Third-grader Riley Dickinson celebrates with his team, the “Golden Speed-Readers,” at Wednesday’s in-school round of the Third-Grade Reading Challenge. Dickinson’s team advanced to the semi-final round, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at Oak Harbor Elementary. Photo provided by Oak Harbor Public Schools

Third-Grade Reading Challenge teaches comprehension, teamwork

Grade-school bookworms were recently tested on their ability to digest materials.

The Third-Grade Reading Challenge, a cooperation between Sno-Isle Libraries and the public schools in their communities, wrapped up its series of in-school competitions Thursday in Oak Harbor.

These competitions, one in each of Oak Harbor’s five primary schools, acted as the qualifying round for the island-wide semi-final at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at Oak Harbor Elementary. The community is welcome to attend.

Ashley Green, children’s librarian at Oak Harbor Library, liaisons between the challenge’s coordinators at Sno-Isle and the local schools participating. She also hosted the in-school competitions in Oak Harbor.

Green said the reading challenge begins at the local level across the board. When a teams clears its elementary school, it moves on to a semi-final round, which affords it an opportunity to move on to finals in Mukilteo.

The competition is set up so, well, a third-grader could understand it.

The participating students form groups of up to eight kids. During each of three rounds, six members participate and one acts of the answer-runner while another can be an alternate. Each round gets progressively more difficult, covering material that spans five books. A sudden-death round follows in case of a tie.

Kari Chwirka, librarian at Oak Harbor Elementary, said she focuses on reading comprehension skills with her students, naming the reading challenge as invaluable to that pursuit.

“Reading is not a passive activity,” Chwirka said. “We want the kids to learn to interact with their reading, so we want them to be making connections to the things that they’ve experienced, or other books that they’ve read or things that they’re seeing in the world.”

This type of participation can range from baking a storybook character’s favorite cookies, to participating in a program like the reading challenge, she said.

Jake Bailey, a member of Oak Harbor Elementary’s semi-final-bound team, “Golden Speed-Readers,” said he worked hard in preparation of his in-school challenge.

“I read all the books and studied really hard on them and basically kept the thoughts in my head,” he said. “I basically just glued them to my brain.”

Students at Oak Harbor Elementary were so keen to get into the material, that they worked with Chwirka every Tuesday before school. Chwirka also offered lunch study sessions on Tuesdays to delve deeper into, “To Catch a Mermaid,” one of this year’s more challenging books.

Madison Thompson, another member of the “Golden Speed-Readers,” said the extra time Chwirka spent with her and her teammates was inspiring.

“I liked the meetings and I think that they just really motivated me to do my best,” Thompson said.

Chwirka, the main coach for the students at Oak Harbor Elementary, and the judge of Wednesday’s in-school qualifying round, said she loves watching the lights come on in the students as they get around the material.

“I love being able to watch the kids get excited about the books, develop their skills, make connections that they haven’t made before, to be able to visualize what’s happening in the story and to ask questions — to really make meaning from their reading,” Chwirka said.

Jane Lopez-Santillana, assistant managing librarian of Oak Harbor Library – started the first challenge six years ago and used to coordinate it.

She had been the children’s librarian in Oak Harbor for a short time, and had come Whidbey with the idea for the challenge after seeing a similar program shine while working at the Seattle Public Library.

The program, called the Global Reading Challenge, focused on fourth and fifth graders. Lopez-Santillana decided that the Sno-Isle’s challenge should focus on a younger batch of kids.

“Third grade is crucial,” she said. “When you look at studies of readers in general and scores, the research has shown that if you are not reading at grade level in third grade, your chances of finishing through high school are minimized.”

The Third-Grade Reading Challenge started with just two schools: Olympic View and Crescent Harbor. The second year of the challenge saw all of Oak Harbor’s public primary schools participate, as well as Coupeville and South Whidbey.

Lopez-Santillana said those early years saw a huge impact on the community.

“The teachers talked — and the families — about how much the kids enjoyed it and how much kids who didn’t like reading were all the sudden really enjoying reading,” she said. “Families who wouldn’t normally read at home were starting to read aloud to their children.”

Lopez-Santillana said that other feedback she received was that the students had learned to work effectively in groups the first time and had learned how to whisper in such a way that other teams couldn’t hear their answers.

The program grew in popularity, in part, because of all the skills the challenge helped instill in participating students, Lopez-Santillana said. So much so, that 46 schools participated last year and 50 are participating this year.

The overall success of the competition, though, can be attributed to the challenge’s simple vision of fostering literacy in third graders, she said.

“The focus is not on winners and losers…” Lopez-Santillana said. “It’s about finding that joy of reading.”

Sno-Isles Library Foundation sponsors the Third-Grade Reading Challenge, along with Howarth Trust and the Northwest Literacy Foundation.

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