Old-fashioned phonics returns to city schools Curriculum to be tried at six elementaries

July 19, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

What's old will be new again this September when six Baltimore City schools adopt a nearly 30-year-old curriculum stressing phonics and repetition as the way to learn to read.

Baby boomers should recognize the key elements of the new-old curriculum, called Reading Mastery in its current form.

Its highly structured series of lessons lead students from recognizing letters to sounding out words to reading text for meaning.

Phonics is already taught in many city schools. What makes this program different is its tightly scripted presentation. Taught in an unwavering sequence, the lesson plans govern teachers' words and even their hand movements. Teachers set the pace for small-group progress, and students are not allowed to fall behind.

To some educators, the rigid structure is the appeal of this teaching system. To others, it is a threatening departure from the do-your-own-thing way of teaching that has evolved in three decades of educational experiments and fads.

Troubled by years of low school achievement, city education officials are reaching to the past to chart the future. Supporters of the six-school experiment hope it will lead to a change toward consistency in teaching throughout the city.

"It makes learning easier because the child is not asked to make leaps from one teacher to another, or one program to another," said Muriel Berkeley, director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project. "It's all one road map."

This week, the nonprofit project allied with the Abell Foundation began training 120 teachers and parents from six schools in the program's theories and practices. The schools include three that are required to adopt instructional reforms because of low state test scores: Arundel, Robert Coleman and General Wolfe elementaries. Roland Park, Hampstead Hill and City Springs elementaries also will participate.

The six elementaries are willing to submit to extensive retraining if it will give inner-city children and schools a taste of success, said Bernice Whelchel, principal of City Springs.

"There are so many programs that are here this morning and gone tonight," she said. "This is going to be a five-year project focusing on the children, so there will be continuity and community participation."

The reading program will be introduced in her grades K through 5 in September. A math program will be added next year.

"We're not interested in what someone thinks will work, or says will work," said Berkeley, who taught writing at Roland Park before joining the curriculum project. "We are interested in a curriculum that the research demonstrates will work."

She chose two curriculums. One determines the subjects students will learn, such as history, music and world cultures. The other is Reading Mastery, whose techniques are applied to the readings on each subject.

She cites anecdotal evidence supporting Reading Mastery. In public schools in poor communities in Texas, Ohio, Illinois and New Jersey, many children trained through this curriculum are reading at and beyond their grade levels. Some are outscoring suburban peers on state tests.

Reading Mastery is the modern outgrowth of a curriculum called DISTAR -- Direct Instruction Systems for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading. In a nine-year federal study completed in 1976, DISTAR was the most successful of nine educational programs for low-income children in the three early grades. Reading comprehension did not improve so quickly as reading ability, but both improved.

In the two decades since the study, the DISTAR curriculum has been refined and expanded, but the basic concepts have not changed, said its founder, Siegfried Engelmann.

There are accelerated programs for young readers who grasp the concepts early and outpace their age-group peers, he said. He also has developed "corrective" programs targeting students who were promoted although they had not learned to read.

Based in Eugene, Ore., and affiliated with the University of Oregon, Engelmann has stayed with his program through dark years when phonics was considered passe. He remains its most passionate spokesman, he said, because "it works."

He does not promise Baltimore a quick fix. He does not expect results to show in test scores for at least two years -- after teachers have had the benefit of full training in the methods and tools.

Over the years, detractors including teachers unions have claimed that thoroughly plotted lesson plans thwart teachers' creativity and threaten their jobs by basing their role on a script.

The Baltimore Teachers Union will be watching the project closely, said spokeswoman Linda Prudente. The union is concerned about the fates of good teachers who don't care for the experiment or its teaching style.

Engelmann and other advocates have learned that the curriculum is not politics-proof. Some school systems have tried and dropped the program. But because Baltimore's experiment has grown out of a prior successful one, supporters here are hopeful.

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