When retired teacher Ms. Lonni Skrentner began volunteering at Holy Cross Anglican in January of 2012, her goal was to improve exam scores by increasing the students’ writing ability. All students in Standard 6 (8th grade)sit a standardized exam called the PSE (Primary School Exam), the results of which determine eligibility to high school. Historically, our students have struggled in the Language Arts section of the exam, especially the section where students must choose from one of several prompts to write a short story.
As Ms. Lonni worked with small groups of students in Standards 5 and 6, she began to realize that the real problem was reading comprehension. Thanks to the literacy program, most students could read aloud fluently…meaning they could sound out the words and follow the grammar signs for pauses and end of sentences. But, when she gave them a story prompt as a practice exercise, the most common question she was asked was what the prompt meant. It was a revelation.
“If a student doesn’t understand the prompt on an exam, how can they possibly write a story that follows the prompt? “ thought Lonni “If a student doesn’t understand a question or the multiple choice answers that follow the question, how can they possibly answer the question correctly? The answer, of course, is that they can’t.”
This issue of understanding is one that has an impact far beyond story writing from a prompt – it impacts learning in every subject. So Ms. Lonni, together with the senior staff at Holy Cross are now working on a reading comprehension program to help at several grade levels. This will begin in the 2019-2020 school year, where Ms. Lonni will work with a small group of experienced Holy Cross teachers at all grade levels, coaching them to teach the program to their students.
First, we will acquire two full classroom sets of high interest, authentic literature (please see our wish list for titles we are looking for). Students will read silently for a portion of each day and spend some time in discussion, take comprehension quizzes and may even do a project related to the reading.
Finding high interest books in Belize is an issue. In Ms. Lonni’s own words: “I realized quickly that a classic that might work in a US classroom would put our Belizean students to sleep . Think…oh…Anne of Green Gables. Most books written that would appeal to Belizean students are written in Spanish, but our students must comprehend in English! “
The first book Ms. Lonni worked with was found by accident. “I had helped edit a book for an author friend; It was on WWII from the Japanese perspective. Sachiko by Caren Stelson tells the story of Sachiko Yasui who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and grew into an adult working for world peace. Ms. Stelson granted me a pile of copies and I donated the rest. Here was a story so far removed from Belizean culture that students were fascinated. The book was specifically written for middle school, perfect for Standard 6. In the Winter of 2018, the Standard 6 teacher Mr. Ayoni and I taught the book with me in the lead. It worked. Students struggled, but we added vocabulary lessons and talked a lot about meaning…real comprehension. In the process, students learned much about World War II a topic not covered by Belize curriculum. That book led me to search for other books that were so far from the experience of Belize students that I didn’t have to worry about whether the students identified with the main character.”
Ms. Lonni then added Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper in Standard 5, a story about a young girl with severe cerebral palsy and the difficulties of her education. The story calls upon students to imagine a very different life, which is good for their overall education.
The goal is to have one book for each standard. Next year we will add Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling to Standard 4. We will also try Charlotte’s Web by EB White in Standard 1. As this program expands, the hope is that it will impact scores in all areas.
If students can comprehend independently, questions in social studies and science will be easier to answer!
Can you help?
If you have ideas for good books for grades 1 – 4, please contact Ms. Lonni at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re looking for books that feature both strong male and female characters so as to appeal to both boys and girls. Books should have fairly short chapters and pictures. We also need class sets of books – please check our wish list for the class sets of books we need donated.