Phonics paves Christian way Basics: Reading instruction is surprisingly secular, and successful, at two Christian schools in the area that stress phonics and classic literature.

The Education Beat

March 01, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE BIBLE offers no advice on how to teach reading.

But at area Christian schools, phonics reigns supreme.

You can hear it in the sing-song reading exercises at Redeemer Classical Christian School in northeastern Baltimore County. You can see it in the carefully crafted reading curriculum at Baltimore Christian School.

God is, of course, everywhere to be seen and heard at a Christian school -- on the chalkboards and bulletin boards, in daily prayers and weekly chapel services, in science and history classes where students learn that it all began, this wonderful world we live in, with the Creation in 4046 B.C.

Reading instruction, however, is surprisingly secular. Most books and learning materials are available to any educator, and the Bible isn't the textbook -- though the staff at the schools insist that its spirit drives the enterprise.

By the middle of first grade, students are delving into good literature, having learned that there are rules governing the English language, rules that, yes, must be memorized.

At Redeemer Classical, a school that overflows a 200-year-old farmhouse near Kingsville, students learn by singing about phonics and grammar. The songs spill out of the classrooms. There's one that mentions 49 prepositions. Others cover vowels, syllables and the structure of sentences.

You can hear third-graders at Redeemer conjugating Latin verbs and fourth- and fifth-graders diagramming sentences with nifty little jingles.

"We make the drills fun," says Debbie Glasgow, the reading resource teacher. "The jingles not only help kids with reading and writing, but they also help them with logic, and they add an auditory element to instruction. We involve all of the senses."

Glasgow, whose fourth-grade daughter, Elspeth, attends Redeemer, says something else that you might find surprising about Christian schools: "We try not to load our kids up with homework. We want them to have time to be children."

Sure, the children read the Bible, and they might be assigned to complete a journal entry on their favorite Bible story, but by the time these kids are ready for middle school, they've read many of the classics of children's literature: "A Wrinkle in Time," "Oliver Twist," "Little Women."

At Baltimore Christian, a 52-student school in the Pen Lucy neighborhood near Memorial Stadium, the children get a sampling of literature in a program that combines a commercial textbook series and a supplementary curriculum designed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University. It's far more sophisticated than the reading program in most city public schools.

"We want our children to learn to read early, but we don't want to neglect real literature," said Baltimore Christian's principal, Mary Beth Hardin.

Since Dick and Jane came on the scene a half-century ago, school books have featured stories manufactured for "sight reading" -- that is, for memorizing words. But the readers published by Open Court Publishing Co. -- a family-owned firm in Peru, Ill., until it was sold to a publishing conglomerate two years ago -- allow Betty Rushing's eight third-graders at Baltimore Christian to enjoy "Sleeping Beauty" and "A Tale of the Brothers Grimm."

When these kids get stuck on a word, they're able to "decode" it because they're thoroughly grounded in phonics, said Doug MacIver, a Hopkins education researcher and chairman of the Baltimore Christian board. (One of the books used at both schools is titled, appropriately, "Explode the Code.")

All of this plotting appears to have paid off. More than a third of Baltimore Christian's children are on welfare, while more than half live with a single parent. Yet 79 percent of the school's first- and second-graders score above national norms on a respected reading achievement test.

"In our schools, the average child begins reading by the middle of his fifth year," said Kathleen Gerard, education director of the Maryland Association of Christian Schools -- and she doesn't mean fifth grade.

The failure of public schools to produce such results is one of the reasons Christian schools are growing by bounds and leaps. There's a zealous, almost defiant air on the campuses, as teachers and parents look over their shoulders at public schools where faculty earn twice the pay.

"I have a friend who's a principal in the city public schools," said Wilhelmina Street, Baltimore Christian's fourth-grade teacher. "She calls me and begs me to come and teach at her school. I always tell her no. This is what God wants me to do."

Disillusionment with public education was one reason for the organization of both Redeemer Classical, now in its second year, and Baltimore Christian, which was launched five years ago with five kindergartners at Faith Christian Fellowship Church on East 42nd Street.

MacIver, one of the Baltimore Christian organizers, said he was a Sunday school superintendent when he noticed "so many children were eager about learning" but couldn't read the Sunday school materials.

"That's when we started thinking about an alternative for this community," he said.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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