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LEARNING TO GET LOST BETWEEN BOOK COVERS

Pine View Elementary students get regular time to sit and just read.

Mickey Fitzpatrick crawled under the classroom table, novel in hand, reading in mind.

The 7-year-old sat tall enough that his blond buzz cut brushed against the table's underside. But he liked the location - "It has fluffy carpet," he explained - so he claimed it for afternoon reading time.

Pine View Elementary School second-grade teacher Jackie Smith told the children they should be as comfortable as possible in order to focus on their goal of uninterrupted, independent reading.

"The key to becoming a better reader is to read, read, read. That's it," Smith said. "The ultimate goal is to love reading and to become better readers."

In Florida, that's a primary objective. Poor scores on the state's third-grade reading test can lead to repeating the grade. At the high school level, seniors could find themselves unable to graduate.

Comprehending materials without assistance is a critical piece. Smith aims to get her students focused on that mission.

The rules, posted in big letters on the wall, give clear direction: Stay quiet. Read the whole time. Focus on the text. Stay in one spot, at least an arm's length from everyone else.

And unwritten but well known: Don't get distracted.

So the students sprawl out on beanbag chairs, lie on the floor, climb into oversized rocking chairs and even sit quietly at their assigned seats. All reading.

"I'll start the timer now," Smith said on a recent Wednesday. "Yesterday we did 13 minutes. Our ultimate best was 42. Let's see if we can go somewhere in between and make it to 20 or 25 today."

Ask the children a question, get no answer. Tap them on the shoulder and maybe they'll smile. The incessant clicking of a journalist's camera taking their pictures barely merited a glance.

Only one thing got their attention: As a class, the students voted to use the words "hot wings" to signal an allowed interruption.

After hearing the code, they said they enjoyed the challenge, as well as the chance to read good books.

"I just like to read," said Mickey, looking up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. "I just like it because I get to read words, see what they're saying."

Ryan Wells, also 7, called reading his second-favorite subject, right behind math. He lay on the floor by a window, poring over a Percy Jackson book.

"It has Greek mythology and gods," he said. "I like to read. You can learn some interesting facts."

Seven-year-old Rani Chundi said she will read books about anything "because you can get more knowledge." She switched titles three times during the period, looking for the best one to keep her interest.

The children are supposed to find books that are "fun, fast and easy for them to read," Smith said, so they can keep improving their skills without getting bored or frustrated. They're encouraged to select a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and to avoid books that are too simple or too difficult.

They'll have plenty of time for more challenging material later. This is a time to increase their reading fluency so it comes naturally for the rest of their school years.

Smith's timer beeped.

"Hot wings, clickety class," she said loudly, with the class repeating her words to end the session. "By the way, that was a 33-minute stamina round. Give yourselves a round of applause."

They did. Then they headed to their assigned groups for more lessons. On reading.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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