First phonics, then literature: a pattern for pupils in Baltimore Board weighs books that stress 'decoding' and critical thinking

May 10, 1998|By Mike Bowler and Marego Athans | Mike Bowler and Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

It's a marriage that city school officials hope will combine the best of textbook families.

Interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller and his staff recommended last week that $3.8 million in new textbook funds be split between a strong phonics-based textbook series and a traditional series rich in children's literature.

One partner would be Open Court Publishing Co., whose phonics-oriented Collections for Young Scholars would be used citywide in kindergarten through second grade.

Then the other partner, Houghton Mifflin's Invitations to Literacy, would carry students through the fifth grade.

The thinking, as Schiller explained it, is that urban students need direct, systematic instruction in the sounds and structure of the English language as early as possible. Then they need to focus on critical thinking - a skill taught well in the Houghton series and required for success in the third- and fifth-grade tests of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

The school board is expected to decide Tuesday whether to accept the staff recommendation. This is the first major textbook purchase in a decade. For a system where 88 percent of third-graders fail to meet state reading standards, the decision is crucial.

Already, there has been controversy.

First, a 35-member panel of city educators recommended in March that the system adopt either Houghton or Macmillan/McGraw-Hill in all elementary grades. Macmillan is another literature-based program used in some Baltimore schools.

In late April, officials changed direction and reopened the competition. When Schiller presented the Open Court-Houghton marriage to the school board last Tuesday, he and his staff were peppered with questions, particularly about whether it makes sense to tie together two very different programs.

To help shed light on the deliberations, The Sun asked expert reading researchers, professors and teachers - local and national - to review first-grade materials presented by four publishers seeking the lucrative Baltimore contract.

Most panel members recommended two "direct instruction" programs - Open Court and SRA Reading Mastery - as best for Baltimore children in the early grades. A majority favored Open Court as more applicable to the general student population and more palatable to teachers.

Cracking 'the code'

The crucial question is how well the books help students "crack the code" of the English language. Not all phonics, the experts say, is good phonics.

One school of thought, to which Schiller subscribes, favors the direct instruction approach for early elementary school. Both Open Court and Reading Mastery teach explicit phonics - they introduce letter sounds in isolation, ask children to blend them together to form words and proceed systematically through the stages of reading.

"The assumption is that children who are learning to read need to have great facility with the code," said Barbara Fox, a reading expert at North Carolina State University. "They need to know how letters and sounds relate, and understand how letters are patterned and how patterns of letters represent sounds."

The other camp favors the all-things-to-all-children approach of mainstream publishers Houghton and Macmillan.

Dual approach

Phonics - the "code," as some call it - gets attention in the Houghton series, and more has been added in the 1999 edition the publisher is offering Baltimore. But it is taught implicitly, researchers say, a more roundabout method that often starts with a story, pulls out clusters of letters or words and only then teaches children letter sounds.

Houghton places equal attention on "comprehension" - understanding the meaning of words. It introduces simple stories even as it teaches beginning phonics, before children can read the majority of words, and it stresses literary activities - predicting, for example, what happens next in a story.

"After all," said Gwen Durden-Simmons, a Houghton Mifflin vice president, "we're being judged on comprehension. The third-grade MSPAP test in Maryland requires it."

A split over methods

Underlying these arguments is a split between educators who operate on long-standing theories and experiences and those who insist on methods validated through independent, reliable research.

In response to public outcry in recent years over low reading test scores, educators and policy-makers in many states are demanding "research-based instruction."

That can mean several things. On one level, it means a program that has been field-tested in classrooms before it's published. On another level, it means a program that has performed well when compared with others in controlled studies. Only a handful of programs fit that category.

It can also mean a program that has been developed by researchers seeking to put into practice proven findings - not theories - about how good readers learn to read.

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