Dawn Speich stood in front of her class recently, verbally quizzing students on the correct formation of letters on a blackboard.
The 4-year-olds were attentive, and mostly correct in their answers. With letter recognition as a building block, most, if not all, of her students will be reading before Thanksgiving.
This is what literacy instruction looks like at Brookfield Academy, where teachers, administrators and parents are proud to say that reading - even reading with fluency and comprehension - can be successfully taught to the youngest of students.
"Seeing it is believing," Speich said as she demonstrated an iPad app that helps students learn hands-on the correct way to write the letters of the alphabet. "We work so hard with every student to help them gain this basic skill."
It's also attractive to parents like Ann Blanchard of Milwaukee's East Side, who see the benefits of a faster track. Blanchard's daughter, Laurette, is a second-grader who learned to read during the school's kindergarten class.
"I realized when my daughter was 3 and she was close to reading that I wanted to find a school that could bridge that gap," Blanchard said. "I like the phonics-based program. They know the capability of the students. You can see when the kids identify a word. They just say it - there's no confusion."
Blanchard said she visited a number of other kindergartens much closer to home, but they did not offer the same ambitious goal for early reading.
"When I came to Brookfield Academy, I watched the teachers and the students," she said. "I realize there are all different levels of kids, but I knew that my daughter would benefit from this approach."
The approach starts with a teacher-student ratio that would be the envy of many other schools. Heather Caponi, administration head of the Lower School Level A kindergarten through second grade program, said each kindergarten class comprises 10 students.
"That is a very important part of the program," Caponi said. "We have three classes in the morning and three in the afternoon. We don't have plans to expand because we think this is ideal for now."
The fast-paced class works for students who can sit, listen to a story and do independent work, she said. The program also helps students learn the "code" for reading through phonetic awareness, the ability to recognize and work with individual sounds in spoken language. Phonetics is the basis of phonics.
Teachers are key to delivering instruction. Caponi said they are expected to model comprehension.
"As an example, a teacher is reading a story, then stops and says, 'I'm thinking that this doesn't make any sense, so I'm going to read that again,' " Caponi said. "The teacher, then, is modeling what the student should do if they do not thoroughly understand what they are reading."
Fluency, the ability to read with speed accuracy and expression, is the goal because it is associated with comprehension. The building blocks that students learn in the 4-year-old kindergarten program, Caponi said, lead to higher-than-average national reading scores in 5-year-old kindergarten. She said the school's averages consistently top other 5-year-old kindergarten private school scores and are better than average public first-grade scores.
Academic success, she said, also depends on involved parents who can reinforce classroom learning at home.
"There is a lot of education for parents," Caponi said. "We have a parent night, and then I meet with them one on one and explain what their child is about to embark on and solicit their help. We share tips, and if it becomes overwhelming, we have to stop because continuing doesn't help."
Liking the results
Blanchard welcomes the partnership.
"I have a business degree, and I don't have a teaching degree, so I wanted to know as much as possible so that I could help," Blanchard said. "My daughter loves going to school, and the drive out there is not a problem. When you see her reading, it's the coolest thing. She's proud of herself."
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