Monday, April 23, 2018
Education

Sunday Conversation: Mellissa Alonso, supervisor of elementary reading coaches

As summer winds to a close, it's time to prepare for yet another school year. • What better way to start than with a book? As supervisor of elementary reading coaches at Hillsborough County schools, Mellissa Alonso can't stress the importance of reading enough. • Times staff writer Shelley Rossetter spoke with Alonso recently to find out more about what students and parents can do to make reading a little easier and, maybe, a little more fun.

What does a reading coach do? How do they help?

Reading coaches are specifically in place to provide followup to staff development in reading. They often work side by side with teachers to plan lessons, provide data and give effective training methods. And the help is for both new teachers and experienced teachers.

Different from a reading resource teacher who tends to be pulling out struggling readers for one-on-one time, we are viewed as the opposite.

How frustrating is it when FCAT scores come out and they are not what you had hoped?

It's always frustrating when we don't see test scores that match the level of instruction we see in the schools. As a district, we were very aware of the new criteria that would be used to measure our students so we expected the change in grades. And whenever you raise the bar, you're always going to see a dip in numbers. It doesn't necessarily reflect a dip in instruction or teacher performance. We just look at those numbers, recognize what they are and figure out what teachers need to do to achieve the new FCAT.

Besides that, there's more to reading than just a one-time opportunity on an assessment to show what they can do.

There's still a few weeks left before school. What are teachers doing right now and what should students be focusing on to get ready?

During the summer there is a misnomer that teachers take a break. It actually tends to be their busiest time. The first step to prepare students is to prepare the teachers. They've been here all summer with us.

At the same time, the best thing students can do in the summer is reading. I can not say it enough, in order to become a better reader you have to read. Right now, the Olympics are on and we know that you can't become a swimmer in the Olympics without getting into the pool and swimming. The same thing can be said about reading. You can't become a reader without a book in your hand.

One thing us and parents can do to help is expand the definition of reading. Reading can include magazines, poetry, chapter books, science books, history books. There is an entire menu of reading opportunities out there that we want our students to know about.

Is the summer reading list still important?

The recommended lists by Hillsborough County schools and the media supervisor are intended to give students a guideline of quality literature which they can not only go to a local book store to find but can go to the public library. The list serves almost as a recommended list so that if a student likes a particular book it might open the door to other books by that author.

What about parents? Should they have a summer reading list, too?

We want parents to look at the recommended reading list. There are grade-level suggestions and many readers are above level in reading, which parents are often proud of, but sometimes the content level can be different.

Be aware of what your children are reading at home. This year, the district launched for all readers kindergarten through eighth grade, myOn, an electronic resource for books. If parents have Internet capabilities at home or at hotspots such as the public libraries, Boys and Girls clubs or YMCA, then students can read online for free at anytime.

In addition, a wonderful resource for parents is 7 Keys to Comprehension by Susan Zimmerman. It can be purchased and will take parents through activities they can do at home.

How do you see the future of reading changing as more schools adopt technology such as iPads and digital ereaders?

They are definitely popular. I'm serving on the district's technological committee and a topic of conversation has been the five-year plan for technological needs in the district. One suggestion has been BYOD, or bring your own device. There are exciting possibilities, but with it comes great responsibility that students are using them properly.

What are some of the biggest concerns facing students today?

The biggest challenge facing students in reading is motivation, finding what they want to read. Everyone has the opportunity or potential to be a great reader, they may just not have found the right book. It's about getting hooked. Then, they have to branch out from that and be able read other text, be curious, apply thinking to reading.

For parents, we can't stress enough, reading aloud to children from the beginning, from birth on, sets the tone. A child who already has an ear for books, for academic language and story structure has an advantage. They are more likely to be a proficient reader early on.

What kind of habits should parents encourage or pass down?

A habit that parents can encourage is getting a library card. Then take them to the library, help them select books and refine their interest. Help children make a time for reading at home, cut out time in the afternoon maybe right before dinner, give them a quiet place. Then have them come back and talk to you about it, have a discussion.

And parents can read themselves. It can be anything from emails to articles online to news. If children see their parents reading then they will more likely see themselves as readers.

Children need reading role models, especially men. It's not just a thing girls like to do but a thing boys like to do, too.

Parents are the first teachers of children.

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