Young readers tutored in old-fashioned phonics

April 30, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writer

A group of 70 first-graders at Bollman Bridge Elementary School is engaged in a bold experiment in learning how to read -- by returning to the way most of their parents first mastered printed words.

Nearly all beginning readers in Howard County's public schools are taught by the "whole-language" approach in vogue across the country. But pupils in three classrooms at the Jessup elementary school now are receiving a heavier-than-average dose of old-fashioned "phonics."

Put simply, they're learning to read by intensive drills in the sounds of letters and certain letter combinations.

This little-noticed trial may result in big changes in the way reading is taught in Howard's other elementary schools. For next fall, Howard school administrators are giving schools the option for the first time in years of buying a set of readers that are strictly based on a phonics approach.

The small step by Howard's schools back to phonics is but a blip in a bitter national debate that has raged for at least four decades over the best way to introduce children to reading. This debate essentially has been one in which phonics has lost out to approaches based on recognizing whole words.

The latest of these holistic approaches, the whole-language method, tries to generate interest in reading by exposing students to literature and creative writing exercises.

Rather than treating phonics, spelling, handwriting, grammar, writing and reading as separate subjects, it emphasizes these skills as parts of a whole. Students are taught to read for content, deciphering the meaning of unfamiliar words from context.

The whole-language method has dominated Howard County's approach to beginning readers since about 1990. But now in Howard and nationally there are signs of a new appreciation for returning to more phonics drills -- particularly for those students who haven't been exposed much to reading before they come to school.

Up to half of Howard County's first-graders likely could benefit from more structured phonics instruction, said Glenn W. Heisey, Bollman Bridge's principal.

"It's not just kids from poorer families who aren't being read to at home," Mr. Heisey said. "We also see a need in kids coming from professional families where both parents work. There's not enough time for reading."

At Bollman Bridge, no quantitative results are available yet to evaluate the phonics pilot program, which hasn't completed its first year. But administrators' enthusiasm already has led the school system to endorse books from Open Court Publishing Co., the publisher most closely associated with strict phonics instruction.

"If there are students who need a more structured approach to phonics in their early years, we want to give the teachers the leeway to be able to give them that education," said Ann W. Mintz, the school system's supervisor of elementary language arts.

But the Howard schools are far from abandoning the whole-language approach.

"It will never be our intent for this to be for all of the children," Ms. Mintz said. "But for those children who haven't received a strong background at home, this program seemed to work very well."

Often criticized as too drill oriented, phonics emphasizes learning the relationships between the sounds of the English language and its alphabet so that youngsters can decode -- properly pronounce -- most words.

Phonics supporters note that numerous academic studies point to phonics as the superior path to fluent reading. Jeanne Chall, a Harvard University researcher who has reviewed studies dating to the 1970s, concludes that phonics works.

"I have reviewed the whole history, and those that are taught phonics -- and learn it early -- learn to read very well," Professor Chall said. "A strong phonics background has been shown to be essential to learning to read."

If other Howard elementary schools adopt Bollman Bridge's model of a more structured phonics program for some students, they'll be following a national trend, Professor Chall said.

"I think [whole language] has reached a certain point, and now schools are realizing the results of whole language are not as good as they hoped," she said. "So now they're going back to what works, which is more phonics."

But powerful professional groups such as the International Reading Association and the National Council for Teachers of English still endorse strongly the whole-language approach. .

Even the Council for Basic Education -- once a strong proponent of phonics -- now recommends a curriculum balanced between whole language and phonics.

"There are clearly advantages to phonics, and there are clearly advantages to reading literature at an early age," said Patte Barth, the council's assistance director. "A really good teacher should be using all of the elements."

L At Bollman Bridge, however, phonics seems to be taking hold.

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