Reading recruits riding a wave Despite mixed views of 'America Reads,' program is growing

'Problem is so immense'

More than 600 in Towson answer presidential plea

November 23, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

More than 600 people with hopes of changing a piece of the world filled a Towson hotel last week, part of the "America Reads" movement that President Clinton says will help solve the nation's literacy problem by sending an army of volunteers into elementary schools.

"We're on the brink of the biggest volunteer movement in the history of this country," declared Rob Downer, 26, a trainer of volunteers from Chestertown.

Volunteers came from five states and Puerto Rico for the America Reads and Family Literacy Conference -- vowing to improve reading achievement among early elementary children.

But outside such gatherings, Clinton's "America Reads Challenge" isn't always drawing such accolades.

Critics question how semi-trained volunteers can accomplish what full-time, college-trained teachers haven't been able to do. They argue that the money and energy are better spent boosting teacher expertise and getting the latest research-proven methods into the classroom.

The debate takes place against a dismal backdrop. On the most recent nationwide reading test in 1994, 40 percent of fourth-graders could master little or no grade-level work. Maryland's students scored just below the national average.

Most of that reading failure is preventable, scientific research concludes. Studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health have shown that the proper sequence of training in the sounds of the language, phonics, quick and accurate reading, and literature in kindergarten and first grade -- given by well-trained teachers -- can bring 95 percent of the poorest readers up to grade level.

But getting those methods to the students is another matter: Many recent graduates of the nation's education colleges are not adequately trained to teach reading.

For decades, much of the education establishment has ignored the scientific advances, including recent research on how the brain breaks words into sounds to read. Instead, reading instruction has drifted with ideological trends favoring phonics, which teaches children to sound out words, or whole language, which asks children to deduce meaning from context.

Last year, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton declared poor reading an urgent national problem and announced a national goal to have every child reading well by the end of third grade.

Out of that promise came a $2.75 billion proposal over five years that would pay for reading specialists and tutor coordinators to recruit and train 1 million volunteers -- many of them college students earning federal work-study dollars -- to help children learn to read. The proposal included a program to encourage parents to read with children and increased funding for Head Start, a federally subsidized preschool program for poor youngsters.

Critics, including the chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Pennsylvania Republican Bill Goodling, questioned the emphasis on volunteers, arguing instead for investing in the professionals in the classroom and providing them with scientifically proven methods.

Goodling's bill, which passed the House and awaits Senate approval, would spend $210 million on teacher retraining; teaching methods based on "reliable and replicable research," including phonics; grants to help provide in-school help for students on weekends, after school or during the summer; and help to parents who are poor readers.

"The idea that we can flood the schools with volunteers, that they can somehow help the children where the teacher could not, I thought it was totally off base," said Goodling, who has a 22-year background as a teacher, counselor, principal and superintendent.

The Clinton administration applauds the Goodling bill as a bipartisan agreement, with several points the president wants changed.

But the America Reads volunteer effort is expanding. Clinton recently signed legislation that provides a $69 million increase to several national service corps, including AmeriCorps -- which gives stipends to its coordinators -- money that is expected to boost by 100,000 the number of volunteers working on literacy.

Proponents of America Reads say they never intended for volunteers to replace classroom teachers. They say well-trained volunteers working one-on-one with children on lessons that are well-coordinated with the school can bolster achievement.

"A lot of children go home to [homes] that are not literature rich," said Ann M. O'Leary, policy and programs director of the America Reads Challenge at the Department of Education.

"They're not being read to or getting a lot of excitement for reading. The purpose of America Reads is not only to help children develop and practice their skills, but help them gain this love of reading rather than see themselves fail over and over again. Research shows that tutoring programs are effective if they're connected to quality programs in the schools. We see it as a complement to what's happening in the classroom," O'Leary said.

Impact of tutors in doubt

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