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In Appalachia, children read better in their own words. Breaking the family legacy of illiteracy

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1987

Barbourville, Ky.

`MY Dad an' his brothers are coal truck drivers,'' seven-year-old Malena McKeehan of Poplar Creek reads softly, in the long-voweled drawl of eastern Kentucky. ``They driver to Richland coal Company. They driver to K&M coal company. Sometime I go with him.'' This is no textbook story that Malena is reading to her second-grade classmates. It is her story, painstakingly penciled with all its spelling errors and proudly clutched in both her hands. And if it isn't perfect, three months into her second school year it's still better than a third of the people in Knox County can do.

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In the rugged coal mining communities of Knox County, fewer than half of the adults aged 24 and older have studied beyond the eighth grade, according to the 1980 census. Like a family tradition passed down for generations, the dropout rate remains close to 50 percent. And about one-third are functionally illiterate, creating a culture that gives children here little help or encouragement in learning to read.

But one second-grade teacher, born and raised in these hills, has found a way to link literacy with the rich, unwritten culture of the Appalachians. Linda Oxendine's students are writing and reading the stories of their lives.

``One day I came in from school and my granny was up in the little house and she was making a quilt,'' reads Kristin Brooks, a small girl with red pigtails, glancing around her reading circle with shy confidence. ``She was starting on her fifth one. And I said, `Granny, are you going to sell your quilts again.''' ``That's so good,'' Ms. Oxendine marvels, giving Kristin a hug. ``You're getting to be such a good writer. All of you are.''

Beside her, Billy Meeks, whose grin shows a band of missing front teeth, is waving his story, ``My Coal Miner.'' Jana Prichard is waiting to read ``Sunday Dinner at Granny's.''

A few minutes later, Kristin goes back to her desk and begins writing another story, this one called ``The Woods.'' Where does she get her ideas? ``Usually I think of something that happened to me.''

Second-graders at G.R. Hampton Elementary School have not always been so at home with pencil and paper. Five years ago, Oxendine recalls, she was ``up against the wall'' trying to get her students up to state achievement levels.

The children showed little interest in or aptitude for reading. Looking at the basic reader, the teacher thought she knew why. ``It had no stories in it the children could identify with,'' she says, flipping through pages of city and suburban scenes. ``They have about every minority there is, except country kids.''

The teacher even wondered if the textbook pictures of ``nice, paved streets and well-dressed, prosperous people'' made her mountain children feel discouraged before they even tried to read.

Thirty-seven percent of families in Knox County live below the federal poverty line of $11,200 for a family of four, as falling coal prices and increased mine mechanization since 1980 have slowed efforts toward economic improvement. Many schoolchildren come from homes without running water, and many get up before dawn to walk out of hollows and creekbeds so muddy and twisting that the school bus won't go into them.

Then, while working on her master's degree in childhood education at local Union College, Oxendine came across the method of teaching English called Writing to Read. First developed to teach bilingual children in Florida, and now a computer-based program in some schools around the country, the Writing to Read method integrates reading, writing, and speaking into a total language approach. Dispensing with textbook stories, it asks children to write their own stories, using words that are already in their speaking vocabularies.

``They learn that writing is just talking written down,'' says Oxendine, who began by asking her students to tell stories, which she wrote down word for word on the board. ``It's instant feedback,'' the teacher notes. By sounding out the words, students learn to recognize and approximate correct spelling.