Gains in reading go 'beyond phonics' Advice: An education expert tells state officials that a comprehensive approach is needed to improve reading results.

March 26, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

A national reading expert challenged Maryland educators and policy-makers yesterday to be bolder in their attempts at reforming reading instruction.

Not only should Maryland increase teacher requirements, as has been proposed, but it should also institute proficiency tests for teachers, Louisa Cook Moats, a teacher-training expert, told the Maryland State Board of Education.

"I would make a plea to be bold to delineate what it is that teachers need to know and do," Moats told the board during its regular meeting. "We need to be very clear about how complex this is and what it takes to learn it and what curricula work better than others. This goes way beyond phonics.

"I think it's an appropriate role of a body like yours to delineate what a comprehensive reading program should include."

Moats made a case for tougher standards for students and teachers, for continued training and evaluation of classroom teachers and for attention to reading research -- much of which shows that beginning readers need "phoneme awareness," the realization that words are made up of individual sounds, and that as many as 95 percent of poor readers can become proficient with the right mix of the phonics and whole-language methods.

Her advice comes as the state board grapples with contentious changes in teacher-training requirements and awaits recommendations from a task force that has been studying reading instruction across the state for a year.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she found the presentation "extremely reaffirming" of the state department's plans for improving teacher training and, ultimately, reading instruction.

Moats is a director of a five-year study of reading instruction in Washington and Houston. That job takes her into classrooms daily and shows her the struggles of teachers not properly prepared to teach reading, she told the board.

"I was in a classroom yesterday where 'arm' was being used as an example of long 'a' [long vowels say their name, as in the 'a' in 'name' but not in 'arm'], and where youngsters were being coached that the last sound in 'slow' was 'wuh.'

"The teacher doesn't know why there's a 'w' in slow and that it's not heard," Moats said. "We have let that teacher down by leaving it up to chance and by assuming that people who can read know all that stuff."

Many researchers pin the blame for the nation's reading woes on colleges inadequately preparing teachers.

In June, the state board will vote to require reading courses for all teachers, instead of just those in primary and elementary education, and to as much as quadruple the number of required courses for those planning to teach in the early grades.

The regulations would also stipulate some of the content of those courses, such as how reading skills are acquired and how testing can be used to improve instruction.

The state now requires only one course for elementary certification (though many schools require more) and no reading courses for middle or high school certification.

Representatives of some of the state's college and universities are balking at the added courses, saying they would lengthen some students' college careers by a year and not necessarily ensure better teaching. They are expected to oppose the changes at a May hearing.

The state board is also considering a tool the colleges prefer -- a proficiency test that would evaluate what teachers know and how well they can practice it.

Though Moats would not comment specifically on Maryland's plan, she did advocate a combination of more courses and evaluation.

She also called for standards, saying, "It is not sufficient to rely on educators' claims that they teach phonics or some other structure without some criteria for how it's done well."

But some members of the state board were skeptical of Moats' advice.

"The thing that worries me is the very persuasive things you are doing is one-size-fits-all," said Walter Sondheim, whose 1989 education commission spurred many of the reforms taking place in Maryland.

"A method that works well with 80 percent of the students can throw 20 percent of the students into the garbage can to which they are not entitled," Sondheim said. "You've got to give teachers flexibility."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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