Sounding off |

Sounding off

FRISCO – Robyn Cornwell’s class at Summit Middle School is a nonstop parade of animated antics and activities.

Students Tuesday turned in their homework in the first minutes of class and quickly commenced a game, tossing a rubber “koosh” ball among themselves and Cornwell. The teacher then switched to a drill requiring the students make gestures with their hands and pump their arms. Then it was on to manipulating multicolored foam tiles at a table. They spent the final portion of the 45-minute class delivering their own rhymes and raps, and one student was brave enough to dance his way through it.

But it’s not physical education class: Cornwell’s students are learning the intricacies of the English language – from the ground up.

Cornwell shifted this year from a special education teacher to a literacy resource teacher, helping students with specific challenges in reading and writing fill in the gaps. Cornwell and 11 other middle school and elementary teachers took advantage of training this summer in a new, comprehensive approach to building literacy skills. The program has teachers, students and parents excited.

“We’ve got kids who aren’t reading on grade level, and we have to fix that,” Cornwell said. “Other programs would address a few of the strands, but this is all of them.”

The research that built the program – titled simply “Language!” – covers 18 aspects of language. Students build skills in speaking, listening, recognizing phonemes (the basic units of sound), spelling, writing, semantics, grammar, phonics (the relationship between sounds and writing) and syllables, among others, to learn to decode and encode language. The students move sequentially through levels of the skills in what Cornwell called a “Swiss cheese approach.”

“If you put two pieces of Swiss cheese up to each other, the holes don’t match,” she said. “We move through everything from the beginning, as a class, and we make sure everyone has a grasp on every part. The motto is, “As quickly as we can, as slowly as we must.'”

The research also indicates students learn better when the lessons are integrated with sensorimotor activities. Thus, the students catching the koosh ball were quizzed on definitions of linguistic terms such as “graphemes,” “nouns” and “vowels.” The hand and arm motions in the next drill accompanied students repeating and juxtaposing simple sound words – “mat,” “tam,” “cat” and “tack.” The colored tiles represented sound units, giving a visual representation for the same sounds exercised in the previous activity. The raps that ended the class forced students to verbalize the linguistic juggling they’d done throughout the class.

Student Garrett Pearson said “98 percent of this class is standing and moving.”

“Poor readers show greater right-hemisphere brain activation on reading tasks, in contrast to the typical left hemisphere activation seen in good readers,” Cornwell said, citing the research. “Changes in brain function occur as a result of these interventions, so we provide the appropriate instruction intensively.”

The curriculum also includes library software to help students search for appropriate-level books.

At least one parent of a special education student is pushing for the high school to adopt the program, as well. Cornwell said she and the other middle school teachers who completed the training have benefited from the school’s new principal’s experience. Iva Katz-Hesse came from a school that was already using “Language!”

“She makes it fun, and we learn,” student Henry Taylor said. “Before, it was a lot of sitting. This way, I think I understand more. It’s making a difference because I’m more into it.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or

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