How colleges fall short in teacher preparation Training: Many schools of education don't prepare their graduates well enough to teach beginning reading. 'We never talked about how you actually teach children to read,' says a local teacher.

November 05, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Howard Libit and research librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

Stacy Harrison brought years of study and a lifetime of dreams this fall to her new job of teaching 24 second-graders at Harford County's Ring Factory Elementary School. But, by her own admission, she is ill-prepared to teach them in the most important subject of all: reading.

New research shows that children need early and intensive instruction in the sounds that make up words and their relationships to letters. Harford's curriculum requires her to teach these building blocks of reading.

But in her four years at Towson University's education college, Harrison was taught little about how to teach these essential tools for early readers.

"I don't feel comfortable" teaching that way, says Harrison, who graduated in May 1996. "It's not what I learned."

Nearly all schoolchildren can learn to read, researchers now believe. But about half do not read at grade level, tests show. To figure out why, look past elementary school classrooms filled with small children. Instead, examine the college classrooms where teachers are taught.

There's an old joke that illustrates the problem with teacher training: Two retirees at a resort are complaining about the food. The meals have a wretched smell, and they taste worse, the first vacationer says. I know, the second replies, nodding her head. And such small portions.

Criticism of colleges' reading instruction runs along similar lines: It tends to be of very poor quality, and there's far too little of it.

"Most teachers are not being given the content and depth of training needed to enable them to provide appropriate instruction," says a May report by the International Dyslexia Association, a Baltimore-based organization that studies how children learn to read. "Teaching children to read is a task for an expert, and teacher preparation needs to be comprehensive enough to create such experts."

G. Reid Lyon, a neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, puts it more bluntly: "Teacher preparation is a scandal. Most teachers will tell you they don't have any idea what we're talking about when we're talking about skills that kids should have."

Limited training

Most recent education majors have been granted only brief exposure during their college classes to how to teach "phonemes" and "phonics," the terms for the teaching of the sounds within words and their links to letters.

Instead, at most of the nation's campuses in the 1980s and 1990s, future teachers received a steady diet of the "whole-language" method - which stresses providing young children with stories that engage their interest and inspire them to figure out what entire words mean.

Many children pick up reading just this way. But a sizable portion - studies suggest about 40 percent - do not. And researchers say these children benefit greatly from initial training in recognizing the sounds that compose words.

As originally envisioned, whole-language instruction should include some instruction in phonics. In practice, it often has not.

"We kind of missed a generation of teachers," says Susan Webster, a Howard County elementary school principal. "It was almost like it was assumed children would learn to read. But now we know there's more to it than that."

Garrison Brodie, a first-grade teacher at Lyndhurst Elementary School in West Baltimore, thought her professors' promise that she could teach children to read by reading with them sounded almost too good to be true. Soon after starting to teach last winter, she concluded it was.

"I really loved whole language. I was so excited to do it in my classroom," says Brodie, who graduated in December from Towson. "Since then, I have realized that it's kind of a fairy tale. I feel that I wasted my time a bit in school. It was like a brainwashing."

A state task force on reading is examining requirements for new teachers. In the meantime, college education majors must pass just one course on reading instruction to become certified to teach in Maryland.

Not all students who become teachers receive degrees in education; about a quarter earn bachelor's degrees in history, math or other disciplines. A quirk in state regulations allows those teachers to be certified without taking any reading courses.

Most students who major in early childhood or elementary education - the main paths for teachers of kindergarten through fifth grade - take two reading methods courses.

In the elementary education program at Towson, the state's largest producer of public school teachers, majors are required to complete 12 credits in reading and related "language arts" such as writing and speaking - a little less than 10 percent of their graduation requirements.

Recent graduates of Towson and other universities say those courses left them almost entirely unskilled in teaching youngsters to recognize sounds and their relationships to letters.

They were often told that such instruction should be offered as a last resort, to be used only when a child proves impossible to reach in other ways.

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