Thursday, September 20, 2012

Volunteering at Chetwood Memorial Primary School

Chetwood Memorial Primary School
Since September 2011, I’ve been helping some grade 2 children with reading at Chetwood Memorial Primary School. This school was started by Fransiscan Sisters in what is now the church hall. The current school is also built on land belonging to the Catholic Church. It is a government primary school with 4 streams in each of grades 1-6 with about 45 children in each class. The school is located near the centre of Montego Bay and accommodates children from various social backgrounds. Although it is now one of the more sought after schools, there are 150 children who qualify for free lunches.
   I offered to help Grade 2, because those children who enter grade 2 below the reading level for their grade, are unable to follow the text-books on which Grade 2 work is based. The Principal, Mrs. Campbell was most appreciative of my offer, saying, “We need all the help we can get.” Seven children were referred to me and I met them in three groups for half an hour each, one day a week. I wanted to recruit other volunteers to come on other days, but as it turned out, there was only one, a young man from Montego Bay Community College, who chose this avenue for his voluntary service. He had a positive influence on the children and I noticed a real improvement after a week when he came every day.

New block housing the library and computer room
    My philosophy when teaching reading is to teach with kindness – to respect, pay attention to and show affection to my pupils – and to praise frequently. I’m not a reading specialist, but have devised my method of teaching reading from research and experience. Children should hear, say, look at, and write—these 4 activities for every letter, word and sentence, using a mix of phonics, and word and sentence recognition. I also try to emphasize meaning and that the purpose of reading and writing is to communicate.

In teaching phonics, I find out what letter sounds they know and start where they are. Most of them know the consonant sounds, but need revision. The vowels are more challenging, as they have so many variants. I start with the short vowel sounds using flash cards, rhyming words and words starting with the same consonant, followed by long vowel sounds, then sounds as in er-ir-ur (the rooster’s call) ‘aw’, ‘ar’, ‘ow’, or, ‘oo’ and ‘ew’.

For ‘look and say’ words, I use home-made flash cards, which I also use for revising consonant sounds and for games. I found that Pelmanism, a game recommended for such children, was too challenging for them. Also, games, such as sound Bingo, have to allow for all of them to win. They take losing very hard.

I take ‘look and say’ sentences from their reading books, Literacy 1-2-3 books, sentences I write myself and some the children speak or write. I start with sentences such as “What is your name?” and “My name is ….” Then we write the sentences on strips of card and cut them up into words. Their challenge is then to identify the words separate from the sentence. After a while they can use these words to make new sentences.

Was I successful in assisting these children in learning to read? Yes and no. Of the seven, three progressed at a faster pace. One girl reached the point where I thought it would be more beneficial for her to remain in her class. To her that was a punishment - she passively resisted by downing her tools, so I took her back. Two other boys gave me the most trouble, with mischievous behavior, especially when they were together. I’m still trying to persuade one of them that, yes, he can learn to read – he had demonstrated that he could, but his progress was slow. He told me that his father beat him because he couldn’t read. No wonder he has negative attitudes towards reading! One girl had such poor attendance that she made little headway; while another needed special help, which I’m not qualified to give. However, Ms. Brown, the grade 2 coordinator, was appreciative of my efforts which she thought had made a difference.
Computer Lab
      Fortunately, Chetwood has a modern computer lab and an Academy of Reading programme, which they use with children in grade 3 and up. Children who haven't yet learnt to read get a second chance, and those who are already reading use it to improve their literacy skills.
A mural on the stairway

Why did I choose to volunteer to help children with reading? For some time, I’ve been pondering the causes of high illiteracy rate in Jamaica, and its social effects. Can we as citizens do anything to improve literacy? Since retiring, I’ve had a number of pupils wanting help with reading, and I wanted to see children in the school setting. My observations confirmed my view that children learning to read
    1. need individual attention every day (although I wasn’t able to commit to that, and their teachers aren't able to give that either), and
    2. need encouragement, praise and affirmation.
Together, we can fill these needs. I started with a new group of grade 2 students today. If any of you reading this would like to help, please let me know.
   Children also need access to plenty of books at their reading level. This presents a logistical challenge but is not impossible to achieve.
   The other vital ingredient in the reading recipe is motivation. Children who want to learn to read will (as long as they have no specific learning disability), but unfortunately many who lack this vital ingredient will not. While we can contend that improving literacy levels will lead to a more educated society, and improve the standard of living for all, some of the very families who want to improve their status, don't have the reading culture necessary to inspire their children.
from Book Community Board by Lucia Luz


Hazel Campbell said...

Very good Helen. Have you tried using (very) short stories which the children themselves make up?

Anonymous said...

Very impressive work, Helen. I found this blog most interesting.

Helen said...

Thank you, Diane.

Helen said...

I haven't had the students make up stories,Hazel, but I've had them write sentences to go with pictures they draw. I think the story writing can be done as a group exercise, too, to keep all the children involved. I'll give it a try.