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Literacy program bolstering confidence and marks

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Liard (Sep 28/01) - Last year the new literacy strategy at Echo Dene school was an unknown commodity. This year it's considered an unqualified success.

Principal Harry Kielly explained that the phonemic reading program, which helps students sound out words, has raised the average student's reading ability a full grade level. He said that an internationally recognized testing system was used last October to gauge students' abilities from grades 2 through 10. Students were re-tested using the same testing format in May, and the outcome was remarkable.

One student progressed from a Grade 4 to a Grade 7 reading level. Another could only recognize eight letters of the alphabet early last school year but was reading at a Grade 2 standard several months later.

"Those are the two, obvious star successes," Kielly conceded. "But we feel the program is working ... I think this can serve as a model for other schools in the Northwest Territories. We're certainly open to sharing what we've done."

The only students who didn't seem to benefit were those who didn't attend school regularly, he said. He added that the phonemic approach helps students grasp the mechanics of reading, but they still require additional work on comprehension, studying skills and regular reading practice.

The reading program was expanded this year to include even more Echo Dene students. At the same time a second program, Structures of Intellect (SOI), is being introduced. It's a long-range strategy designed to identify strengths and weaknesses in the way students process information. Remedial assignments, or drills, are employed to improve the weak areas, according to Kielly.

The SOI program, like the phonemic reading approach, is intended to help build self-esteem.

"I think the single biggest thing is the difference in attitude in the kids," he said. "We've had favourable feedback from parents and board staff."

Of course, Echo Dene school has benefitted greatly from an infusion of cash from outside sources to make these programs a reality. Kielly estimated that $350,000 will be spent on training, program materials and support staff by the end of the 2002/2003 school year. He suggested that schools which don't have access to resources such as oil and gas companies can get started by re-allocating staff within the school.