Shelton teacher helps students break through (sound) walls

SHELTON — Kristen Festa’s years of helping teach the city’s youngest readers have not gone unnoticed.

The Sunnyside School kindergarten through third grade teacher has received the Weller Foundation’s Excellence in Teaching Award for Shelton for the program she created titled Sound Walls — The Multisensory Approach to Teaching Reading.

Festa said the program’s goal is to create an approach in which students use all their senses to better learn the English language, which in turn will help them develop their reading and writing skills.

“Sound walls are a multi-sensory approach to teaching kids the sounds of letters along with the rules of the English language in order for them to be successful readers,” said Festa, who started at Sunnyside in 2004 and moved to Mohegan for three years before coming back to Sunnyside.

“We have seen great success after implementing this program in the first-grade classroom,” Festa added.

Sunnyside School Principal Amy Yost said Festa’s multi-sensory approach to decoding has assisted many of the first graders to develop a solid foundation in their phonics and writing skills.

“Mrs. Festa is always looking for new strategies and methods to develop and deepen our students' literacy toolkits,” Yost said. “This opportunity supports her role as a coach and enhances the collaboration with our teachers. Kristen is well respected by her colleagues and our parents. We are looking forward to expanding sound walls in other grades next year.”

Festa hopes to continue sounds walls next year in many of the Sunnyside School K-2 classrooms “so all students get the opportunity to experience this multi-sensory approach to tackling the English language.”

Festa also praised Nicole Smerkanicz, the teacher of the classroom she worked with, for her help in implementing the theories and ideas throughout the day and within all areas of the curriculum.

By using sounds walls, Festa said students can hear the sound of the letters, see how the sounds are made by using mirrors to look at their lips and mouth, feel the way their lips and tongues vibrate when saying certain letter or groups of letters and practice by sky writing in the air and then transforming their thoughts on a white board.

“It is an approach that allows you to touch all students and helps them to use all senses in order to learn,” she said. “This program aligns with our current district Fundations program and helps to enhance what we are already doing in the classroom.”

And the results prove its success. Fundations unit assessments have grown from the beginning of the year and the district NWEA reading test scores have gone from 52 percent meeting proficiency in September to 74 percent meeting proficiency in January.

“Their excitement for reading is evident and they are beginning to carry over what they have learned into their writing pieces,” Festa said. “The program has helped the students to become successful in all curricular areas, not just reading and writing.”

The Weller Excellence in Teaching Award was introduced into the Shelton school system in 1992. Festa received a $1,000 award and certificate of honor.

Festa has also won the Connecticut Reading Association Literacy Leader Award, an annual honor from the Connecticut Reading Association that recognizes literacy coaches, consultants, library media specialists and literacy specialists that have promoted literacy instruction in their schools within Connecticut school. She will receive her award at a special banquet this month.