In Richmond County, in the year 2000, an estimated 29 percent of the population cannot read this sentence.
Of that illiterate population, 5 percent are enrolled in area schools.
Though reading trends are improving throughout the nation and in the county, the ones who fall through the cracks are far too many, experts say.
A report released in August by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed reading scores are not improving as quickly as math scores. The report said 9- and 13-year-olds are reading better than they did 30 years ago, but scores for 17-year-olds remained unchanged.
"Reading is generally recognized as a skill basic to virtually all learning," said Alan Vanneman, of Educational Statistical Services Institute. "The failure of students to learn to read well severely limits their capacity to obtain an education. For this reason, our educational system takes a particular interest in students who have problems learning to read."
Officials say that if pupils do not grasp reading skills before they reach third grade, they are likely to fall behind classmates and not finish high school.
The first-grade year, therefore, is extremely important in getting the rules of language down pat, teachers say.
Phonics is a teaching approach adopted three years ago by the Richmond County school system. The program stresses the rules of language, particularly sounding out words by examining the letters and combinations of consonants and vowels they contain.
The district, and many others across the nation, previously used whole language. Children were taught patterns of language using entire words. The emphasis was on understanding the meaning of continuous sentences.
Today, when being taught to read, pupils hear phrases such as "bump and blend."
That's what Cynthia Scoggins, a teacher at Bayvale Elementary School, tells her pupils when they are trying to read a word.
In keeping with the phonics concept, Mrs. Scoggins started the year by having pupils write letters and make the sounds of the letters. She took the program a little further by reading the pupils a story containing the same letters.
Jessica Ford is one of the 18 pupils in Mrs. Scoggins' class.
THREE DAYS AFTER school began, Aug. 21, Jessica sat with her classmates writing the letter B, as instructed by Mrs. Scoggins.
"Straight down with a big fat chest and a big fat stomach," Mrs. Scoggins told the pupils. "We're not going to be perfect, but that's OK. You don't have to erase - I want you to see your mistakes."
Later in the morning, Mrs. Scoggins read the pupils a book that began with the letter B: Bad Dreams by Jan and Stan Berenstain, authors and illustrators of the Berenstain Bears collections.
During her lunch break, Jessica shared her feelings about reading.
"When I go to the library, I look at books and I think it would be fun to read one of those chunky books," she said. "I can't read that good, but I can sound things out. I can read cat, dog, fish and a few other words. But I will probably start reading good this year. Oh, I can read three books: The Little Mermaid, Winnie the Pooh and Scooby Doo.
But Jessica was unable to read her blue, two-toned Winnie the Pooh book bag: "Flowers are such friendly things."
Even when they can't read all the words, the pupils are encouraged by Mrs. Scoggins.
"I taught them to pick up books even though they can't read the words, to read the pictures, and every Wednesday they take a book home and parents read to them," Mrs. Scoggins said.
ON SEPT. 11, at Hornsby Elementary School, D'Andre Coleman - one of 23 pupils in Jean Toole's first-grade class - followed instructions that Ms. Toole read from a phonics work sheet.
Some of the words in the sentence were missing.
"The (blank) is on the swing."
D'Andre was one of the first pupils to answer questions thrown out by Ms. Toole.
"What kind of word is grandmother?" she asked.
"A compound word," D'Andre answered.
"And what is a compound word?" Ms. Toole asked.
"Two words pushed together to make one," he said.
D'Andre, like Jessica, can read The Little Mermaid book. Of the three books - chosen from the class's bookshelf - There's a Monster in The Tree, Little Red Riding Hood and Five Silly Fishermen, D'Andre said he could read only the monster book.
But when asked to give the other books a try, he could read several of the words. When he takes his time, he can read several sentences, but when he goes too fast he skips some words and mixes up others - he read the word "sailing" for "silly."
"I like reading when I can do it by myself," D'Andre said. "Sometimes you can get people to help you, but I like to do it by myself."
