A student's journal shows gradual progress toward spelling competency.
Teacher Kimberly Sanfeliz has brought the alternate-pencils technique into her special-ed classes at Craig Elementary. Photo by Jessica Williams

It’s Friday morning in Kimberly Sanfeliz’s class, and one of her students, a 7-year-old, is signing in.

“Where’s the D?” Sanfeliz asks, mentioning the first letter of the little girl’s name as she stands in front of a board emblazoned with a colorful alphabet. After a few bashful smiles, the girl slowly lifts a finger and points to the D.

Sanfeliz smiles and nods, guides the student through the rest of her first name. She sends the girl back to her seat then brings another student to the board to try the same exercise.

Signing in is a routine that all students at Joseph Craig Elementary must complete as the school day begins. But for children with cognitive disabilities, the procedure is a bit different.

Kids in Sanfeliz’s special-education class learn to spell with “alternate pencils,” an array of techniques, including the use of keyboards, that permit students to identify letters without necessarily having to write them. Sanfeliz’s class at Craig is one of two in the Recovery School District using the technique. The other is at Sarah T. Reed High School.

Sanfeliz says the use of alternate pencils fosters positive writing associations in students who may not have had the same exposure to pre-writing experiences – doodling and scribbling, for example — as their peers.

“A lot of the times little kids get access to a pencil, and their parents say, ‘Oh, I see you’re writing.’ Even if they’re not, they start to attribute meaning,” she said. “But kids with significant disabilities, for whatever reason, don’t always get that same opportunity to write.”

Sanfeliz has been using the program since the previous school year, her first at Craig. Six out of the nine kids in her class – kindergartners through fourth-graders — use the program; the others have more typical writing skills.

School principal Jackie Mahatha said kids have made marked progress using the alternate pencils program.

“From day one, one of the kids in Ms. Sanfeliz’s class … It was enough to get him to come from the seat for the procedures, the routines. [He] would not go up there and recognize his name. But now he’s able to do that. So that shows that we’re making progress,” she said.

Sanfeliz and the school’s other special education teacher, Luchia Ledwith, use a variety of methods – at minimal cost to the school — to encourage their students to write. The sign-in drill is one: a student not able to point out the letters of her name may be able to move a place card bearing the name from a board marked “Home” to a board marked “School” to signify her presence in the classroom.

Students also keep journals, in which they either point out letters on the posted alphabet to express their thoughts, or type them on a computer  keyboard from which every key, save the letters of the alphabet, has been pried off to ensure that kids don’t mistakenly erase files or reboot the computer.

And in another method, used primarily in Ledwith’s eighth-grade class, students with fine motor coordination problems get assistance in holding pencils:

“I get what you buy at the store, the hair curlers, the sponge part,” Ledwith said.  “You put it on the pencil and what it does is it allows the child to hold the pencil better. Because a lot of times, if it’s too tiny they can’t hold them right.”

Most of Ledwith’s kids can write independently using this tool. Those who can’t, use keyboards. Ledwith primarily teaches kids with mild to moderate disabilities who can learn in a traditional education setting. Sanfeliz’s students have more severe disabilities, and her focus is mostly remediation and exposing students to what is sometimes their first try at writing.

“A lot of it’s about exposure,” Sanfeliz said.  “They spend half their early life in doctor’s appointments and with therapists. And people wonder, should I read to the kid? Is it going to make a difference? This gives them the exposure that every other kid gets.”

It’s hard to gauge how many schools are using the alternate pencils program across the state because training in the techniques now practiced at Craig and Reed are  gained primarily through online webinars, program consultant Vicky Poston Roy said.

Roy contracts with the state Department of Education to provide on-site and distance consulting in five districts a year, using material from the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – a leader in research for alternate pencil programs.

Roy said that a large part of what she does is changing teachers’ thinking about exposing special-needs kids to literacy. Teachers often think only about reading, not necessarily writing, Roy said.

“In a traditional model, that’s the way that we understood it,” she said. “But … writing actually facilitates reading.”

And the kids in Sanfeliz’s class, are doing a lot of writing – and seemingly, making progress. A look at one student’s journal indicates that she is closer to spelling out her name now than she was when the school year began. In two late September entries, she spelled out the first two letters of her name clearly, in contrast to the jumble of letters in early August attempt. And in front of a reporter one day in March, four students spelled out their full names, with Sanfeliz’s coaching.

“They all know how to spell their names now,” Sanfeliz said.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...