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READING: The ABC's of helping youngsters achieve literacy--the
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Better Late Than Never

Experts say teenagers' reading problems are often overlooked in the rush to make sure young children learn the skill. But more programs are targeting older students. 'We have to help them . . . or else they'll be lost,' a teacher says.

April 04, 1999|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andrea Canizales, 16, always sits in the front of the classroom, her posture straight and her brown eyes focused on the teacher. She turns in neatly written homework, raises her hand during discussions and usually earns Bs in her English courses at Kennedy High School in Granada Hills.

But when she sits in silence and tries to comprehend letters strung together in sentences, and sentences stacked on top of each other in fat, never-ending paragraphs, Andrea's mind stalls. "I look at all those words, and sometimes I can't do it," the 10th-grader said. "I don't know what I'm reading."

Concerned about students such as Andrea, who have tested at least two years below grade level in reading, Kennedy High began an after-school program last month that aims to teach about 225 students reading and to improve their scores on state tests.

The program is one of a growing number of efforts--including daily silent reading sessions, increased remedial classes and teacher training--designed to improve high school reading, an issue educators say is often overlooked in the push to get elementary school students reading proficiently.

Textbook publishers also have realized the need, experts say, with plans to publish and distribute more materials geared at teaching older students to read.

More than half of the ninth- and 10th-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District scored at or below the 25th percentile in reading on last spring's Stanford 9, a standardized test.

"The emphasis has been on, 'Let's get it right in the beginning,' " said Carol Jago, director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and an English teacher at Santa Monica High School. "We still need to do that. . . . But we can't forget those who aren't reading at 15. It's not too late for them. It will be difficult, but it's not too late."

Within the next year, L.A. Unified plans to expand literacy programs to include high school students as well as more middle school students. Part of the reason is a state law requiring districts, by the 2000-01 school year, to abolish social promotion, the practice of advancing students to the next grade even if they lack the needed skills. L.A. Unified hopes to end social promotion a year before the state does.

At Kennedy High, 49% of the ninth-graders and 36% of the 10th-graders scored below average on standardized tests in vocabulary. In comprehension, 46% of the ninth-graders and 56% of the 10th-graders scored below average.

Most of these students qualified for Kennedy's reading intervention program. Other eligibility factors included scores from a diagnostic test the school gave, grades and teacher recommendations. The 12-week program is free and voluntary, with about 15 students in a class. Sessions are 1 1/4 hours twice weekly.

Many high school students, such as Andrea, can sound out a word, often eliminating the need for the phonics-based instruction emphasized in elementary schools, experts say.

The trick then, they say, is to teach students vocabulary so they can better understand what they are reading, and to relate word meanings to content.

With a $40,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation, about 15 teachers from Kennedy High took 24 hours of training by a reading specialist on how to help teenagers read. It is a skill many high school teachers lack because it has been assumed that by the time students reach the ninth grade, they have learned the basics of reading.

"For whatever reasons, some students haven't gotten it yet, and we have to help them with their reading or else they'll be lost," said Willy Ackerman, a Kennedy teacher in the intervention program.

Earlier this year, the school mailed letters to students who qualified for the program. Andrea was surprised to get one. "I thought, 'I'm not dumb. I'm a good reader,' " she said. "I'm not one of those people who doesn't care about reading."

Students will go to great lengths to hide reading problems, according to Andrea, her friends, teachers and administrators. Some are dishonest, students say, cajoling or paying friends to do their homework, copying test questions or sneaking completed work sheets off a teacher's desk. Others feel embarrassed, working harder at hiding their reading struggles than at learning to read.

"I want to read," Andrea said. "I feel like I let down my mom and dad. There's supposed to be hope in me. I'm an only child. My parents want me to be a success. I want to be a veterinarian or a psychologist."

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