A baby cried. A cricket chirped. And 5-year-old Zachary Foster went to work.

Seated at a computer in his South Morrison Elementary School kindergarten classroom, Zachary looked at a bunch of small pictures of everything from a telephone to a fire truck.

Zachary was searching for the baby. He found it, slid the computer mouse toward it, and clicked. He saw the cricket. Click.

“That’s right,” said the clown at the bottom right corner of the computer screen.

Zachary was using an interactive computer program called Earobics, from Cognitive Concepts Inc., designed to help him learn to read and write. His school is one of eight in Newport News, Va., using the program on a trial basis. Five other school districts in Virginia also are using Earobics.

The kindergartners are using software that includes six games that teach children about rhyming, syllables, and words, and how to identify individual sounds in words. The games also help develop other learning skills, like attention and memory.

Earobics helps “set the foundation for learning phonics,” said Eugene Pointer, director of federal programs for the Newport News school system. The district’s addition of systematic phonemic awareness instruction to its reading curriculum is part of a national trend to combat growing reading challenges.

On average, 38 percent of U.S. fourth-graders read below the basic level for that grade, according to 1998 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And as many as 40 percent of all U.S. children have trouble learning to read, reports the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

“We’ve realized that being able to understand that the words we hear are made up of smaller sounds [phonemes] is the essential first building block in learning to read,” said G. Reid Lyon, chief of NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health in Washington. “Helping children master this fundamental language skill is the key to helping early readers of all levels progress.”

Phonemic awareness standards are in place at an estimated 15,844 schools across the country. In the past five years, eight states have established standards for phonemic awareness, including Texas, California, and Florida.

Newport News started using the program in the eight schools in September. The district chose schools that had higher percentages of students having trouble with reading. The sample includes schools throughout the city, some with full-day kindergarten and others with half-day kindergarten.

About half the kindergarten classes in the eight schools are using Earobics and the other half are not. The district will compare the progress of students in those classes. Before the program started, the children took an exam that tested them on, for example, rhyming and determining words that end with the same sound.

The students will be tested again at the end of the school year to check on long-term progress. They will take a Virginia Department of Education exam that tests children on phonological awareness. Students are tested, for example, on lower-case alphabet recognition, on whether two words start with the same sound or not, on the sounds that letters make, and on spelling.

The school system will consider expanding the program if the results are successful, Pointer said.

In the Chicago public school system, a recently completed 12,000-student pilot study showed that students in pre-kindergarten through grade three achieved dramatic, statistically significant gains in phonemic awareness, spelling, and decoding. Some students advanced more than a full year in grade level in only 10 to 12 weeks of using Earobics, school officials said.

More than 450 Chicago teachers used Earobics in the pilot program. In a post-pilot survey, teachers consistently reported improvements in their students’ interest in reading and spelling, their ability to follow directions, and their self-esteem.

“Earobics increased my students’ reading performance and phonics skills,” said Geraldine Murphy, a first-grade teacher at George Rogers Clark School in Chicago. “It moved my entire class toward reading at grade level.”

It costs about $2,700 per classroom for the program. Besides the software, classes involved with Earobics get books, videos, and cassettes that help prepare students to read and write.

“I just really am enjoying it and the children are enjoying it,” said Sherry Wolfson, a kindergarten teacher at South Morrison Elementary in Newport News. “It’s been a good program to pilot.”

Each of her students uses the program at least four times a week, and when Wolfson forgets to tell them to do so, they remind her. While she goes about her lessons with her class, students alternate using the three computers in the room.

She said she’s seen success so far. She pointed to 5-year-old Ian Porter’s journal. In September, he could draw pictures. Today, he is starting to understand how to write sentences.

In December, he wrote that he “gav mi clsmats trets”—he’s on his way to writing “gave my classmates treats.” Wolfson applauded Ian, saying he’s where he should be: on track for learning how to write complete words and sentences.

Zachary said he feels like he’s learning, too. He said he didn’t know sounds very well when the school year started, though he knew letters. Now, he’s starting to master both.

That was evident as he played an Earobics game in which he identified long and short vowels, consonant sounds, and their positions in words. The computer told Zachary to click on the “S” if he heard an “ssss” sound or click on the “S” with a slash through it if he heard no “ssss” sound.

“Messy,” the computer said. Zachary clicked on the “S.”

“Same.” He clicked on it again.

Zachary kept going through 10 questions and got them all right.

Earobics games get the students a little more excited about learning, Wolfson said. And that’s true according to Zachary, too: “I like it because it’s fun and you learn.”

Links:

Newport News Public Schools
http://www.sbo.nn.k12.va.us

Cognitive Concepts Inc.
http://www.earobics.com

Chicago Public Schools
http://www.cps.k12.il.us