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The First 'R'

With his index finger, first-grader J.J. Ferantes traces the text of a storybook and reads aloud during an intensive small-group reading exercise.

"People lock their boats," J.J. reads. "They hop from their boats. They have fun on the docks."

"You substituted the word 'their' for 'the' two times," says Carrie McCoy, a reading specialist at Jefferson Elementary School. "The story says 'the boat.'"

McCoy writes "the," "their," "they," "them" and "then" on the chalkboard and asks J.J. and three of his classmates to read them.

"She recognized that was something he needed to work on," observes Jefferson Principal Susan Inman. "She was diagnosing that J.J. was doing some guessing."

Each school day, students in grades kindergarten through second grade receive at least 90 minutes of reading instruction from their regular teacher.

Pupils who are struggling go to see McCoy each school day for an additional 30 minutes of intensive reading instruction in small groups of five or fewer students. Some also receive yet another 30 minutes of reading instruction on a computer.

A study of Oregon and Texas first-graders published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities this month indicates that such targeted instruction dramatically enhances students' literacy skills.

The study examined 21 students in the Bethel and Tigard-Tualatin school districts and 33 students in Texas who were considered "at risk" because of a lack of early literacy skills, whether from a lack of exposure to reading, because English is not their first language or other reasons.

The study was conducted by the University of Oregon in Eugene and the University of Texas in Austin.

The Oregon students received 60 minutes daily of extra reading instruction, while the Texas students had about 30 minutes extra each day.

The students in the longer sessions scored higher in reading at the end of the year, but all the students studied improved their scores.

The focused extra instruction is a tenet of the federal Reading First program, which was devised to help schools meet a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act that all third-graders be proficient in reading by 2014. Bethel and Tigard-Tualatin are not part of the Reading First program, but they have used the extra 60-minute sessions of intensive small-group instruction since about 2000.

The program was launched in 34 schools in Oregon in 2002-03, including Jefferson, Jackson, Howard and Oak Grove elementary schools in Medford.

"The implication is that the hard work Reading First schools have been doing for a number of years now definitely pays off," said Beth Harn, assistant professor of special education at the University of Oregon who headed up the study in Oregon. "The program is very responsive to the needs of students."

The federal government has recently cut funding for the reading programs, but Oregon and other states have sought to make up some of that funding because of the results they've seen, Harn said.

In the four Reading First schools in Medford, the average percentage of first-graders who are at benchmark in reading has increased precipitously since the program was implemented in 2002-03. In winter 2003, about 42 percent of first-graders were at benchmark in alphabetic understanding, and 49 percent were at benchmark in oral reading fluency. This winter, 69 percent of first-graders were at benchmark in alphabetic understanding, and 55 percent were at benchmark in oral reading fluency.

Jefferson was recently selected by the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Reading First Center as one of three schools in the state to serve as demonstration sites of the research-based reading practices.

At Jefferson in winter 2003, 32 percent of first-graders were at benchmark in alphabetic understanding and 38 percent in oral reading fluency.

This winter, 72.4 percent of Jefferson first-graders are at benchmark in alphabetic understanding and 52.4 percent are at benchmark in oral reading fluency. That percentage tends to rise at the end of the school year based on past years.

The Reading First program calls for 90 minutes of reading instruction for all students in grades kindergarten through the second grade and an additional 30 to 60 minutes of small-group instruction for pupils who are struggling, which they dubbed "a double dose." Students are tested three times a year to track their progress in reading and to catch students who are floundering. Students who are "at risk" are tested at least weekly. They are, then, coached in their specific weaknesses during regular and extra small-group instructional time.

The University of Oregon plans to study whether first-graders maintain the literacy skills they gain in the small-group sessions of extra reading instruction through the third grade. It's not yet known when that study will be released.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Reading specialist Carrie McCoy, right, reacts as first grader Jasmine Geaney, left, successfully completes a timed reading exercise at Jefferson Elementary School Monday. Also pictured (to Jasmine's right) are, from left, Grace Ball and Ruby Bishop. - Jim Craven