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Cohort 25 teachers focus on single most important element of education

Reading: lowest proficiency percentages in the territory
reporters@samoanews.com

It goes by many names: literacy proficiency, literature fluency, reading comprehension. It all boils down to the single most important aspect of education: the ability to read well. It includes understanding what has been read, and communicating thoughts clearly to others in the written word.

It is the focus which the University of Hawaii Cohort 25 candidates have chosen as their guide, and earlier this month they sponsored an event which highlighted their cause.

They chose the national holiday — the 4th of July — to hold a “Literacy Carnival”.

The holiday which emphasizes and celebrates the freedoms we enjoy was perhaps the most appropriate day of all to encourage literacy. After all, one of the most important elements of a free society is the ability to obtain information and knowledge from which good choices can be made. Coupled with the freedom to express ourselves-- using the power and elegance of the written word-- gives us much to celebrate.

Samoa News was able to visit with University of Hawaii professor, Dr. Deb Zuercher, who travels to the territory often in her capacity as an instructor at the UH Manoa College of Education to offer training and guidance as a Cohort adviser.

She explained more about the Cohort’s goals this year, saying that Cohort members have chosen as their primary focus a drive to improve literacy proficiency levels among the teachers and school children of the territory.

In short, the Cohort teachers want to help their students become better readers.

“Reading fluency is the single most important element of education” said Dr. Zuercher, and the foundation upon which all learning takes place.”

She went on to say that student and teacher test data reveal that reading is the content area that has the lowest proficiency percentages in the territory. She said there is a positive side to this, because reading is the area that needs the greatest teacher intervention. “These Cohort teachers have set out to positively impact student engagement, by making reading fun as well as cool” she said.

Thus, the idea of a Literacy Festival came about.

Voluntarily funded by the Cohort teachers themselves, they formed committees for activity centers, decorations, food and entertainment for the event. They also raised funds and ordered $2,000 worth of brand new books for children of all ages, which they distributed as prizes and gifts during the all-day fair.

Preparing for the Literacy Carnival — and for the year ahead — the Cohort teachers completed UH literacy courses to learn content and strategies.

Strategies like “read aloud -think aloud” use guiding questions, predictions and connection to prior knowledge to aid students’ reading comprehension. 

Choice boards provide different ways for students to summarize core content from reading passages by drawing cartoons, composing lyrics, integrating technology to design Powerpoint or Keynote presentations, acting out passages through Reader’s Theater, or writing letters, journals or Facebook blogs. eReaders and iPads are increasingly encouraged as innovative mediums to engage students in reading.

Vocabulary is developed through strategies such as cubed definitions, games like Taboo or Memory Matching, and word morphology analysis. 

Learning English grammar through instructional activities such as sentence mapping, conventional tutorials and writing workshops also impact reading comprehension. 

Fluency is strengthened by implementing strategies like “popcorn reading”, read aloud, paired-reading, choral reading and punctuation mark clapping.

“ ‘Drill and kill’ phonics programs have taken the joy away from reading” said Dr. Zuercher, who wants students to discover the joys of reading for pleasure. “Teachers can renew joy in reading with contagious excitement, engaging in the power of words to convey stories once again.”

Research from the National Reading Panel (2012) suggests that students who do not develop reading fluency, regardless of how bright they are, are likely to remain poor readers throughout their lives. Further, there is ample evidence that one of the major differences between poor readers and good readers is the difference in the amount of total time they spend reading. Given this research, teachers are uniting to encourage students to spend more time reading. 

There is an added bonus to reading proficiency: “The fact is, the more you read, the better you write” said Dr. Zuercher.

(She made the suggestion that students find one short story a day in Samoa News which they can read at home with their families each evening, and she encourages families and churches to play an active role in requiring silent sustained reading.)

SERVICE LEARNING

The Cohorts participate in service learning within the community as part of their education program, and partnering with parents and community stakeholders is a teacher education standard.

The Literacy Fair was part of the service learning component for this Cohort, and according to Cohort Coordinator Patricia Sataua, it was the hard work and dedication of the teachers themselves that made it so successful.

“The English content knowledge and instructional strategies learned in their summer classes and demonstrated at the Literacy Carnival will be implemented in the Cohort teachers' elementary classrooms when school begins in August,” Dr. Zuercher said.

She added, “Reading proficiency is the necessary foundation to academic achievement for our students. It is the most important focus of the teacher education program because reading comprehension influences all other content knowledge proficiency. The University of Hawaii is in full agreement with the ASDOE priority of positively impacting literacy levels in American Samoa."

Sharing some of her favorite thoughts on the subject, she quoted President Harry Truman: "Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers,” and from Confucius: "No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance."



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