Speakers make helping students easy to comprehend

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By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

The start of classes in the Enumclaw School District is three weeks away, but teachers and administrators were at Thunder Mountain Middle School Thursday morning collecting information from three nationally recognized experts on reading comprehension at the district's three-day Summer Literacy Institute.

"It's really exciting," said Sunrise Elementary School teacher Ann McGonagle, who along with colleagues, was jotting down notes and picking up tips from Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis and Cris Tovani that will help readers at all grade levels become better students. "I have all kinds of plans."

Harvey, Goudvis and Tovani are accomplished authors and literacy specialists with the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition, a consortium that has received national acclaim for its work in reading comprehension reform. The nonprofit organization, started in 1987, works with public schools to help teachers translate research into classroom practice. The group was brought to Enumclaw through Gates Grant funding.

About 130 teachers and administrators, most from the Enumclaw district, attended the conference.

"Of their own will in the middle of summer," Harvey said of the staff who turned out. "This district inspires us, remarkable things are happening here."

Harvey, who wrote "Strategy Instruction in Action" and "Strategies that Work: Teaching comprehension to Enhance Understanding," with Goudvis and "Nonfiction Matters," has been working with the Enumclaw district for a few years. Her last visit was in classrooms here this spring.

This was Goudvis' first visit to the district and she was impressed with the work going on here.

"It's very unusual to find everyone, K through 12 going in the same direction," Goudvis said.

"The kids here are being taught to think," she said.

"It's a remarkable district," Harvey said.

Showing teachers how to create a culture of thinkers is the threesome's forte. Comprehension, or understanding what has just been read, is their specialty.

According to Harvey, research showed "most kids could read, but they couldn't understand or remember."

Grasping the root of comprehension helps students at all levels, across all subjects. Reading text, and learning methods to decode the meaning of the text - what the author is trying to tell, or show, the reader is a lifelong skill.

Harvey, Goudvis and Tovani say it's creating critical, skeptical, thoughtful readers.

"It's much more complex than sounding out words," said Tovani, who taught elementary school for 10 years before becoming a high school reading specialist and English teacher. In addition to being a nationally known consultant, she continues to work full-time as a high school teacher. She is also author of "I Read It, But I Don't Get It" and "Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?"

Of the five components of reading, they explained, phonics is the how to, while phonemic awareness, fluency and vocabulary development are equally important. The fifth, reading comprehension, is the trio's specialty.

After studying research, the key was to find out what good readers do and use those skills to help others.

What they discovered, Goudvis said, is "when we begin thinking, reading changes."

For example, according to the three experts, some kids, and adults for that matter, don't get a "visual," a picture in their head, when they read. The text doesn't conjure up pictures or diagrams. There's no connection to help them understand what they've read.

The use of sensory images to enhance comprehension and visualize what they are reading is just one of the thinking strategies used by proficient readers.

A simple way to get the pictures rolling is to have students discuss, write about and describe what they've read.

McGonagle said she plans to hold more discussions with her students and give them more reading choices and variety - another tip from the visitors.

Harvey said it's important to offer students a multi-source curriculum - to find books, magazines, newspaper articles - students want to read. Students have different interests and should be provided a selection of materials.

"We read the world," she said. "And we read it in all different ways."

"It's about engaging students in reading for the rest of their lives," Goudvis said.

"It's definitely working," Harvey said. Rising test scores across the nation are a tell-tale sign, but more important, she said, are the reports from teachers, Enumclaw ones in particular, who say their students are two years ahead of former students academically, and are more thoughtful.

"We applaud, in a major way, what's going on here," Harvey said. "It's very special."

Brenda Sexton can be reached at

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