Report spells out needs on reading Prepared teachers, proper instruction in early grades are key

March 19, 1998|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most reading problems in American schools, often blamed on poverty or learning disabilities, could be avoided with nothing fancier than proper instruction by well-trained teachers in preschool and early grades, says a two-year study by a National Academy of Sciences panel.

The 344-page report, released at a news conference here yesterday, is considered a watershed in the vitriolic reading debate: It represents a consensus of 17 researchers and educators who span the ideological spectrum.

"The findings send the nation's parents and educators a clear signal that we need to move beyond the contentious reading debate and focus on how children learn to read," said U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley.

For decades, reading instruction has swung between two disparate methods -- whole language, which emphasizes literature, and phonics, which teaches children to sound out words.

The $1 million study recommends dramatic reform in education colleges, public schools and preschool programs such as Head Start. It says teachers need better training, both in college and throughout their careers; states should toughen requirements for teacher certification; and textbook publishers should be required prove the effectiveness of their programs.

In calling for an end to the reading wars, the report reviews the vast body of research on reading and translates it into advice for schools and parents -- urging them to teach the mix of skills children need at each stage of development, beginning at birth.

Preschool teachers and parents can give children a big boost simply by talking with them, reading aloud and singing nursery rhymes, the report says.

Good classroom instruction in kindergarten through second grade is "the single best weapon against reading failure," transcending the impact of the child's home life or even tutoring, the report says.

Though some children need more intensive lessons than others, all children must first understand the sounds of the language and how letters represent those sounds and combine to form words. And they need to read stories regularly that help them practice their skills, read fluently and expand their vocabularies, says the report.

"We know an awful lot" about what prevents reading failure, said committee Chairman Catherine Snow, a Harvard professor, "enough to move ahead with improving the likelihood of success in reading for children in this country, and we ought to do that."

Low scores

The study comes as educators around the country are being criticized for low reading scores. In 1994, 40 percent of fourth-graders scored below grade level on a nationwide reading test; Maryland's students ranked just below the national average.

While literacy rates haven't changed much in the past 30 years, society demands more, Snow said. "The educational careers of between 25 and 40 percent of all American children are imperiled because they do not read well enough, quickly enough or easily enough to perform well in middle and secondary school," she said.

Despite the panel's efforts at conciliation, don't look for a truce yet. The report already has drawn praise and criticism from both camps.

Gerald S. Coles, an educational psychologist in Ithaca, N.Y., who writes about literacy, said the panel was stacked in favor of pro-phonics researchers. Commenting on a summary of the report that he pulled up on the Internet yesterday, he said: "It's clearly skewed toward an emphasis on word sounds, phonics and phonological awareness [recognizing that words are made of many sounds]. The research is not there to support that."

'Mixed bag'

Kenneth Goodman, University of Arizona professor and a leader in the whole language movement called the report a "mixed bag." Though he's happy with recommendations to surround children with good literature and teach bilingual children to read in their native language, he said the report is part of a national movement that is using legislation to force schools to teach phonics.

But from the other side, Louisa Cook Moats, an expert in teacher training who is conducting clinical studies in nine Washington schools, said that while the report did a commendable job synthesizing volumes of research, it didn't go far enough in stressing the importance of phonemic awareness and explicit phonics in early stages of reading.

"There's still this whole untouched issue of accountability in teacher preparation and classroom practice that isn't sufficiently addressed in the report," she said. "It leaves a lot of wiggle room for the status quo to continue."

Officials from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded part of the study, praised the report for its comprehensiveness, but said it didn't probe the key question many educators are waiting to have answered: which research should they trust?

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