the 10%?"

This type of dedication might lead one to think that teaching kindergarten has been Ryan's lifelong pursuit. This isn't the case. Her background includes Home Economics, Industrial Arts, 18 hours in Elementary Ed, a Masters in Education Technology from before the days of the Internet and post-graduate work in Holistic Health. Until 2004, when she slipped on the ice and suffered a brain injury, Ryan was a middle school Home Economics teacher. When she came back to work as a kindergarten teacher, everything was new.

"It's hard to break out of what you know," Ryan says of teaching strategies. "I don't know anything."

This "lack of knowing," perhaps, is what led Ryan to design her reading program, which is supplemented by other kid-friendly techniques like the "sounding arm," where kids tap out words on their arms to sound them out. When writing, Ryan encourages her students to "guess and go" on spelling so they aren't caught up on spelling each word correctly every time. The important thing is that they're writing. Really hard words go on the "This word is way too hard for kindergarten" wall, where the word "underwear" never fails to show up. Most years, children have the opportunity to write and type their own books. These and other accomplishments are celebrated at an Awards Ceremony in May, at which children receive their reading trophies.

This will be Ryan's last awards ceremony before she retires. Sadly, her leaving marks the end of her reading program at Zinser as well. But Ryan's student teacher from last year was recently hired at another school particularly because she is willing to implement Ryan's reading program. It may not be what everyone else is doing, but it seems to be working--one book, one trophy, at a time.

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