During the two and a half hours that first-graders spent on literacy in Jill Reame’s class at Dare Elementary School one recent school day, the class talked and wrote about Pikachu, Transformers, gymnastics, Taco Bell and Mickey Mouse.
That’s what happens when kids get to pick what they write about.
What also happens, according to teachers and administrators in the York County School Division, is more engagement from students and stronger literacy and academic skills down the road.
Over the past few years, the school division has changed its literacy model to let the division's youngest students read and write more about their interests and be more active in lessons. Teachers also spend more time on literacy, give more individual attention and focus on the most basic reading fundamentals, combining lessons on reading, writing and other aspects of language arts that may have been taught separately.
The division sees third-grade literacy as an indicator of future success in school because it is the basis for understanding other subjects. Third grade is also when students take their reading Standards of Learning test.
Since placing the extra emphasis on third-grade literacy and implementing divisionwide practices for kindergarten through third grade, elementary school teachers and principals said they’ve seen success in the classroom and in test scores.
Last school year, 90 percent of third-grade students passed the reading SOL, an improvement of 15 percentage points since 2014. The state average is 75 percent.
Before, some of York’s resources were out of date, benchmarks didn’t always align with Virginia Department of Education expectations, and there weren’t clear guidelines for writing, said Candi Skinner, the division’s director of elementary instruction.
In 2013, the division started looking at changing its strategic plan and asked teachers and parents to evaluate the reading program. From that, the division decided to focus on revamping its approach to elementary literacy.
They started rolling out the new program in 2014 and fully implemented it at all schools in 2015. Skinner said they’re still adding as they go, continuing training and incorporating different types of lessons.
Reames gathered her students onto the carpet and read a sentence with them, pointing at each word as it was said to reinforce the written word’s connection to the spoken sound.
The sentence was about coming up with ideas for a story, which was the subject of a book the class had read and led into a short explanation of types of stories the class would be writing — personal narratives and descriptions of things they like or places they like to go.
That’s when the class pitched Pikachu, Transformers, gymnastics, Taco Bell and Mickey Mouse as things to write about.
Reames said she felt the main difference between the approach she takes now and one she took earlier in her career was the amount of blending in literacy, incorporating reading, writing, spelling and grammar together.
This structure was paralleled in Kelly Skinner’s third-grade class at Waller Mill Elementary. While most of the class set up to do individual work with vocabulary words, Kelly Skinner worked closely with a group of three.
The three students sorted words alphabetically and by similar spelling structures, focusing on words with consecutive vowels like neighbor and committee. Kelly Skinner also asked for definitions and words that rhymed.
Jennifer Goodwin, principal at Waller Mill, said the small groups were good for teachers to give individual attention and that teachers were working on implementing more independent work time where they don’t have to be presiding over the whole class.
While the division is pleased with the progress it has made in recent years, its eyes are on the 10 percent of third-graders who did not pass the reading SOL. “We want to make sure we’re reaching everyone,” Candi Skinner said.
Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692. Follow him on Twitter @jdauzreyes.