Teaching students reading skills, and collaborating with teachers to teach reading is a job that Darra Meader, Goodwin Elementary School’s reading consultant, is passionate about.
“This job—it more than drives me, it fuels me. It’s not just that I love to teach reading—I love to share my passion for it,” Darra says. “When you’re able to truly teach a child to read, it’s like a little bit of magic.”
On March 3, Goodwin’s Celebrating Reading Day, the big surprise was a Magic Tree House replica that appeared overnight in the school lobby, to the wonder of the students. The structure was built with the support of school staff, parents, and PTA donations. The Magic Tree House children’s book series, with its main characters of siblings Jack and Annie, are popular and help to hook children on reading.
As reading consultant for the early childhood classrooms through those for 3rd-graders, Darra collaborates with her Goodwin colleagues to build reading skills in all Goodwin students.
Darra, a resident of Guilford, is in her fourth year as reading consultant at Goodwin School. Before landing at Goodwin, she taught reading in the New Haven schools and then in the North Haven public schools. Public school teaching was the career she returned to once her three young children were all in school. When they were very young, she founded a tutoring business in Guilford, which allowed her to work from home while still doing the teaching she loved.
Darra works directly with children teaching reading and with teachers to implement specific reading interventions for students.
“We have a team of people at Goodwin that work with children who need extra support in reading. Our team approach has wonderful support from our administration and colleagues,” says Darra.
The strategy used at Goodwin to teach reading is called Guided Reading; it is based on the writings and teachings of educators Irene Foutas and Guy Su Pinnel.
“Guided Reading is a balanced literacy approach. It truly takes in all of the pieces of reading—phonics, comprehension, fluency. This [concept] works with leveled texts so that children are met at their reading level, allowing them to master that. [Then they can] move from the known to the unknown. A term used for this is ‘scaffolding’. It means to build on what they know,” explains Darra.
The term “leveled texts” refers to books, articles, and reading materials that are graded for difficulty.
“What we do is take trade books that are leveled and supplement with other materials,” says Darra. “You have to be able to model the reading for the student and then have them try to read it. It’s called a gradual release model and it helps them move from one level to the next level.”
Darra says there are websites to help teachers find appropriate non-fiction information. One site the school uses for third graders is https://newsela.com. This site presents leveled texts of articles on current events; with this resource, a teacher can differentiate within the classroom while teaching the same content to all.
Another site resource for parents to try is www.starfall.com, a site that provides access to online books and games.
She says the most important strategy for strengthening a student’s reading skills still remains the oldest: for parents to spend time every day reading to and with their children at home.
“Read to them—and have them read to you—because it helps with the development of oral language, text comprehension, and understanding,” says Darra. “Spelling still plays an important role because it teaches students the rules of language.”
Unlike the spelling lists that students of another generation had to simply memorize, spelling now is taught contextually. Students learn spelling rules, and then practice applying those rules in their writing and through editing.
“When children can spell correctly, it’s one proof that there is a transference of a skill,” Darra says.
Over the past decade, the state Board of Education has adopted new standards for student literacy that, Darra believes, have raised the bar of expectations. When literacy and reading activities are consistent with the grade-level standards and also developmentally appropriate, students rise to meet and master the challenge.
The biggest change that the standards have driven is greater emphasis on non-fiction texts and reading than before and on activities designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills.
“Non-fiction speaks to so many types of children. It helps them relate to and understand their world. It also offers a wider range of subject matter to explore,” says Darra.
In 2nd grade, one activity focuses on the topic of how characters change. Before students would have read a single text and talked about the topic. Now, students in a classroom read from different texts that still share something, such as two characters with a common trait such as being helpful. In the lesson, then, students are asked to compare and contrast the two characters in the texts and their traits.
“You want students to be able to make a comparison across different texts. It’s all about developing critical thinking skills,” says Darra.
Students are also taught the skills called close reading. They read, analyze, and annotate the texts as they read them.
“It helps them to analyze and think critically about the text to gather information,” says Darra. “We’re teaching this skill to 2nd-graders and they love it.”
In her hometown of Guilford, Darra was active with the Guilford Newcomers Group as its Fundraising Chair and in volunteer activities at St. George’s Catholic Church. And, as with most moms with three kids, she volunteers in support of her children’s activities, including soccer and dance. She also for years has helped her husband to mount the annual Guilford Soccer Fest for which he serves as chairman.
Beyond her focus on her family, Darra’s other focus is on the Goodwin School students and her passion and mission to work with the collaborative team of colleagues to build confident readers.
“We have happy children and happy readers here. This work is a mission—it is what we do,” says Darra.