The spending plan for next school year proposed this week by Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey includes a renewed emphasis on early reading instruction and, particularly, phonics, a reflection of the national movement back to more traditional teaching methods.
"Our goal for a long time has been that by third grade, every child will be reading at grade level, and they're not," Hickey said. "Some are, and some are well above grade level. But others aren't, and those numbers are increasing."
The proposal -- which will be presented in detail to the school board tomorrow afternoon -- includes $75,000 to buy phonics-intensive materials for every elementary school, train some first-year teachers in reading instruction, create a one-on-one tutorial program for low-achieving first graders and begin using computers to teach reading to some kindergartners at two Howard elementaries.
"Kindergarten through second grade is the critical period for students to learn to read," said Ann W. Mintz, the school system's supervisor of elementary language arts. "If we can improve our instruction, we'll help students become better readers and improve their scores in all subjects" on the state's tests.
Only 68 percent of students leaving Howard second-grade classrooms in 1994-1995 were considered by their teachers to be "fluent" readers -- that is, they were able to easily read and understand grade-level material, Mintz said.
Mintz said she suspects that the percentage of fluent readers is higher because some teachers use too difficult of a standard for fluency.
However, she added, "Unless the figure is 100 percent, there is still a lot of work to be done."
If the funds for reading are included in the school board's final 1997-1998 operating budget in the spring, the most immediate impact will be seen in the inclusion of more explicit phonics instruction for some students at all Howard elementaries in the ,, fall.
National phonics movement
In the past few years, school systems across the country have been emphasizing more instruction in phonics -- a traditional method that teaches children to decode words by sounding out letters and certain letter combinations.
This is in contrast to the "whole-language" approach, which has held sway in many schools nationally and in Howard for the past decade or longer -- an approach that stresses reading for content and deciphering the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context.
Howard County school officials say teachers should be using a mixture of both methods to teach students to read, depending on what works.
However, in recent years, they also began to acknowledge that some teachers have gone too far in emphasizing only whole language -- particularly newer teachers who learned only whole language instruction in college.
More than $45,000 of the Howard budget proposal will go to purchase kindergarten and first-grade reading materials for all Howard elementaries from Open Court Publishing Co., the national publisher most closely associated with phonics instruction.
The materials -- first tried with some students in Bollman Bridge Elementary School in 1994-1995 and subsequently adopted by at least six other elementaries -- allow teachers to give structured phonics instruction to small groups of students who need it.
Many of those students enter Howard schools without having been read to at home and without preschool experience.
School officials say these students are a growing share of Howard's total enrollment these days.
"Many schools have recently found that Open Court has been successful for a certain segment of their students," Mintz said. "The materials include very explicit lessons in phonics that can be helpful for teachers who may not have much experience with phonics."
A nine-week after-school course for 25 first-year primary teachers -- those in kindergarten, first and second grades -- would provide additional training, particularly in helping them with the instruction required for the state assessment tests.
The two Howard elementaries with the lowest reading scores on the state exams -- Laurel Woods and Phelps Luck -- also would begin a pilot computer program in the fall to help kindergartners begin learning how to read.
Computers would be used
Every day, a handful of students -- generally those with little awareness of print and no prior preschool experience -- would spend 15 minutes each using a computer to learn letter recognition, the association of the sounds of letters with their symbols, and the ability to hear sounds in words.
Their reading skills would be checked weekly by an instructional assistant.
With the kindergarten day lasting only 2 1/2 hours, setting aside 15 minutes a day for some students to learn reading skills by computer is a big commitment, Mintz said. But she pointed to a growing body of research that shows that some students learn those early reading skills better with interactive technology than sitting in a traditional classroom.