Alphabet Soup?

March 19, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Imagine a salad bar. But instead of lettuce, broccoli and three-bean salad, the bins brim with consonants, long vowels, plots, characters, flash cards, sign language and suffixes.

Baltimore County teachers are filling their plates and passing them on to 6- and 7-year-olds who are just starting to read. Some teachers pick letters, others whole stories. Some choose bits of this and pieces of that and even mix them together.

It's enough to give some parents indigestion.

They say their children are lean on basics because they're filling up on literature appreciation, and that test scores are declining as a result. They want more traditional fare, especially for beginning readers.

This smorgasbord image is an apt one for reading instruction that is far less structured and more individual than it was even a few years ago. Schools and teachers can choose their materials from an approved collection, and seeing different methods in side-by-side classrooms is not unusual:

* A group of first- and second-graders at Lansdowne Elementary School is singing -- and signing -- the contemporary song, "I Swear." Then the students use the lyrics as their "text," which they comb for contractions, compound words, verbs and other language components.

* Next door in Linda Drury's first-grade class, the instruction is more traditional. An elegant elephant puppet named Eleanor is teaching "E" or, more precisely, "short E."

"The letter is 'E' and the sound is eh, as in bed and sled," sang Eleanor and Ms. Drury. The first-graders chime in, then set off on a safari, searching for short-E words lurking in the classroom.

"Reading instruction does not look in 1995 the way it did in 1955," said Richard Bavaria, the director of arts and humanities for the county schools. "We're doing what it takes to teach kids how to read. It's the most basic skill. For most kids, it takes the whole range of strategies," he said.

Cynthia Bowen, who oversees the reading curriculum for the Office of English, said, "Teachers would not be all teaching the same thing on the same day. Some folks would like to see every teacher use the same program and be on the same page . . . but I'm not going to lock every teacher into that."

The changes are the result of several trends, the most important of which is the "whole-language" approach to reading. It is not new, either in Baltimore County or the rest of the country. Introduced in some schools here six years ago, whole-language uses "real" children's literature rather than textbooks with limited vocabularies.

It also downplays skill drills in favor of open-ended assignments. It considers reading, writing, speaking and listening parts of the whole rather than individual subjects. Teachers often read to students and youngsters read in unison. They talk and write about stories, and even first-graders keep journals.

Whole-language proponents call it an exciting, relevant, uplifting way to teach and learn to read. Many teachers prefer the freedom of whole language to the old script, in which every teacher had the same books and the same manual, often for years running.

Some skeptics say that teachers who are bored with low-interest stories and repetitive flash-card drills think youngsters feel the same way -- although many children find even the traditional materials exciting.

Whole-language "pleases the teacher focus, the adult focus, but I don't think it's child-focused," said Dr. Susan Grant, a Lutherville neurolinguist, who works with children with reading difficulties. "It's like baby food. We add salt and sugar to baby food because it pleases the adult palate."

Falling scores

Other critics, many of whom surfaced locally last spring, say whole language is inappropriate, ineffective and demoralizing for beginners.

Furthermore, they blame the approach for falling third-grade reading scores. By concentrating on whole-language, they say, the schools are shortchanging children -- giving them an early appreciation for literature without the skills to read it.

"Self-esteem comes from skill mastery. Let them master [reading] and they will love it. They will love to read," said Patti Tanczyn, the mother of a child at Pot Spring Elementary, where much of the furor erupted.

Whole-language advocates deny that they're soft on basics. "I probably am teaching more skills now," said Lois Balser, a Chadwick Elementary teacher who was among the first to try whole-language more than five years ago. "We emphasize skills within the context of a story."

That is a departure from the traditional way that parents and many of their older children learned to read, with phonics, spelling and reading as separate subjects. Now, youngsters can even use "inventive" spelling -- at least in the early grades -- another innovation that gives parents heartburn.

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