The three second graders listen attentively as Jodi Smith, an English language learner teacher, reads a sentence aloud from a children’s book about snow. Then the youngsters repeat the words.
Suddenly, one of the children can’t contain her excitement any longer.
“I love it,” announces 7-year-old Asma. “She is playing in the snow and is making a snowman.”
That enthusiasm and comprehension please Mary Rosser, an internationally recognized researcher in early literacy education. As recently as a year ago, some of these children at the Gov. James B. Longley School in Lewiston, Maine, were living in makeshift refugee camps in Somalia. They had never been to school and were not fluent in English.
“Look at little Asma. She is really taking off,” says Rosser, the University of Maine’s coordinator of literacy professional development programs and director for Reading Recovery, an early literacy intervention initiative for elementary schools. “This is telling us that the children are learning language, learning how texts work in English and comprehending the meaning.”
Rosser has developed literacy curricula in seven African countries, and has worked as an educator in Australia as well as New Zealand, where she studied to become a Reading Recovery trainer. For the past six years, she has supported the work of Reading Recovery educators in schools across Maine. For the past two years, that has included Reading Recovery training for teachers who work with English language learner (ELL) students, many newly arrived from Africa with difficulty in literacy learning.
Several thousand refugees from Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti have relocated to the Lewiston area in the past decade. At the Longley School, 58 percent of the students are learning English as a second language, according to Thomas Hood, the principal at the Longley School last spring. Most schools in Maine and nationwide have only a fraction of the Longley ELL population, according to Brian Doore, program evaluator at the Center for Research and Evaluation in UMaine’s College of Education and Human Development.
In addition, statewide and nationally 37 percent of all students qualify for federally funded free lunch; at Longley, 98 percent. The “mobility” rate, or students transferring in or out of a school in a year, is 18 percent nationally; 67 percent at Longley. That disrupts the consistency of instruction, according to Doore.
“They really have a unique challenge in this school,” says Doore, who tracks learning, literacy and other student test results in Maine. “Many characteristics of these students’ prior experiences and knowledge of our language and culture make it difficult for them to do well.”
Reading is a prerequisite to almost all other types of learning in school, he says. State tests are written in English, which makes the results less reliable measures of ELL students’ knowledge. Those tests determine which Maine schools are meeting achievement expectations
“If you can’t read, how can you possibly do well with that test?” Doore says.
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