Reading takes center stage Experiment: Six Baltimore schools are testing a new, highly structured curriculum, and principals find early results remarkable.

February 28, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

The early morning yawns and squirms have segued into eagerly raised hands and lisped recitations. Magical sounds are bouncing off the hard tile floors and cement block walls of General Wolfe Elementary School in Upper Fells Point.

These are the sounds of children learning to read, and until this year they were more often longed for than heard in this Baltimore school, which sits, impassively, hard by the corner of Wolfe and Gough streets.

General Wolfe is one of six city schools that have adopted a new curriculum, melding highly structured math and phonics-based reading instruction with in-depth study of such subjects as geography, history and science. The Baltimore Core Curriculum was introduced only in September, but principals say the early signs of progress are remarkable.

"We have a group of third-graders who are getting ready to read a grade four book," says Clayton Lewis, principal of General Wolfe. "It sounds almost too good to be true. I keep waking up at night, thinking it must be a dream."

Until now, failure was more predictable than success at General Wolfe. Last year, only one of 26 third-graders managed to attain a score of satisfactory on the reading portion of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

A few blocks west, the same heady sense of exhilaration is sweeping over Bernice Whelchel, principal of City Springs Elementary School. About 60 percent of her second-graders began the school year unable to read. By last month, 62 percent of the second grade was able to read at or above grade level. Ten percent was still one year below grade level and 28 percent was six months behind.

"Impressive?" Whelchel exclaims. "It's fantastic."

General Wolfe and City Springs are the kinds of schools that are at the heart of the debate over America's future. President Clinton, in his State of the Union address, said the national interest demanded a goal of teaching all children to read at grade level by third grade. Urban school systems across the country have been unable to do that.

Last year, Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, inspired by the success the private Calvert School curriculum was having at the city's Barclay and Carter Godwin Woodson elementaries, decided to create a curriculum. He planned to offer it to any city school that were interested. He hired Dr. Muriel Berkeley, a city teacher with experience in social science research.

She produced the Baltimore Core Curriculum, with detailed, daily lesson plans, adapted from two programs. Six schools chose to take it on for a five-year test.

With help from Abell and AmeriCorps volunteers, City Springs and General Wolfe have reduced reading groups to a maximum of 12 children. The foundation has provided training for the teachers in Direct Instruction, a method developed by Siegfried Engelmann, an education expert affiliated with the University of Oregon.

Engelmann's method, Berkeley says, depends on small groups;

teacher training and skill; and regular, inviolable time spent on instruction. Reading lessons are carefully scripted -- nearly every word the teacher says is prescribed, having been based on research, tested and rewritten again and again.

Children are taught sounds and how to blend them so they can sound out words. Children repeat words in unison until the teacher sees each one of them is getting it.

Berkeley began her curriculum research against a strange landscape. Though U.S. schools have tried endless ways of teaching reading, they have been roundly unsuccessful with many children. And solid evidence of how anything works is hard to come by.

One trend leads to another, and Berkeley says the research looks far from definitive.

"You go to look for what works," she says, "and there's no one to sort it out."

Just now, many schools are turning against Whole Language, the most recent trend, which emphasizes sight reading rather than phonics. Children read literature rather than stories specifically designed to teach reading. Irresistible stories are expected to give them the incentive to learn.

In Baltimore and many other cities, that has not worked. Often, strategies have been abandoned before they had time to work -- including Direct Instruction.

For 25 years, Anayezuka Ahidiana was a sort of guerrilla fighter for Direct Instruction in Baltimore. She was a young teacher when it was introduced, and had such success with it she stuck with it, underground, during all the years it fell out of favor. Today, she supervises the project at City Springs.

In those years teaching, she learned a painful lesson.

"Just because something is effective," Ahidiana says, "doesn't mean we use it."

She had seen a demonstration lesson Engelmann gave in Baltimore in 1969, and she was entranced by how well his methods worked. She tried it, and it worked for her, too, even with the most difficult children.

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