The techniques used by Ms. Toole also were part of the phonics program.
IN ANOTHER RICHMOND County school, Adrienna Tolbert spent Sept. 11 following instructions given by her teacher, Bobbie Heard, at Wheeless Road Elementary.
Ms. Heard's class is decorated with Dolch sight words - words each pupil should know based on grade level. Of the nearly 250 words, first-graders should know at least 100 before moving to second grade.
When teaching pupils the words, teachers use the phonics concept of sounding out letters.
On this day, Ms. Heard and her teaching assistant divided the pupils into two groups.
The two held up index cards with words written on them that pupils had to read.
The children read the words when Ms. Heard called on them.
"Hamster," one little boy called out.
"Mouse," another girl said.
"Lis-ten" Adrienna said when it was her turn.
Ms. Heard asked her to try again.
Though she stumbled over a few words, when asked to try again she got them right, based on the phonics principals.
Ms. Heard made a game out of the instruction. Pupils who answered the most words correctly got a prize.
Two pupils tied with 16 words.
Adrienna got eight right.
Adrienna said she likes the first grade and said some of the work is easy.
"The phonics work is easy, but math is hard," she said. "I like to read. I can read Feather for Lunch, Grover Hospital, - that's my Sesame Street book. Some of the words I already know, like `are,' `and,' `I,' `love,' `rat,' `rainbow.' Those are my vocabulary words."
BACK AT BAYVALE, on Sept. 18, Jessica looked bored at times. She twiddled with her hair and played with her sneakers, and though she knew the answers to questions Mrs. Scoggins asked, she waited to answer when it seemed fewer pupils knew the answers.
Debra Ford, Jessica's mother, said her family stresses the importance of learning.
"In kindergarten, Jessica was really eager to read," Mrs. Ford said. "When she went into first grade, she picked up on it real fast. With the phonics, she has done a lot better than my other two children that were taught by way of the whole word."
On Sept. 25, Ms. Toole sat in front of the pupils at Hornsby with a giant book propped on a desk. She was teaching social studies, but pupils had to know how to read to understand the lesson about the duck's webbed feet.
She gave the pupils little sandwich bags filled with green tiles that contained letters.
D'Andre lined up his tiles alphabetically and quietly waited for Ms. Toole's next instructions.
Ms. Toole called out words for the pupils to spell on their desk.
She phonetically sounded out the word "cat" and "not."
D'Andre spelled them correctly. He also correctly spelled "nap," "at" and "pig."
"I'm going to give you a hard one now," Ms. Toole told the class. "Nobody's going to get this one," she said.
"I'm is" one pupil said with confidence.
When she sounded out the word "frog," several pupils - including D'Andre - spelled the word "fog."
Ms. Toole later gave the pupils a homework sheet titled My Pet Cat. It told the story of a cat named Fluffy and asked the pupils five questions after the story.
"The first thing he does when he gets home is his homework," said Tara Coleman, D'Andre's mother. "He has no problem coming home doing it because he knows he can't do anything else until he finishes."
This is D'Andre's first year at Hornsby. He previously attended school at Tabernacle Child Development Center.
ON SEPT. 29, Adrienna returned to class after missing a day because of asthma.
Ms. Heard decided to play a game with the pupils - girls against the boys. When she called out a word, the pupils had to tell her how many syllables were in the word.
Adrienna smiled with confidence when the class was divided.
She correctly said "Two syllables" for the first word - "powder."
Adrienna didn't need to clap her hands, as did most of her classmates, as a way of sounding out the syllables.
Mrs. Heard called out words "investigate," "temper," "scoot" and "relative."
When asked whether a Southern dialect - whereby more syllables than need be are sometimes put into a word - could affect the way the children respond, Mrs. Heard said it's up to the teacher to tell the pupil the correct way to pronounce the word.
The girls won the game, eight words to six.
After the game, Mrs. Heard and her teaching assistant "assessed" the pupils one by one.
The first portion of the assessment asked pupils to read the words "kit," "rag," "go" and "stop."
