Teaching methods changing with the times

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story exploring new methods of teaching math in public schools on Kaua‘i.

School renewal specialist for the Central Complex, Barbara Baker, oversees the Malama ‘ia ka Makemakakia (Caring for Math) grant. The grant provides professional development for math teachers on Kaua‘i through a partnership with Kaua‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i. It is during this professional development time that teachers talked about curriculum alignment that enabled Chiefess Kamakahelei to qualify for the Act 51 money, Baker said. Act 51 is another name for the Reinventing Education Act of 2004.

One of the factors in deciding on the Thematics math books was that Kaua‘i High School was already using the same series. “The schools recognized that students need to be mathematically literate, they need to understand mathematics. They need more than the rote way some of us were taught,” Baker said.

President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative created a National Math Panel, members of which were recently named, to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching math. It is patterned after the National Reading Panel, which came out with a report citing effective strategies for teaching reading in 2000.

Critics of the Reading Panel say it was biased. Federal grants called Reading First grants favor those who follow the National Reading Panel recommendation of placing a strong emphasis on teaching phonics, which uses a basic-skills approach.

The same criticisms are already being made about the math panel.

The inspector general’s office of the U. S. Department of Education and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, are conducting separate inquiries into the Reading First program to see if the program favors certain publishers and consultants.

Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School Principal Rachel Watarai said her school was one of the first recipients on Kaua‘i of the two-year Reading First grant beginning in School Year 2003-2004. The grant enabled all of her kindergarten through third-grade teachers to be inserviced in teaching reading by Edward Kameenui, from the University of Oregon.

The five “big ideas” were taught. Phonemes are the smallest unit of speech. The word “cat” contains three phonemes /k/, /a/, /t/, as does ox /o/, /k/, /s/. This is called phonemic awareness. Phonics is about how letters are linked to sounds (phonemes) to form letter-sound relationships and spelling patterns. Fluency is reading with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. Vocabulary is word knowledge. Comprehension is understanding text.

The grant did not dictate which programs should be purchased, Watarai said. Various programs were introduced. Schools were allowed to choose.

Watarai said some criticize the systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency in the early grades, claiming not enough is done with comprehension. Watarai said that unless children can decode and read with fluency, they cannot comprehend. Too much effort would be put into trying to figure out the words, she said.

The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills developed by Kameenui’s colleagues at the University of Oregon’s College of Education is used to assess students. These are individual one-minute fluency measures used to monitor the development of the early reading skills.

“There are always shifts in teaching,” Watarai said. “The best teachers are aware of different strategies and use the ones that most effectively meet the needs of their students.”

• Cynthia Matsuoka is a freelance writer for The Garden Island and former principal of Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. She can be reached by e-mail at aharju@kauaipubco.com

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