The California story: A very costly lesson Catalyst: Led by an angry grandmother, California's turn away from whole language is renewing national interest in teaching sound-letter relationships.

November 03, 1997|By Howard Libit and Mike Bowler | Howard Libit and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MENLO PARK, Calif. -- The national return to phonics can be traced to a woman who stumbled into the reading war while attending her grandson's back-to-school night.

"The teacher talked for 20 minutes about a new reading program, and at the end, I didn't understand," says Marion Joseph, 70. "And I was pretty sure she didn't understand, either."

In this upscale suburb south of San Francisco, Joseph, who retired as a top adviser to the state schools chief in 1982, has spent seven years fighting to change the way children learn to read in California - a battle that began to show results in 1995 and that is renewing national interest in phonics.

"I never thought it would be this much work," says Joseph, a self-described pit bull who stands not quite 5 feet tall. "Once I started looking into this, the problem seemed so obvious - they had forgotten about phonics. Getting it put back into the classroom is harder than I ever imagined it would be."

With a little digging, she discovered that California, one of the few states that use a uniform state school curriculum, had become the first state to embrace the whole-language approach to reading in 1987.

This method, which tries to build students' love for reading by immersing them in literature, often skips the teaching of how sounds and letters relate to form words, the core of phonics. "Children weren't being given the process to break the code," recalls Michelle Ramey, a teacher in the Center School District, north of Sacramento.

Joseph and other critics of whole language say California educators didn't begin to see problems with whole language until 1994, when a national test showed the state's fourth-graders had plunged from 12th place in reading achievement to last of 39 states tested, with 60 percent reading below grade level.

The damage was not limited to California. One in eight U.S. students attends classes there, and national textbook publishers acknowledge that the state's schoolbook purchases have a huge influence on their $2.6 billion industry.

"When we switched to whole language," says Alice R. Furry, a Sacramento County school administrator, "the rest of the country didn't seem to have much of a choice."

Textbook companies are not alone in profiting from shifts in reading instruction. Consultants charge as much as $1,000 a day to train teachers, and private tutoring has become a hot growth industry.

"There's a lot of money in the reading business, particularly in the textbook publishing business, where reading programs aren't developed or marketed on the basis of valid research findings," says G. Reid Lyon, a National Institutes of Health neuropsychologist studying reading problems. "The reading world is cockamamie. You can sell snake oil."

Whole-language advocates insist that the drop in California's reading scores had less to do with the change in instruction than with the growing number of students for whom English is a second language.

"The real story in California is that the state is still doing a bad job of educating minority kids," says Kenneth Goodman, a University of Arizona education professor widely known among educators as the father of whole language in America.

But many California teachers say whole language is the culprit. Even children of college graduates, they note, performed poorly on the 1994 national reading test.

rTC "Our problem with whole language was that it assumes the kids would learn to read just because we did a lot of reading around them," says Bobbie Neely, a 31-year veteran of the Freemont Unified Schools in San Francisco's East Bay. "They were just supposed to pick it up, and it didn't happen."

Critics of whole language also note the declining reading test scores of children in New Zealand, where whole language bloomed. New Zealand children, once the world's best readers, have slipped to sixth place, behind the United States, according to the latest international survey.

Despite this, Joseph found that the state education establishment still resisted a return to phonics.

To overcome it, she called on contacts from her days in the state superintendent's office and began organizing dissatisfied parents and teachers. She gained the support of California's most conservative legislators, agreeing to work with them on phonics as long as they promised not to try to hitch more controversial issues to her reading legislation.

As a result, the California legislature over the past two years has approved a series of bills - frequently referred to as the "ABC" laws - that require reading instruction to include systematic lessons in phonics and spelling.

But the struggle in California is far from over: Many of the state's more than 1,000 school districts sometimes still divert funds for teacher training in phonics to whole-language programs.

So Joseph pursues her crusade from her ranch-style home, her phone and fax machine ringing constantly. This summer, the liberal Democrat was appointed by the Republican governor to the state school board.

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