Grasmick to seek reading upgrade Sun series spurs plan to raise standards for teacher certification

November 08, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick intends to push for stiffer requirements at the state's education colleges to ensure that teachers are better prepared to teach reading, especially in elementary schools.

In response to a series in The Sun this week detailing widespread failure to learn how to read properly among the state's and nation's schoolchildren, Grasmick said she plans to ask the state school board early next year to require more college reading-instruction courses for teachers to become state-certified.

Grasmick also said she'll ask a state task force examining reading instruction to thoroughly review recent research, such as studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Among ,, the NIH findings: The right mix of instruction can bring at least 95 percent of the poorest readers to grade level.

Currently, 30 percent to 40 percent of schoolchildren are poor readers, half of them with serious problems. Research shows that children who haven't learned to read properly by the end of third grade -- typically age 9 -- are likely to be poor readers their whole lives, often with devastating consequences.

"The series has caused all of us to rethink our positions," Grasmick said. "It's very catalytic for us.

"I don't think there's a school system in [the] area that isn't thinking about this series and saying, 'How does this affect what's happening in our system?' There isn't a parent who isn't thinking about reading and how it relates to their school.

"And I can't imagine there's a teacher-training institution in the state that isn't saying, 'What is our curriculum? How are we preparing our teachers?' " Grasmick said.

The articles documented how pervasive reading failure has persisted despite decades of educational studies and -- more recently -- brain research concluding that many beginning readers need structured, sequential training in the sounds of the language -- or phonemes -- and sound-letter relationships, or phonics, as well as exposure to literature.

Instead of adhering to scientifically proven methods, reading instruction in the region and around the country has often shifted with fads and politics, darting haphazardly between phonics and "whole language." The latter method aims to inspire a love of reading by teaching beginning readers to read stories, even if it means guessing at words.

At the core of the problem, many experts believe, is the poor training of teachers, who are required to take few, and sometimes even no, courses in reading before they enter the classroom.

Grasmick wants the state school board -- which approves college education courses and sets teacher certification requirements -- to require at least one course in reading instruction for all teachers and at least four reading courses for teachers of early elementary school grades. Grasmick is also trying to limit the number of non-certified teachers allowed in each district.

College education majors must pass one course in reading instruction to become certified to teach in Maryland. Most students who major in early-childhood or elementary education take two reading-methods courses. Those who earn degrees in other majors can become certified to teach without taking any reading courses.

"I can't imagine it being done in one or two courses and having the repertoire required to teach reading," Grasmick said. "I also believe that everyone has to at least have some minimal background even if they're not a reading teacher. It's pervasive to every subject area."

Grasmick is also asking the state reading task force to design a statewide, research-based reading curriculum that includes instruction in the sounds of the language and phonics, as well as an emphasis on literature. The task force is scheduled to present its work in June.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said she would welcome recommendations from Maryland education officials for federal legislation to help children with reading problems. Her ideas include tailored programs similar to special education for the disabled.

Callers to The Sun this week -- more than 560 calls were logged as of last night -- say the articles touched a nerve among educators, parents and elected officials statewide. Many of the callers were parents recounting their children's struggles with reading, teachers reporting frustrations with scanty phonics training in college, and parent leaders complaining of inaction by school officials or lamenting a shortage of appropriate reading .. books.

Some school officials complained they were unfairly attacked. E. Wendy Saul, education professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, characterized the articles as editorials promoting phonics, saying greater use of that method would lead to "as many kids in trouble as we have now."

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