Reading session sets record Conference: Educators gathered in Towson saw evidence of strong interest in phonics, while a national report called for a balanced mix of strategies.

Education Beat

March 29, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

READING IS the hottest topic in education these days, and phonics is coming out of the closet -- quite literally.

You could see evidence of both trends the other day at the Towson Sheraton, where hundreds of reading teachers gathered for the annual conference of the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council.

Registration of 1,500 educators set a record for the 26 years the reading teachers have been gathering to discuss techniques and issues ("tiered assignments," "literacy centers in a developmental kindergarten program," "models and metaphors for strategic reading"), to mingle with textbook sellers and children's book authors and, of course, to discuss how best to teach reading.

There were so many registrants that some teachers were turned away from popular sessions, and the Sheraton was obliged to turn its first-floor men's rooms over to the women, who make up the vast majority of elementary teachers.

More than 400 educators packed into one session on phonics, while a nearby concurrent talk by the author of books for older children attracted a sparse crowd.

"We were simply amazed at the turnout and the interest in zTC beginning reading," said Marilyn Kirschner, a 32-year teacher at Taneytown Elementary School who coordinated the conference.

In the lobbies and hallways, textbooks and other reading materials on display demonstrated that publishers are beginning promote phonics unabashedly. Only a few years ago, when "whole language" was in fashion, some schools locked basal readers -- those books of simple stories and controlled vocabulary -- in the closet. Now they're coming out.

A salesman at the Scott Foresman/Addison-Wesley booth said Maryland school districts are on a textbook-buying spree after several years of stingy purchasing. (Scott Foresman, trivia buffs will recall, gave us Dick and Jane.)

What appears to be happening is that educators are feeling considerable heat from parents and the media to return phonics to its rightful place in the instructional hierarchy after a binge on whole language.

As it happened, Maryland's reading teachers convened on the same day the National Academy of Sciences released a long-awaited report on reading instruction that was painstakingly balanced to please both sides of the Great Reading Wars.

The report said effective reading instruction consists of a mix of strategies related to both "skills-based" (phonics) and "meaning-centered" (whole language) approaches.

The relief at the Towson conference was palpable. Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers University professor, author and member of the national reading panel, said she had lost sleep as the date for release of the report drew nigh.

It wasn't so much the content of the document that bothered Strickland -- she knew what it was going to say -- but rather how the media would report it. She said she was immensely relieved that news articles she had seen "used the B-word" -- B for balanced.

The International Reading Association, headquartered up Interstate 95 in Newark, Del., will never be confused with the movement in Ireland with the same acronym. The reading IRA is establishmentarian to the core.

Although it has swung with the trends in the past, the IRA is pursuing a course right down the middle. Of the several special interest groups within the organization, balanced reading is by far the most popular.

Good teachers, of course, have always known that you can't teach reading by the drill and kill of phonics to the exclusion of everything else. Good teachers have always combined phonics and literature. They've always known there's no either-or on the literacy highway.

But education, ever susceptible to fads, embraced whole language so heartily that phonics was often dismissed or shunned.

Now that phonics is making a comeback, we will have to see whether a genuine balance is achieved. Or is phonics to be the dominant reading method of the millennium, and whole language banished to the closet?

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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