Mentors, Macarena teach English reading skills

Posted February 6, 2011 1:13 p.m. EST
Updated February 6, 2011 1:16 p.m. EST

Project Education: Edutopia, a partnership between WRAL-TV and the George Lucas Educational Foundation, visits a Las Vegas elementary school where mentors and the Macrena help children learn English.

Ninety percent of incoming students at C.P. Squires Elementary in Las Vegas, Nev., don't speak English, so literacy is the school's primary focus.

"The only hope our Hispanic youngsters have, I believe, is to master English, and then they will truly be bilingual," former C.P. Squires Principal Carol Lark said.

"I say to the parents, 'It's your responsibility to teach them Spanish in your home, and please do that. And it's our responsibility to teach them English,'" she added. "Then they will have all their world open to them."

There's no reason why teachers shouldn't be able to get children up to speed in English-language reading skills, Lark said.

"I really believe that poverty and second language are absolutely not any excuse for not teaching children to read," she said.

Teachers at C.P. Squires use a variety of techniques to teach and reinforce English language skills. Children memorize the names of months to the tune of the Macarena, and they learn letters with the help of a talking mat.

"What I guaranteed each teacher was that if they would just slow down their speech and teach everything three different ways – that these little 5-year-olds are like sponges – and that they would pick it up," Lark said. "The brain research supports that dramatically."

Students also get individual attention from older students who act as their reading buddies and from community volunteer mentors, such as Thomas Washington.

"I was in the third grade before I really learned how to decode and how to read and read successfully," Washington said. "I feel that I have to share, because I had a strong person who helped me while I was in school."

Improving the reading skills of young children might seem small, but it could be a big help for the country in the future, he said.

"The more smart kids we have, the better our future will be. The more kids that are able to take care of themselves, the better we're going to be," Washington said.