Using a colorful, flashing wand to help keep their attention, second-grade teacher Amy Gollinger pointed to cue cards as a handful of students who sat huddled around her pronounced the odd groupings of consonants and vowels written on the cards. The words being read aloud were “Martian” words, fakes that don’t actually exist and won’t appear in a textbook or on any standardized test.

The point of the exercise is to help these young readers recognize language patterns so they can sound out real words they haven’t seen before.

With the tools to grasp more complicated concepts on their own, the students can follow a teacher’s lesson plan with greater independence. That’s the theory anyway behind a new approach in District 91 to improving literacy skills. And early indications–from the teachers on up to the school board–are that this program has the potential to produce huge results.

“I do expect this to reduce the achievement gap,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo said of the growing performance disparity on high stakes exams between white and minority students.

After introducing the program, known as SLANT, to a handful of teachers at Garfield Elementary last year, every kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade teacher in Forest Park is being asked to jump in with both feet this year. In the coming years, teachers at every grade level in District 91 will be trained in SLANT.

Those learning the program this year spent several days prior to the start of the school year working on the fundamentals of the program and will continue to meet with SLANT consultants as the year progresses. Also, teachers within each school meet monthly to discuss new strategies. But some of the biggest help in making this a district-wide initiative is coming from those teachers at Garfield who have some SLANT experience under their belts.

Principal Jamie Stauder, who helped bring the curriculum to Forest Park, said she’s getting phone calls on a regular basis from teachers and other principals who are overwhelmed with trying to teach something they haven’t yet mastered themselves.

“It was without a doubt a struggle for everyone,” Stauder said of those teachers who served as guinea pigs. “Now, looking back, it was worth it. The scores for that first group are really impressive.”

In the fall of 2006, first-grade students were assessed and grouped into one of three categories based on their fluency in Martian words, similar to the ones used in Gollinger’s class. Six percent of the students were found to be deficient in their ability to recall the sounds of various letters and blend them into words. Nineteen percent scored in the middle tier as having “emerging” skills and 75 percent were “established.”

At the start of the current school year, those same students–now in the second-grade–were tested again. None were found to be deficient and 97 percent scored in the highest tier.

The secret to SLANT, according to founder Marsha Gellar of Buffalo Grove, is the customization of each lesson plan. Traditional reading curriculums emphasize comprehension to help a student learn the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. The SLANT program focuses on “decoding the rules,” Gellar said.

“Eventually, we’ll all read the same material. It’s just a different approach to getting there,” Gellar said.

Teachers are also encouraged to take a multi-sensory approach to reading, which helps to engage students regardless of whether they’re audio learners, visual learners or learn best by doing.

Customizing a lesson plan requires more work on the teacher’s part, which is why educators are feeling overwhelmed and why Gellar’s company provides so much assistance during the start up process. SLANT lessons are also scheduled for 45 minutes each day, meaning that teachers have to prioritize their instruction. At Garfield, Gollinger and others said they’ve been able to absorb subjects like spelling and grammar into their SLANT time.

“It’s like being retooled,” Gellar said of the teaching style. “They’ve got to go along and learn it as the students learn it.”

At Garfield, teachers work with groups of four to seven students who all share similar proficiency levels. Reading Specialist Rose Bottorff has been using components of the SLANT program for three years with students who are struggling to keep up with the class. During the 2005-06 school year, Bottorff was using SLANT with roughly 18 first-graders who were identified as being at risk of falling behind their peers. The following year only a handful of kids were returned to her and now as third-graders, Bottorff said none of those students need to be separated from the rest of the class for additional instruction.

“We’re seeing results,” Bottorff said. “As overwhelming as it was, it’s worth it.”

School board President Glenn Garlisch said his youngest child was part of the SLANT experiment and often used the “pound and sound” technique when reading at home to help master multi-syllable words. His daughter no longer relies on that tool, Garlisch said and he credits the turnaround in her interest in books to the SLANT program.

“She grabs four or five little books at bedtime and will sit and go through them all,” Garlisch said.

Gellar’s program is accredited by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council, but it’s not widely known. SLANT has been in publication for only five years, and has not received national attention. However, Gellar said her program is based on more than 25 years of research and both Stauder and Cavallo are quick to defend the essential components of SLANT as rock solid. What Gellar’s curriculum emphasizes falls in line with the International Reading Council’s idea of best practices, Cavallo said, and for Stauder, is familiar in many ways to how she learned to teach.

To help gauge the program’s impact and give teachers immediate feedback on their efforts, District 91 will assess every student’s progress at least twice a month. By tracking the improvements and failures so regularly, administrators are better able to make adjustments that will benefit the students.

This partial overhaul of the district’s reading curriculum is the first of several likely changes, Cavallo said, as committees will begin looking at ways to improve instruction in other subject areas. One of the advantages Cavallo hopes to gain with the SLANT program and any other new curricula is uniformity. Though the district has five schools, educators and students should be working in concert with one another, Cavallo said.

“Our schools are more alike than they are different,” Cavallo said. “But we don’t have consistency with how they’re achieving. Having a district-wide initiative will help boost performance.”