Howard father pushes reading reforms Consultant hopes to create task force

November 19, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Hans Meeder was stumped as he watched his 4-year-old daughter try to learn to read in kindergarten at Howard County's Atholton Elementary School last school year.

Her teacher was using a method called whole language, which instructs children to guess at words based on context, not phonics, which teaches students to decode sounds and groups of letters to figure out words.

His daughter "at one point said, 'Good readers look for picture cues,' and I thought, 'This is crazy,' " Meeder said. "I literally couldn't sleep one night."

Meeder looked into the issue, starting months of research that culminated Monday night in one of the best-attended Howard County PTA meetings in recent memory.

Nearly 250 parents, teachers and school administrators turned out for a lecture by G. Reid Lyon, a National Institutes of Health neuro- psychologist, on how children learn to read and how reading should be taught.

Meeder hopes the two-hour talk at Columbia's Long Reach High School will help generate interest for a PTA reading task force he is forming -- a group intended to raise local awareness of reading.

"I want to promote an ongoing discussion on how to deal with reading and how to bring all schools and preschools to the most current available research," said Meeder, a consultant specializing in education issues and an aspiring politician.

"I think the misperception of reading reform is you take one approach and apply itas opposed to the approach of someone like a medical doctor, who looks at all the research and incorporates it into one treatment," he said.

Though Meeder's efforts began months ago, they came weeks after a series of articles in The Sun reported that about 30 percent to 40 percent of the nation's 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.

In Howard, at the end of the 1994-1995 school year, second-grade teachers said nearly a third of their students were not "fluent" readers -- meaning they could not easily read and understand grade-level material.

Recent research, including studies sponsored by the NIH, show the right mix of instruction can bring at least 95 percent of the poorest readers to grade level.

Meeder's concerns about his daughter's reading led him to Lyon, whose visit was arranged with Howard PTA President Susan Poole in August.

Lyon was one of the experts cited in The Sun articles, and his talk emphasized flexibility in teaching reading.

Teachers must be well-versed in multiple approaches to reading and must be able to mix and match them as needed to suit each student, Lyon said. Forcing all children to learn through just one approach can be disastrous, he said.

"No state has a majority of students in the 'high proficiency' category anymore," Lyon pointed out. "Why is that? Is it something in the water?"

Sandra French, chairwoman of the county school board, agreed with what she heard from Lyon. "What he said has validated what I've heard from Howard schools' reading specialists," she said. "They've been saying we need to try multiple strategies based on the age of students. One size does not fit all."

Howard School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said that the county's schools had adopted Lyon's approach several years ago -- at least on paper. Whole language had been the primary form of instruction, but it was replaced with a mix of whole language, phonics and other approaches, he said.

In practice, Meeder suspects the situation is different -- that teachers who have used one approach for years have not always shifted their approaches to mirror curriculum changes.

"I'm not sure all the teachers are getting the information on this," he said. "I think the schools are making progress in training teachers and giving them information, but I think a public awareness process needs to go on."

Meeder, who intends to run next year for the state legislature representing Columbia, hopes to be at the center of that process through the reading task force.

The effort is an unusual one, according to Lyon. "I've never heard of anything like that," he said yesterday. "It could be a good thing if people work closely and collaboratively with the schools."

Neither Meeder nor Poole can say what the task force will actually do. They want to gather a group of parents and teachers to brainstorm, they said.

"Do they just want to talk about reading and feel good about what they listened to?" Poole asked. "Or do they want to pursue it further? I really don't know."

Of the 250 or so who attended Lyon's lecture, nearly 30 indicated they might want to be involved in more local work on reading, she said.

With parents and teachers scribbling notes and nudging one another knowingly, the atmosphere Monday seemed supportive.

"I was sitting in the front and I saw the audience reactions and their faces," French said. "I saw the heads nodding and people saying, 'Yes, this is the key area.' "

The reading task force meets at 7: 30 p.m. Dec. 9 at Howard school headquarters in Ellicott City.

Reading by 9

Part of a long-term series of articles on the successes and failures in teaching children to read by third grade, or age 9.

To learn more

For more information about reading issues and the performance of individual schools in the Baltimore area, go to The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at www.sunspot.net/news/.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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