MOUNT GILEAD — First grade teacher Shannon Smith’s enthusiasm for reading is contagious and her students are catching the bug.
Smith, a nationally certified reading instructor, is teaching reading using the Orton Gillingham method of instruction. Orton Gillingham is multi-sensory reading instruction that is both diagnostic and prescriptive.
Kindergarten through third grade teachers at Mount Gilead Park Avenue Elementary were participating in this reading program that includes phonemic awareness and phonics prior to schools going on an extended break due to the coronavirus.
Children have 15-20 minutes every day of learning and practicing phonics. They sound out words with “vowel teams” as well as consonants and their variations. At their reading time, they were practicing “wh” and learning the difference in the who ‘hoo’ and where ‘hwh’ sounds.
A favorite learning game is “What word do you have?” Each child has a card with a word and they hold it up and practice it when the teacher calls out the vowel or consonant sounds.
Smith is pleased with the improvement in Phonics and Phonemic awareness that was shown in the results of all the Park Avenue first grader’s scores. Last fall 34 percent of students tested “on track” for phonemic awareness. By January this year, 62 percent tested on track.
Smith said she has quite a mix of students in her class of 20 with eight who are identified as having special needs. With three months until the last day of school, Smith said several of her first graders already are reading at a beginning second-grade level.
Smith, and other elementary teachers at Park Avenue, have been participating in the program for about two years. It involves a year-long intensive study as well as 60 hours practicum with a mentor as well as testing for the national certification.
Park Avenue Principal Chris Kamenski said the district looked at what changes were needed in their reading curriculum. The Orton Gillingham program with its emphasis in diagnosing children’s learning style was introduced by the school psychologist, Tab Walls. She had seen success with the program at Marysville, Ohio schools.
Kamenski is pleased that there is already a 14 percent improvement in the third grade reading scores from the fall of 2018 to 2019. He said the “general wisdom” is that it takes three to five years to see a noticeable improvement in scores.
Mount Gilead is now using the “Fundations” Phonics Program in the curriculum every day along with reinforcement from the Haggerty program for phonemic awareness.
Molly Clapper is a Special Education Administrator who is going through the Orton Gillingham training this year.
“This program helps teachers look at specific needs of children and coaches how to work with reading disability and dyslexia,” Clapper said. “I am taking the program in order to help my special education teachers design instruction around students’ basic reading skills needs with a focus on students with dyslexia.”
The school district pays for training when teachers commit to staying in the district at least two years. If they leave earlier, they pay it back.
Walls said they will be moving to the third grade and above with the program next year. This year a high school intervention specialist is taking the training.
Walls, Clapper and Smith talked about the awakening they experienced in learning this method of teaching reading. While the universities they attended focused on sight learning and memorizing sight words, this method involves phonics and opens up more ways for children to learn.
They are convinced that this method is a better way to teach individual children. They are even more enthusiastic as they begin to see improved results in testing.