Reading lessons are hit-or-miss Instruction: In Maryland, reading is taught in varied ways - some well founded, some not. The state wants proven methods used in every classroom. Meanwhile, children take potluck.

November 04, 1997|By Mike Bowler and Howard Libit | Mike Bowler and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marego Athans and research librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Call it Maryland's other lottery.

Each autumn, 70,000 freshly scrubbed children arrive in first-grade classrooms across the state, their parents trusting they'll learn to read.

But they're trusting in luck.

Many schools lack a reading program based on proven research. Making matters worse, instruction can vary widely from school to school, district to district, city to suburb, day to day.

Even in the classrooms at a single school, "there is not always the same philosophy or same approach or even compatible approaches," says St. Mary's County school Superintendent Patricia Richardson, who heads a statewide task force of reading experts. The panel's mission: bring order to the instructional chaos.

To be sure, much is beyond the control of teachers.

They can't help it if they're assigned 34 kids with reading abilities ranging from fluent to illiterate. They can't reach into homes, ensuring that their students are surrounded by books and read to at bedtime. They can't erase poverty.

But whether children live in the projects of West Baltimore or the mansions of Green Spring Valley, their parents still expect the schools to teach them to read. And when schools fall down on the job - as they do with as many as two-thirds of children, according to the state's own rigorous test standards - parents get angry.

That happened three years ago in the heart of suburban #F Baltimore County, when several families began to notice that their children were having difficulty with reading instruction based on the dominant philosophy of the time, known as whole language.

Catherine C. Froggatt was reading with her first-grade daughter, Sarah, around Christmas 1993. Sarah was bringing home books with such words as refrigerator, comfortable and anemone, but she couldn't read cat or dog, Froggatt recalls. "We taught her the words by having her sound them out," she says. "But when I went back two months later, she'd forgotten what we'd taught her."

Sarah was getting instruction in reading at her school, Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium, but it involved teachers reading to students. Her teacher would point with a "magic finger" to a word in an oversized story book. She'd say the word and have the children repeat it.

Lots of other fun activities revolved around books and the children's experiences, but Sarah and her classmates weren't learning that words are made up of sounds and that there's a systematic pattern of sounds and letters in the English language, known as phonics.

When Froggatt started asking around, she found that other parents were alarmed, too. Linda Anderson's second-grader couldn't read the directions on the chalkboard. Mary Pat Kahle was voicing similar complaints. Patti and Michael Tanczyn, Edward Cluett and Cindy Beale joined the chorus.

"The more questions we asked, the more hostile they [school administrators] became," says Froggatt, who has since moved to North Carolina, largely because of disappointment with reading instruction in Baltimore County.

A two-year war of words - and of nerves - erupted between the parents and county educators, including the Pot Spring principal, Saundra K. Fitzell.

To Beale, the school was trying to instill a love of reading but failing to teach reading. "My philosophy is that they shouldn't be teaching my child to love anything," she says. "They're supposed to teach him to read. To do math. He needs to be able to read job applications and medical labels."

Adds Kahle, a nurse who was a Pot Spring PTA officer when the turbulence broke out: "If they had listened to parents early on, they could have avoided all of this."

The Pot Spring rebels read everything they could on reading research, which now shows that virtually all children can learn to read if they are systematically taught phonics. They drew up a petition, quickly gathering more than 80 signatures.

Although former county schools Superintendent Stuart Berger summarily rejected their plea, they won in the end: The intransigent principal was transferred. And last year, the new superintendent, Anthony G. Marchione, ordered a new phonics-oriented countywide reading program, "Word Identification," which is intended to teach all children to read by the end of second grade.

"A teacher in the second grade will know that any student from any of the four first-grade classrooms will have had the same instruction," says Paul E. Murrell, a veteran educator assigned to Pot Spring as principal and peacemaker.

But Kahle remains suspicious: "The most consistent thing in Baltimore County is the lack of consistency."

Swing to phonics

Other area districts also are moving haltingly to phonics, although whole language remains king of the reading road.

"Right now, I think we're recovering from swinging away from phonics and skills instruction and trying to bring it back," says Joseph Czarnecki, Anne Arundel County's coordinator of reading and language arts, echoing his counterparts in other Baltimore- area school systems.

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