Sound results at Catholic schools Phonics: Methods of teaching reading come and go, but Catholic schools prove over and over that phonics works.

December 28, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Catholic schools are hooked on phonics.

Over the decades -- as fads in reading instruction have come and gone -- Baltimore-area Catholic schools, like many other parochial schools across the nation, have held to teaching children to read by first focusing on the sounds that make up words and sound-letter relationships.

In stark contrast to most public schools, which in the 1980s tended to forsake teaching sounds for an early focus on reading stories, virtually all of the 70 elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore teach phonics as a separate subject in the early grades.

They also regularly give homework in phonics and evaluate students specifically on their phonics skills.

"We have never ventured away from phonics," says Fran Vivirito, a first-grade teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Towson. "The basic premise of how to teach reading has not changed."

Sister Judith Schaum, the archdiocese's testing supervisor, adds: "Teachers are using tried-and-true methods, like phonics. They are not running after every fad in the educational realm."

These days, cutting-edge brain and educational research are resolving the long-running feud between proponents of phonics and whole-language, or literature-based, approaches to teaching beginning reading.

The research, supported by the National Institutes of Health, concludes that reading instruction should begin by increasing students' awareness of the sounds that make up the English language and linking these sounds to letters, as in traditional phonics. All the while, children are exposed to engaging stories as in the whole-language method.

Following a national trend sparked in California, most Baltimore-area public school systems are including more phonics their reading programs.

But area Catholic school educators say teaching sounds and sound-letter relationships has long been the linchpin of their beginning reading programs, often because parochial schools have not had large enough budgets to swing with educational trends.

"Sometimes the cost of materials keeps us from jumping on every bandwagon," says Terry Baker, principal of St. Philip Neri School in Linthicum and a member of the archdiocese's reading committee.

So while the nation's textbook publishers have turned out new reading series -- often big books with color pictures and enticing stories -- many schools in the archdiocese have continued to use "plaid phonics," a program created more than 40 years ago by two nuns and a priest in the Catholic schools of Cleveland.

Developed as an antidote to the "Dick-and-Jane" books, which relied on memorizing whole words by sight, plaid phonics has gone through nine revisions but still focuses primarily on basic "word attack" strategies -- teaching students to sound out words according to phonics rules. The series got its name because the book covers have a plaid design similar to that often seen on Catholic school uniforms.

Local parochial educators say the archdiocese's schools have adopted some facets of the whole-language method. But the embrace has not been wholehearted, as shown by a recent visit to Kathy James' kindergarten class at St. Joseph's School in Fullerton in Baltimore County -- on "short e as in elephant" day.

After a story about -- what else? -- an upset elephant, the children practice a few short "e" words -- bed, red, tell, fell -- hear a poem from a puppet wearing a large E and then set to work making puppets out of paper bags.

"You are going to make an eh-eh elephant," James tells the youngsters. "I want you to be thinking of a name for your eh-eh elephant that begins with 'E.' "

Upstairs in a St. Joseph's second-grade class, Kathy Diggs is teaching a 45-minute class on the letter "c."

The children discover some c's are hard -- the "kuh" sound -- and some c's are soft -- the "s-s-s" sound. They also learn that it's the vowel that follows the "c" that turns it hard or soft.

"If you see a 'c' followed by an 'a,' 'o' or 'u,' it's going to be hard," explains Joseph Miller, 7, who says he "sort of" likes phonics.

Local Catholic schools drop phonics as a subject after second or third grades, but they continue emphasizing its fundamentals. Even as middle-schoolers devour short stories, plays and novels, they're reminded to fall back on phonics to figure out difficult or unfamiliar words, says Joyce Thaler, St. Joseph's principal.

Emphasis on reading

Reading remains a separate subject through eighth grade in all area Catholic schools -- something that some area public school systems are considering adding for middle-schoolers as a result of flat or falling scores on the state's eighth-grade reading test. Baltimore County schools took a step in this direction by initiating sixth-grade reading classes this year.

Locally and nationally, parochial schools' intensive focus on phonics and reading appears to pay off in better test scores, though comparing Catholic school students' performance on tests with that of their public school peers is uncertain at best.

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