Pilot program lets schools refocus on phonics

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

In a back-to-basics shift, some Howard County public schools for the first time in years will return this fall to a stress on teaching students to read via direct drills in phonics.

More than a quarter of the county's elementary schools plan this school year to offer to some of their beginning readers more intensive instruction in phonics, a traditional method that

teaches children to decode words by sounding out letters and certain letter combinations.

The move is in line with a national trend as school districts across the country are tempering their reliance on the more recently developed "whole-language" approach to reading instruction, which stresses reading for content and deciphering the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context.

In Howard, the step back to phonics follows a successful one-year pilot program involving direct phonics instruction during the last school year at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup -- a program that many other principals say they now will try to duplicate at their own schools this school year.

As a result of that pilot, books from the publisher most closely identified with phonics have been placed on the Howard school system's approved list for the first time, and schools this summer have been lining up to buy them.

The local sales representative for Open Court Publishing Co. says 10 of the county's 32 elementary schools have told her they intend to purchase books from her, assuming they can scrape together the money.

"We've been trying to get listed with the Howard County schools for a long time, and finally this is the year," said Mary McAdoo of Columbia. "But I guess it's not surprising given the changes that are going on across the country. Howard County is just part of the trend that we're seeing elsewhere in Maryland and in other states."

The decision by individual elementary schools to incorporate more phonics into their curriculum does not mean that Howard County will abandon the whole-language method of teaching reading. That approach -- rising in popularity across the country since the 1970s -- aims to generate interest in reading by exposing students to literature and opportunities for creative writing.

Howard school officials maintain that phonics always has remained part of the county's standard reading curriculum, and the new emphasis on phonics this year in some schools only will serve as a supplement for students entering school with little instruction at home.

But at least one area elementary-education expert sees the shift as substantial.

"Given that Howard County long has been teaching reading through a holistic approach, I am quite surprised about this change," said Bess Altwerger, an associate professor of

elementary education at Towson State University, who specializes in early reading.

"Open Court always has been associated with a very phonics-oriented program that teaches isolated skills. That's not what Howard County has been about."

But some parents and teachers are welcoming more phonics.

"Any time you carry anything to an extreme, I think you create problems," said school board member Stephen Bounds, who campaigned for office last year on a "back-to-basics" theme.

'Gone to an extreme'

"From talking to parents, a lot of them believe the school system has gone to an extreme and abandoned phonics. Clearly, there's a lot good about phonics. It has taught many, many kids. . . . I'm extremely pleased with these changes," he said.

Even school officials who insist that Howard has maintained a balance between whole language and phonics now acknowledge that something needs to be done to inject more phonics instruction into some classrooms.

"Perhaps there's a perception out there by teachers that the teaching of phonics is somehow prohibited, but in reality that has never been the case," said Edward E. Alexander, the instructional director of the county's elementary schools. "We at the central office may have indirectly given out that message, but it was not intentional."

That unintentional message likely was sent in such publications as a January 1994 report to the school board on the status of Howard's language arts program. The report documented the widespread changes in the way students are being taught to read, essentially describing Howard's approach to teaching reading as a model of the whole-language program.

"Classroom instruction has changed from using materials such as graded language and spelling textbooks, basal readers with controlled vocabulary, and workbooks and ditto sheets to an emphasis on having students read authentic literature, respond in reading journals, react to important issues in small literature discussion groups, and learn grammar and spelling rules based on grade-level expectations and individual writing needs," the report said.

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