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A Balancing Act

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Sitting in a jumbled semicircle on the floor around Laura Grenon's rocking chair, the 1st graders listen raptly as their teacher reads The Old Man's Mitten, a big book resting on a nearby easel. During the course of the story, one forest creature after another tries to wriggle into a lost glove.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Grenon asks her students.

"It's going to tear up into pieces," one little girl says. "It's too small for the bear."

"Who can find my short 'o' on this page?" the teacher asks.

"Off," replies Antonio.

At the end of the story, the children discuss the outcome: The mitten does not tear after all; instead, the animals scurry away when the old man comes to retrieve it. But the lesson isn't over yet. "Let's come up with a list of short 'o' words that you heard in my story," the teacher suggests.

Grenon, who has been teaching for six years, thinks of herself as a whole language teacher. But unlike some whole language educators, she believes there is also a place in her classroom for explicit phonics instruction. So throughout the day in room 11 at Fairland Elementary School, located in Silver Spring, Md., Grenon does what an increasing number of reading experts believe early grade teachers should do: She blends elements of the whole language philosophy with instruction in basic phonics.

"Some kids do learn by phonics," she says. "Some kids really struggle; it's my job to figure out what's best for that child."

Signs of Grenon's balanced approach are in evidence around the classroom. On the bulletin board, for example, she has written a list of questions for the children to keep in mind when reading: "What did you notice in the story?" "How did the story make you feel?" "What does the story remind you of in your own life?" But next to it, she has printed: "Can you figure out our compound words?" And elsewhere there is a list of words with the short "o" sound.

Grenon's students write every day. In the beginning of the year, those who didn't know any of their letters drew pictures. She would ask them for one letter and then a word to go with it, gradually expanding their letter and word knowledge. The children go over their writing individually with Grenon but also with their peers. They keep journals--even in math.

Today, a boy named Matt shares an elaborate tale he has written of a trip he took to Kings Dominion, a nearby amusement park. He hasn't spelled every word correctly or used perfect grammar, but his story is logical, cohesive, and arresting, especially for a 1st grader.

Grenon allows her students to use temporary spelling, but, eventually, they must learn to spell the words correctly. She encourages them to select their own weekly list of spelling words. On this day, many pick from the family of words with short "o" sounds written on the board. But others strike out on their own. Among the words on Becca's list are "hospetel," "oxegen," and "problem." Grenon shows her the correct spelling of the first two but urges her to replace the word "problem" because she already knows how to spell it.

Later in the morning, Grenon reads from another big book, Tough Boris, a tale about a pirate. "I want you to listen for exciting words," she says.

The youngsters pick out "massive," and Grenon asks for synonyms. Students volunteer "huge," "humongous," and "chunky."

"Scruffy" is another exciting word they find, but this time the synonyms they come up with don't match. "You guys had some very good guesses," Grenon says, "but we're going to look up 'scruffy.' "

When she finishes the book, Grenon writes on an easel board: "My dog is nice." She then asks the children for exciting words to spice up the sentence. They come up with a half-dozen or so, as well as a simile: "My dog is like an angel."

And one student proudly points out that "dog" has a short "o."

Grenon sends her charges back to their desks to write some more. This time, they are to try to use exciting words. After a while, Matthew reads aloud to the class his story, which makes good use of both "scary" and "growling."

Grenon has divided her class into reading groups by ability. But the students seem to move readily from one group to another, as evidenced by all the crossed-out and added-on names on the lists.

Some children read books from a Houghton Mifflin series the school bought this year. The series takes a thematic, literature-based approach to reading but also includes skills that are supposed to be taught sequentially. Grenon says some of the stories are difficult for emergent readers, mainly because they do not repeat words. For students who need either easier or more challenging books, Grenon selects material from a district-approved core book list.

Time also is set aside each day for silent reading. And when students complete a class assignment, they are free to go to the bookshelves and pick out something they want to read on their own. Today, a student named Rachel walks over and chooses A Picture Book of Helen Keller. She can read all the words except "Tuscumbia," Keller's Alabama hometown.

Grenon also ties the day's math lesson to language arts. She reads Builder of the Moon, a story about a boy who rides his rocketship to outer space to repair the moon. After hearing the tale, the children cut out geometric shapes and design their own spaceships.

But before they can finish, the school day comes to an end. The 1st graders put their chairs on top of their desks and get ready to go home. Tomorrow, they will return to the spaceship projects, and then they will write about what they did and why.

--Karen Diegmueller

The "Research" section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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