Bowie Elementary School first-grader Sebastian Sanchez beamed as he spoke about his ability to read books.
“I know how to read now,” Sebastian said. “Sometimes I make some mistakes, but I try my best. That’s how I do it.”
Sebastian and his classmates gathered around a classroom table near their teacher, Laura Lemarr, for one of their daily early literacy lessons during the 2018-19 school year.
Harlingen CISD continues to enrich its reading programs by implementing initiatives and curriculum to increase literacy at an early age, part of the school district’s strategic plan established in 2014. During the 2018-19 school year, Harlingen CISD partnered with the Neuhaus Education Center and Scholastic, a publishing company, to create stepping stones toward elementary, secondary, and high school educational success.
“Ninety percent of learning happens before the age of five,” said Carmen Alvarez, the district’s early childhood specialist. “We want to seize the opportunity when children are little because they are picking up everything they are learning.”
The early literacy program at the elementary school level encourages students to grow their vocabulary, thus increasing their ability to read more complex words and books. By the time students reach the age of 6, their vocabulary includes about 24,000 words.
“We have worked extremely hard,” Alvarez said. “Our teachers have worked diligently to perfect their practice and master reading. We are using the most advanced procedures, scientifically based theories with our students and our teachers.”
The Neuhaus Education Center’s curriculum gradually improves literacy beginning when students enter pre-kindergarten. In kindergarten, students break up into groups of about eight students for their letter recognition, phonological awareness, oral language, multisensory letter introduction, and handwriting lessons.
The Neuhaus program also uses a scientific spelling method to improve spelling in kindergartners through third-graders.
“The goal is to have very differentiated instruction,” Alvarez said. “No classroom should look the same anymore because we are meeting the needs of a particular group of students.”
Along with the Neuhaus program, Harlingen CISD also added Scholastic’s Leveled Literacy Libraries, which are used by elementary school teachers to assess and measure students reading abilities to ensure they reach the proper level. In literacy libraries throughout all elementary campuses, books are coded from A through Z, progressing from easy reading to more challenging texts. The popular books are written to captivate readers of all ages.
“With this program, we are hoping to build confidence in the learner,” said Rebecca Rodriguez, assistant principal of Austin Elementary. “We are going to use guided reading to lead students to that independence and comprehension.”
Everyone from teachers to principals to library media specialists received training before the start of the school year, which detailed the guided reading and small-group instruction curriculum.
“Ms. Lemarr will hear us (read). So, if we read correctly, if we read good, she will put ‘OK’ next to our name, and that’s how you do good, and that’s nice,” Sebastian said as he sat at a table for small-ground instruction.
As students move through the programs, their ability to comprehend and speak fluently will increase.
Since the district began tackling literacy as part of its strategic plan, it has already seen gratifying results. Harlingen CISD reached 84 percent in kindergarten readiness — 34 percent above the state average.
“Our children here in Harlingen are getting a fabulous start,” Alvarez said. “I really believe that greatness starts in early childhood education.”
For Sebastian, the first-grader being taught lessons as part of the district’s literacy programs, his ability to read makes him smile and shine.
“Every time I’m done reading a book, I just (say), ‘Woooo!’” he said. “And I read it again.”