New One-on-One Time Helps Teacher Uncover Well-Hidden Learning Problems

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San Diego

Joan Spiegelberg had 35 kindergartners last year. One of her best pupils was 7-year-old Judee Domingues.

Ms. Spiegelberg has Judee this year in 1st grade as well. And Judee is behaving just as well as she did last year. The quiet, unassuming girl turns in work on time, reads aloud with apparent ease, and stays out of trouble. Browse Education Week's 'Web Connection' Your Best On-line Source for Education Products and Services

But some things are different this year. For one, thanks to California's effort to reduce K-3 class sizes, Ms. Spiegelberg is team-teaching 40 students with another teacher. As a result, she says, she has more time to work individually with her students at Jackson Elementary School, a crowded, inner-city school here.

Thanks to the new, one-on-one time, Ms. Spiegelberg began working more closely with Judee. And what she found was surprising.

Judee, who had always completed written math work in class with little trouble, had a hard time counting.

More surprisingly, the polite girl, who had regularly read in front of the class, had an even harder time reading.

Ms. Spiegelberg, a teacher for eight years, discovered that last year Judee had done a masterful job of compensating for her difficulties by copying other students' work and memorizing reading passages before volunteering to read out loud.

"With more time to see how she works, I saw she was very clever about getting work done without understanding it," the teacher said recently.

When Ms. Spiegelberg relayed her findings to Judee's mother, she found out that the girl's 5th and 6th grade siblings were doing Judee's homework for her.

"That was a problem last year. ... I didn't have time with her," Ms. Spiegelberg added. "When quiet, well-behaved children get their work done, you assume they're OK."

Working as Intended

For her part, Judee is proud to display her new reading techniques.

She carefully follows words with her finger, and sounds out letters using sounds and signals that she has worked out with Ms. Spiegelberg.

As for counting, Judee finds it easier to count by lining up objects in a row, rather than in random groups, so that they are easier to follow.

Aside from getting more one-on-one time with her teacher, Judee is getting a different kind of help from her mother and siblings. They now read with her, and guide her through her homework, instead of doing it for her.

This is the kind of intervention that state proponents of smaller classes hope will some day be the rule in California schools.

"The mission of this is to improve elementary literacy and mathematics," said Barbara Baseggio, the administrator of the state education department's elementary education office.

And more one-on-one attention early could help reduce the need for intensive intervention later on. She added: "If we can wipe out nonreaders by 3rd grade, we'll see fewer special education referrals."

Ms. Spiegelberg shudders to think about how often students like Judee get lost in the shuffle of bigger classes.

"If you're able to catch a child and give him self-correcting strategies," she said, "then he'll improve."

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