Phonics gets credit for rise in test scores Instructional change in Baltimore County raises reading results

August 25, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The sharp improvements in test scores of Baltimore County's beginning readers has given phonics supporters a significant boost as they try to restore the teaching of sounds and letters to Maryland's classrooms, educators say.

"I really feel it underscores the importance of phonics," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "I am extremely encouraged by these results."

Grasmick expects Baltimore County's gains to be duplicated in school districts across Maryland as the state's effort to add more phonics to early reading instruction takes hold and teachers receive more and better training.

Results from this spring's basic skills exams showed that 85 percent of the county's first- and second-graders were reading at or above grade level -- an increase of more than 20 percentage points from the start of the 1997-1998 school year.

Scores improved in all of Baltimore County's 100 elementary schools, and educators attributed the gains to a shift in reading instruction that formally began in the 1996-1997 school year.

The program developed by county educators -- called "word identification" -- relies heavily on phonics, a prescribed sequence of instruction in letter-sound relationships for beginning readers.

As children become more proficient in decoding words, the program calls for teachers to use more literature from the whole language approach, which had dominated the county's reading curriculum.

"Baltimore County's program is more in keeping with what the research says you should do," said Samuel C. Stringfield, a research scientist with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools and a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel that studied reading. "They are clearly moving to what's called a balanced approach, and that ought to bring better scores."

Ambitious goal

The effort to put more phonics into Baltimore County's reading instruction began soon after Anthony G. Marchione became the district's superintendent in 1995. He has set the ambitious goal for all second-graders to be reading on grade level by the end of the 1998-1999 school year.

"I believe we can do it," Marchione said last week when he announced the latest test scores. "The scores should improve with every year that the students and teachers have to work in the program."

The county's sharp improvements in reading scores after two years of experience with the word-identification program come as little surprise to educators familiar with training teachers.

"When you have any new program in education, it is going to take teachers more than one school year to become comfortable with it," said Linda Baker, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County psychology professor who studies the teaching of reading. "After teachers receive the training and understand what they're expected to do, that's when you begin to see results."

Success at Essex

That's what happened at Essex Elementary School. At the start of the 1997-1998 school year, 39 percent of first-graders were reading at or above grade level. By spring, that figure had jumped to 74 percent.

"We have excellent teachers who are becoming comfortable with the very structured word-identification program," said Essex Principal James Wolgamott. "Now that they have the experience and the training, we're seeing the kind of results that we like."

Grasmick expects to see improved scores across Maryland as new reading programs become more established in other school districts and more phonics is used to help beginning readers.

A task force that she appointed has been working to develop a new statewide framework for teaching children to read. Earlier this month, she rejected a draft of the task force's report because it did not appear to rely on research into proven methods of teaching reading, such as phonics.

With Baltimore County's recent gains, Grasmick said she expects it will be easier for her to sell other educators on the value of phonics and the need to give more training to teachers.

"I'll be able to say, 'Look, it's working,' " she said. "It is very, very encouraging to see that kind of instruction being successful."

Baltimore County reading scores

Here are the percentages of Baltimore County first- and second-graders who were reading on or above grade level according to tests given in fall 1997 and spring 1998. First-graders took the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test and second-graders took the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills.

................. 1st gr .. 2nd gr

School .......... Fa Sp .... Fa Sp

Arbutus ......... 46 81 .... 71 84

Baltimore Hlnds.. 22 82 .... 41 72

Battle Grove .... 61 89 .... 53 82

Bear Creek ...... 66 87 .... 61 83

Bedford ......... 37 95 .... 77 90

Berkshire ....... 63 83 .... 68 82

Carney .......... 52 87 .... 77 94

Carroll Manor ... 87 99 .... 88 97

Catonsville ..... 68 88 .... 77 87

Cedarmere ....... 59 83 .... 91 96

Chadwick ........ 59 72 .... 53 80

Chapel Hill ..... 53 90 .... 71 84

Charlesmont ..... 67 91 .... 64 80

Chase ........... 33 82 .... 53 81

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