Young readers left to struggle Education: Millions of students read poorly, not because they can't learn, but because schools aren't teaching them properly. The good news: The problem can be fixed by proven methods.

November 02, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Kathy Lally and Debbie M. Price and research librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Laura Apicella began school with many of the right tools: a healthy IQ and a home full of books. But at Pinewood Elementary in Timonium, something went wrong.

When she read aloud, her classmates would laugh, and she'd flee the room. In second grade, she cried every morning. In third, she'd escape to the counselor's office. By fourth, she was two years behind, and other children were calling her "dummy."

"I felt stupid," says Laura, now 10 and finally learning to read in a private school. "I was glad to find out that I'm smarter than a lot of people."

Laura illustrates a terrible failing in American education: Millions of children aren't learning to read properly during the crucial early grades of school - not because they can't but because their schools aren't teaching them how.

About 40 percent of all schoolchildren are poor readers, and half of these students, like Laura, have severe problems.

Research shows that most children who haven't learned to read properly by third grade, usually age 9, are likely to be poor readers their whole lives. With that failure often comes a lifetime of disappointment and privation - and burdens for society.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers now consider reading problems a major public health threat.

"It's hard to think of an area it's not affecting - it affects the economy, the democracy and the culture," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan.

In Maryland, two-thirds of third-graders aren't meeting the state's chosen standard for reading, as measured by the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test, which gauges analytical skills as well as the basics.

Reading problems are most severe in Baltimore, but failure is everywhere, as shown by MSPAP reading test results in the region's school systems:

* Baltimore, 89 percent rated below satisfactory

* Baltimore County, 64 percent

* Anne Arundel County, 56 percent

* Carroll County, 53 percent

* Harford County, 53 percent

* Howard County, 47 percent

The most respected national test yields similarly bleak results. About 45 percent of Maryland's fourth-graders scored below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress - meaning they showed little or no mastery of grade-level work.

Robert E. Slavin, a leading educational researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, says such numbers of poor readers represent a national scandal: "It's shocking and awful, but it's true."

This has been so for years. But now, researchers say, it is needless. The accumulated evidence from two decades of educational and medical research supported by NIH shows most reading problems are preventable. Recent studies strongly suggest that many more children - including almost all of the poorest readers - can be taught to read in early grades with readily available methods.

If all students in kindergarten through third grade in Maryland's public schools were taught to read adequately - instead of generally reaching about 60 percent - more than 90,000 citizens would be better equipped for the 21st century.

The key, the NIH-sponsored research says, is the right kind of instruction, beginning with early and intensive training in the sounds of the language and sound-letter relationships, while exposing students to stories that engage their interest.

The research shows that this sequence of reading instruction can even succeed independent of other factors outside of school that affect learning.

"This is totally fixable," says Marilyn Jager Adams, a Harvard scholar and author of "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print," the latest bible of the reading profession.

"The data indicate that the ability to learn to read is remarkably independent of ethnicity and parental education and children's IQ," she says. "Everything we can measure says it depends on what they learn, which means it depends on what we teach them. And consistent with that, we have all these programs demonstrating that classroom instruction can make all the difference."

But reading instruction in this country has been buffeted for decades by a vitriolic war between proponents of two dramatically different methods, "phonics" and "whole language" - war in which firm evidence is often ignored in favor of fads and shifts in political winds.

In recent years, this conflict has been most apparent in Calfornia. That state adopted the whole-language approach in 1987. Test scores plummeted, spurring the state legislature in 1995 to write phonics into law. California, in turn, is now leading a national swing back toward phonics.

Phonics - the traditional approach to reading dating to the 1700s, when the Bible was the first textbook - teaches children to pronounce most printed words by breaking them into the sounds of the English language and learning how to blend these sounds into words.

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