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From left, Nicholas Ahlers, Simon Nutter and Maya Washington work on a lesson about the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up some words Nov. 7. These fourth-graders at Seoul American Elementary School are among 88 students now enrolled in a literacy program meant to boost reading, writing and comprehension skills.
From left, Nicholas Ahlers, Simon Nutter and Maya Washington work on a lesson about the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up some words Nov. 7. These fourth-graders at Seoul American Elementary School are among 88 students now enrolled in a literacy program meant to boost reading, writing and comprehension skills. (Teri Weaver / S&S)
From left, Nicholas Ahlers, Simon Nutter and Maya Washington work on a lesson about the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up some words Nov. 7. These fourth-graders at Seoul American Elementary School are among 88 students now enrolled in a literacy program meant to boost reading, writing and comprehension skills.
From left, Nicholas Ahlers, Simon Nutter and Maya Washington work on a lesson about the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up some words Nov. 7. These fourth-graders at Seoul American Elementary School are among 88 students now enrolled in a literacy program meant to boost reading, writing and comprehension skills. (Teri Weaver / S&S)
Conner Martin, a fourth-grader at Seoul American Elementary School, works on recognizing words during a Reading 180 session last month. The program runs 90 minutes every day, giving students extra help with reading, writing, spelling, pronunciation and comprehension.
Conner Martin, a fourth-grader at Seoul American Elementary School, works on recognizing words during a Reading 180 session last month. The program runs 90 minutes every day, giving students extra help with reading, writing, spelling, pronunciation and comprehension. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Michelle Martin did everything she thought a mother should when it came to teaching her son to read.

She and Conner hunkered down nightly with books. They worked on reading through the summers. Martin volunteered in her son’s class during phonics lessons. Even Conner’s older sister, Jennifer, read to the boy.

Still, by second grade, Conner’s reading skills weren’t where they needed to be, Martin said last week. Worse, he was becoming shy about reading, raising his hand less often in class and refusing to read with his family at home, she said.

“You think, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ” Martin said.

Finally, the Martins found something they say is right. Conner is one of almost 200 students who has participated since fall 2004 in Seoul American Elementary School’s literacy program, part of a Pacificwide push to make sure kids in grades one through five in Department of Defense Dependents Schools are reading at their appropriate grade levels.

“It’s basically an intervention,” said Chad Casciani, the school’s literacy facilitator. “Our goal is to work with them for a period, to catch them, and not let them linger.”

So far, the program’s results have been encouraging, according to parents such as Martin and literacy faculty such as Casciani. Last year, 100 students — roughly 9 percent of the school’s enrollment — were in the program. By the end of the school year, 51 kids “graduated,” or proved that with some intense help their reading skills had caught up to the rest of the class, Casciani said.

DODDS invested $328,000 in the theaterwide program for teacher training, materials and extra staff, Casciani said. In Seoul, that has meant a staff shuffling so that four faculty members now are “literacy specialists,” teachers solely dedicated to working with students who need extra help with reading.

The program tracks students beginning in second grade, looking at standardized testing and teacher recommendations to decide whether a child needs extra help. Students whose scores fall short meet for 25 minutes a day, four days a week, in small groups with a literacy specialist.

The goal is to give the children a reading boost, then let them leave the program if they show improvement after the first nine weeks. If not, they continue in another nine-week session, Casciani said.

Sheryl Frink used to be an elementary teacher at Seoul American. Now she spends her days working on reading with three to five students in 25-minute sessions. The small groups let her work with each child individually. On a recent day, she helped one boy read a story aloud while two other students wrote a short essay based on the same story.

When the next group came in, she helped them identify prefixes, roots and suffixes in words. Then they worked as a group composing new words from the various parts, changing courage, for instance, into encouragement.

The suggestions weren’t always perfect, as offers of “unpossible” and “enrichmented” were given. But when they found the right combination, the students were asked to put the word in context.

“Have you ever felt hopeless?” Frink asked.

“I have,” said Nicholas Ahlers, who is 10 and in the fourth grade. “Spelling tests.”

According to the teachers and parents like Martin, the kids in the program feel less and less hopeless because their reading and their confidence improves. Going to the reading sessions feels like a bonus instead of a stigma, and many students who aren’t enrolled ask for permission to join in, teachers and Martin said.

“Conner is just ecstatic about this program,” Martin said. “When he went into the reading program, his self-esteem went through the roof.”

Not everyone “graduates” from the program right away, Casciani acknowledged, and other reading programs give additional help when the literacy program isn’t enough.

DODDS also has a program called “Reading 180” that helps fourth- and fifth-graders.

Each day, for 90 minutes, students rotate among different reading stations to work on vocabulary, comprehension, pronunciation and spelling. Some stations are independent, with a book or a computer giving the lesson; some are led by a teacher.

Conner, now in fourth grade, is in Reading 180.

Martin said she isn’t worried that Conner still needs extra help. Instead, she’s thrilled he’s getting it, even though it means he misses two classes a day, science and social studies. Martin works with Conner’s teachers and homeschools him in these subjects, a routine that results in at least two hours of homework a night.

Conner, to be honest, isn’t thrilled about that.

“I don’t like it,” he said very decidedly, taking a break from reading last week.

But he loves the reading. One afternoon last month his assignment involved reading about people with interesting jobs: a forensic artist, an ice cream taster, a sports photographer. Conner said he’d like to be the guy who recreates portraits or figures of people to help police identify victims.

“You’re not going to have every student exit,” Casciani said. “Some students will exit early, others may need longer. We’re still looking at closing that gap.”

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