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Innovative Reading Club boosting reading, writing skills at St. James School

January 23, 2015
Christina Gray

Adriana entered first grade at St. James School in September with English language proficiency skills six levels higher than when she started kindergarten. So did her classmate Aliyah, while Larenz, Cologero and Alyssa each progressed five levels.

School faculty and families are seeing student vocabulary and reading comprehension skills advance quickly since 2013 when St. James introduced a multiage literacy program known by the students as the Reading Club.

“The main point of Reading Club is to ensure that we are reaching the individual needs of each student,” said teacher Cynthia Caputo. “We want to ensure that each child feels successful and is being challenged but not overwhelmed.”

In the Reading Club, students in kindergarten through third grade are assessed and placed in one of three tiered learning groups based on their English language skills rather than by grade level. Students are continually assessed and move up as they gain proficiency.

During a visit by Catholic San Francisco on Jan. 6, a Reading Club group populated by kindergartners, first, second and third graders worked together with Caputo in an animated vocabulary building exercise. Students were engaged, enthusiastic and eager.

In this environment, Caputo said, students who are struggling have more support so they can catch up to where they should be and those students who need more challenge are at their level rather than limited by their grade level.

St. James principal, Dominican Sister of Mission San Jose Mary Susanna Vasquez, said the new program is an important initiative at the San Francisco Mission District school where 60 percent of the school’s 125 families reported in a school survey that English is not the household’s first language. Eighty-six percent of the student population is Hispanic.

Students enter every grade level with a wide range of English vocabulary, reading and comprehension skills. “The reason we implemented the Reading Club is because we have so many English language learners or bilingual students here,” she said.

“We believe it is very important to lay a strong foundation in the early years, particularly with English language skills because it has a ripple effect on other subjects and will impact their future academic achievements and future,” Sister Susanna said.

Sister Susanna, teachers and staff developed the Reading Club based on the English Language Development curriculum used by the San Francisco Unified School District. Its goal is to ensure students acquire the skills to use proper conversational and academic English in complete sentences with correct grammar and expression.

An English Language Development representative came out to give the school some sample lessons and strategies. “Other than that, we’ve just taken the idea and what we know and played around with it,” Caputo said.

“When students are placed at a level that is comfortable for them, they will experience success every day and learn to be happy readers,” Sister Susanna said.

Parents, in general, like Reading Club, said Caputo. The school gives families regular reading level reports based on the Fountas & Pinnell Reading Program and Assessment Kit. The report provides a student’s reading level rating, which helps parents find the proper books to develop the reading abilities of their child.

“The multiage literacy program at St. James is unique,” said Maureen Huntington, superintendent of archdiocesan Catholic schools. “I wish more of our schools would follow this example.”

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