Texas reading scores rocket Research: The Open Court reading program emphasizes explicit training in sounds and phonics, along with lots of literature.

March 15, 1998|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON -- Mention poor reading scores in the nation's schools and soon you'll hear about homes without books, parents who don't read to children, stunted vocabularies. And there's little debate: children in poverty start out behind their well-off peers.

But research now suggests that poverty offers much less of an excuse once children start school. Proper classroom instruction can bring more than 95 percent of even the poorest readers up to national averages in a year, says a study of low-income children in suburban Houston.

The success of a program among children of working-poor families in Alief -- an ethnic melange where black, Asian, Hispanic and white students exist in almost equal numbers and some street signs are written in Chinese -- offers hope to students across the country who have trouble learning to read.

The program doesn't rely on costly one-on-one tutoring or special education classes, but is designed to be taught by well-trained teachers in regular classrooms.

"It's hard for me to understand why it wouldn't be everyplace," said Kay K. Toedter, an Alief first-grade teacher whose class was part of the study. "The teacher really controls what the kids are learning."

Fifteen miles away in inner-city Houston, Ruby L. Thompson Elementary is in a follow-up study of the program, which offers a mix of explicit training in sounds and phonics and lots of literature.

The school sits in a poor neighborhood of colorful one-story homes and apartments; 83 percent of the children qualify for subsidized lunch. Of Angela Jackson-Howard's 25 first-graders, most live with only one parent, and six live in a homeless shelter.

On a recent morning in Room 113, the students -- dressed in their uniforms of dark green shirts, khaki slacks and jumpers -- seemed engaged in the lesson. In a chorus, they practiced a new sound -- "ng, ng, ng" -- as in gong, bring, finger. They surveyed a list of words on the board -- lion, candy, hammer, ostrich, drill, raisins and ponies -- deciding which represented animals, food or tools. Then they read a story called "Why, Bly," about an ostrich who's considered weird by other animals because she likes to stick her head in the sand.

At the start of the year, most of the class couldn't read simple words like "mat" and "dog." Today, all but one can read grade-level stories like "Why, Bly" fluently.

'Phonemic awareness'

The Alief study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in this month's Journal of Educational Psychology, builds on nearly 30 years of research showing that beginning readers first need "phonemic awareness," the recognition that words are made up of individual sounds. Many children don't come to school with this skill and need it explicitly taught.

The study reveals that first- and second-graders who were given direct training in sounds, sound-letter correspondences and lots practice with literature far outperformed their peers who were taught phonics less explicitly, or given a reading program that emphasized literature. Of three methods tested in 1994-1995, the one that worked best with the group of 285 students is a program called Open Court, first developed by a small family-owned company in the early 1960s.

"You can take a classroom program and get all but 4.5 percent up to the national average -- that's astounding," said Barbara R. Foorman, director of a reading center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, who led the study.

New study started

The research team is now following that study with a project in 18 schools in inner-city Houston and Washington that will track 1,800 kindergartners and first-graders through fourth grade. The new study will compare four programs: Open Court, two classroom programs that also offer explicit training -- called SRA Reading Mastery and Success for All, developed by Johns Hopkins researchers -- and a literature-based program by Houghton Mifflin.

Among the questions to be explored is whether students who get explicit phonics remain better readers as they advance through school.

Whole language backlash

Even before the Alief study was published, the findings began to influence decisions as far away as California, where plummeting test scores prompted a backlash against whole language, an instructional method that focuses on literature instead of sounding out words. At least eight California school districts from Sacramento to Santa Barbara adopted Open Court this year, and many others are testing or studying it.

But the study also reopened the emotional reading wars between advocates of phonics and advocates of whole language.

Kenneth S. Goodman, professor at the University of Arizona and a leader of the whole language movement, derided the study as "horse-race research" controlled by phonics advocates, whom he described as part of a conservative political movement. He said the Houston researchers have been stonewalling peers who want to inspect the data.

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