The second portion asked pupils to identify the prominent letter in the words "rug," "wreath" and "wrong"; and "kit," "keg" and "kiss."
The third part of the test asked pupils to give sounds for the letters r, k, g and h.
"This is just to see how they rank in phonics," Mrs. Heard said. "To see how well they are doing with the sounds and letters."
"If they can learn this, it will be with them for the rest of their lives" Ms. Heard said.
Adrienna got all of the answers right.
Some pupils could read the words but didn't know how to make the sounds. Overall, the girls in the class responded better than the boys.
ALESIA JONES, Adrienna's mother, said her daughter will excel.
"She wants to know everything," Ms. Jones said. "She and my son - he's an honor roll student at (T.W.) Josey (High School) - they get into confrontations about words. He'll say the words, and she'll repeat them back to him, and she picks up really quickly."
Ms. Jones said Adrienna gets a lot of help at home and likes to read when she's not in school.
"She likes to read the books that have been passed down to her by her brothers," Ms. Jones said.
Jessica, D'Andre and Adrienna made all A's on their Oct. 9 report cards.
Teachers say the next few weeks will be spent decoding words. Decoding includes long and short vowel sounds of different words and more and tougher spelling words.
Reading is the primary element in the education of a child. During the next seven months, The Augusta Chronicle will follow three Richmond County first-graders through their initial year of school as they learn how to read.
Through a series of articles, Chronicle reporter Faith Johnson will chart the children's progress, detailing their struggles and successes along with their first steps toward becoming readers.
Parents: Tara Coleman and Derrick Jones
School: Hornsby Elementary, ranked last among the 160 public elementary schools in east Georgia
Classroom teacher: Jean Toole; teaching assistant is Cynthia Wells
Classroom demographics: 23 pupils: seven black boys, 16 black girls
Poverty level: 99 percent
Words he readily recognized: pot, hot, tree, room, one, two, three, four.
Words he struggled with: dancing, bedroom, silly, each, they, dock, hello, singing.
Grades on Oct. 9 report card: all A's.
Parents: Debra and Jack Ford
School: Bayvale Elementary, ranked 150th out of 160 public elementary schools in east Georgia
Classroom teacher: Cynthia Scoggins
Classroom demographics: 18 pupils; four white girls, seven black boys, seven black girls
Poverty level: 99 percent
Words she readily recognized: a, the, dog, fish, cat, and, cake.
Words she struggled with: breakfast, spaceship, flower, green, with, when, let's, each.
Grades on Oct. 9 report card: all A's
Parents: Alesia Jones and Tyrone Tolbert Sr.
Siblings: Three sisters and four brothers, ages 12 to 21
School rank: Wheeless Road, ranked 152th out of 160 public elementary schools in east Georgia
Classroom teacher: Bobbie Heard; teaching assistant is Patricia Roberts
Classroom demographics: 18 pupils: eight black girls, eight black boys, two white boys
Poverty level: 89 percent
Words she readily recognized: are, and, I, love, rat, rainbow.
Words she struggled with: draw, picture, lots, seeing, your, both, pierced, each.
Grades on Oct. 9 report card: all A's
Reach Faith Johnson at (706) 823-3765.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores, released in August, show that female pupils had higher average reading scores than male pupils in each age group (9, 13, 17):
In 1998, kindergartners whose mothers had higher levels of education were more likely to score in the highest percentages in reading, math and general knowledge than other kindergartners.
In reading, girls in kindergarten slightly outperformed boys, but girls and boys performed similarly in math and general knowledge.
More girls than boys in kindergarten pass reading proficiency levels one (recognizing letters), two (beginning sounds) and three (ending sounds).
Nine- and 13-year-olds in the United States performed at a level higher than most of their peers in other countries in reading, roughly the same in science and lower in math.
In the 1998 NAEP Reading Assessment, pupils who reported watching television three or fewer hours each day had higher average scores than pupils who reported watching more television.