Back in the days when Sandra Zoelzer was in first grade, she was determined to become a second-grade teacher. Sticking to her dream, she majored in elementary education at Illinois State University. After student teaching at Elgin in 2008-2009, she finally realized her goal and stepped into a second-grade classroom, but soon found herself involved in other middle school grades.
Decoding the World, Letter by Letter
“Even then, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, middle school; I am not even taller than the middle schoolers. I can’t do this,’’ Sandra remembers. “It was very intimidating.” The teacher she worked alongside emphasized how important it was to connect with kids and see their deficits as an area of amplification, not inability. She learned the secret was knowing where help is needed and strategizing to work through those problem areas. “I thought that was really fascinating and I just loved her mindset,” she says. After finishing her student teaching in her beloved second grade, she researched job prospects and received her first exposure to the world of the reading specialist.
“I’m so grateful that it worked out that way,” Sandra says, “because I don’t think I’d ever considered being a reading specialist. I always just thought I was going to be a classroom teacher.” The position at Shepherd opened a week into the school year, and she applied. “I applied thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, why is this position even open?’” At the time, Sandra worked at Jefferson in the mornings and trucked over to Shepherd in the afternoon. Now one of the reading specialists at Shepherd, she sees 12 of 200 8th graders daily to work on reading comprehension and writing skills.
Her approach is based on the Wilson Reading System, a multisensory method that provides checkpoints for students so teachers can monitor where they’re growing and if they’re focused on the right skills. Sandra is Wilson certified, undergoing a special instruction and evaluation program that allowed her to become an expert in the process.
Progress for reading students is measured by how logical goals are met. “For me, that really comes down to the students sitting, they read with me out loud every day and they get measured on that every week,” Sandra explains. “If you read this passage that we deemed to be an eighth grade level passage and you read 50 words this time in a minute, then the next time you read 60 words in a minute, that’s progress.”
In Sandra’s reading classroom are the pillars of decoding, timing, and comprehension. Decoding is understanding how the letters in a word work together. “If it’s going to take you an hour to read 100 words, you have no idea what you read in an hour,” she says. That’s where comprehension plays its part. “They read a passage and then I’m like, ‘Hey, what just happened? Who was that? Why were they doing that? What was going on? All of those who, what, when, where, why’s,” she elaborates. “Then maybe tomorrow, they come back and I’m like, ‘Hey, remember what we read together yesterday? What was that about?”
Encoding, or writing, goes hand in hand with Sandra’s reading instruction. “I’m teaching sounds, I’m teaching how they go together,” she says. “We’ve got letter tiles, we’ve got cards, sometimes we’re physically writing. The goal is to take what I can just decode and then encode it so now I can read it.” She compares it to two sides of one coin: “the exact same skills, just backwards.”
However, becoming a better reader and writer continues beyond the classroom. Sandra stresses the importance of family members’ involvement in their children’s reading education. “Read to them, read with them, have them read to you,” she pleads. “What I try to tell my students is if you can read, you can pick up anything. I mean, we have this wonderful Google, but you still have to be able to take that information and have it make sense.” She believes the base skills of reading and writing are sensory organs for exploring the world at large and that families can ensure their student’s appetite for knowledge remains stoked by participating in their reading process.
Given that her work is built on the satisfaction of accomplished hope, we thought it only appropriate to give her the last words, so we can practice decoding on our own: “I hope that they leave here with the strategies that they need to do whatever it is they want to do; The ability to go and do whatever you want, however you want, because you have those skills, those strategies, and you know how to get through it.