Castlecliff's fast learners

By Lin Ferguson

We Know about the early bird bagging the worm but there is a group of youngsters at Castlecliff school - the Early Word readers - who are flying ahead with their reading skills.

These are mostly 5- and 6-year-olds, and one 8-year-old boy, who couldn't get to grips with reading their basic words in their first year at school.

But introducing the Early Word programme this year has meant these lads are forging ahead and locking the words in.

Principal Kath Martin is thrilled, and it shows.

When she talks about her "boys", her smile is warm and all encompassing.

"I'm so proud of them. They have really made huge strides in reading."

For whatever reason, whether these students were transient in their first year at school, were often away ill, or like one boy had a debilitating stutter, the decision to put them in this special recovery programme had paid off, Ms Martin said.

Early Word teaches the child how to learn and quickly recall a reading vocabulary of basic necessary words.

There are only 100 words that make up half of all reading.

Words such as "I", "the", "like" and so on are called "high frequency" or "sight" words.

Children need to know these words instantly - by sight, without sounding them out, Ms Martin says. "They will still, of course, need phonics to help them read non-sight words.

"So the quicker a child masters the basic sight word vocabulary, the easier reading will be."

The lessons take just five minutes each day.

At Castlecliff, the boys have their Early Word lesson every morning in a one-on-one with one of three teacher aides.

Ms Martin said for a package that works so successfully, it is inexpensive. "Which with all the expenses faced by schools these days, is great."

Teacher Michelle Wood said the daily five-minute sessions meant the learning was kept short, snappy and often.

"It works because it is fast."

It had been particularly satisfying with one of her small charges whose often crippling stutter held him back from reading or even talking aloud.

"It was just too hard for him."

But his daily Early Word sessions have meant that in less than six months he is not only recognising his basic words, he is confidently reading them aloud.

"He still gets stuck on the odd word but with fast repetition we're making real progress."

The beauty of the programme was how it had helped, and in record time, she said.

Ms Martin, who leaves Castlecliff School at the end of the year to take over as principal of Hokitika School, said it was one of many successes the school had enjoyed this year.

"I am sad to be going, because I believe in this school and I love these kids."

But family ties in Christchurch were just too strong, she said.

Earlier this year, over Easter, the mothers of two young boys at the school died.

"It was terribly, terribly sad.

"We were all so shocked."

One of the boys was part of the Early Word programme, so the daily one-on-one contact had been even more integral for this lad, she said.

As a special mark of respect for the two boys, the school banded together and painted two murals depicting each bereaved family on the outside wall of a classroom.

"They are so beautiful and it was so the right thing to have done ... which is why I love this school," Ms Martin said.

Teacher aide Nina Miller is committed to helping children at Castlecliff improve their learning and said this year working with the Early Word programme had been fantastic.

"It's brain training at its absolute best ... it really fixes the words in their brains, and the progress has been just phenomenal."

Sitting with Ms Miller and raring to go was 8-year-old Tyrone Tyson-Apiata.

With flashing eyes and a killer grin, Tyrone was bursting to show his prowess with Early Words.

"Tyrone has just soaked it up, and I'm convinced it's because the way it is structured means they compete with themselves every day."

Having to pit yourself against a large group of other kids in your class can be daunting for most kids, especially boys, so self-competition is healthy and and a lot of fun, she says.

The number of words on the Early Word list is 35 and Tyrone has mastered all of them in four months.

His session each day is getting faster and faster.

"He loves to get the timer ticking.

"I have a pile of word cards and flick them over one at a time, and as fast as Tyrone recognises the word, the next one goes down. He is trying every day to better his time score ... he's literally racing against himself, and he loves it."

Tyrone is cutting time from his word scores very day, and he is so delighted he insists on being tested at least twice during each session.

When the mental test is done, he is allowed to take some physical time as a reward.

"Well, he's such a physical boy and, like all energetic boys, he needs to let off steam. It's good for him," Ms Miller said.

"It's like a reward and, believe me, he deserves it. You know, this programme is about these boys competing against themselves, and the more they do it the more they love it.

"They keep going until they really get it right. I am impressed, I really am."

"I have a good time every time, eh?" Tyrone said with a laugh.

It is physical reward time and he bounds into another room with a small trampoline and a beanbag.

We are treated to an acrobatic display where Tyrone leaps from the trampoline and dives across the room into the beanbag.

Then the timer's on again and Tyrone is running six laps around the table like a whirling dervish. He's fast, this boy.

"I am thrilled with Tyrone. He's gone from strength to strength and he was a late starter," Ms Miller smiled.

But as Kath Martin said, whatever helps is worth trying, and they hit upon a sure-fire winner with Early Word.

"We're so proud of our boys ... so proud."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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