A reading action plan for parents

September 13, 1998|By Hans K. Meeder

IN RECENT WEEKS, a new crop of children have entered Maryland's first-grade classrooms to begin the process of learning to read -- we hope.

I would like to direct the attention of every parent and teacher to an excellent new publication titled "Every Child Reading: An Action Plan."

This document was published recently by the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 major national education organizations, including the National Education Association and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. (The report can be found on the Internet at http: www.learningfirstorg/publications html).

The report clearly summarizes, in plain English, the components that must be in place for all healthy children to learn to read well. The report details how, after receiving a solid grounding in oral language and developing cognitive skills in their pre-school years, all students must learn "phonics," that is, "instruction that focuses on teaching the alphabetical principle and the sound-symbol correspondence."

Phonics in vogue

Since phonics is currently in vogue again, almost every teacher and reading specialist in our schools will answer a parent's inquiry about phonics with "Oh, yes, we teach phonics." But teachers, parents and school board members should be aware that all phonics instructional methods are not equal.

The type of phonics instruction that has helped children in Baltimore County make rapid progress in reading is clear and systematic, what can be called "explicit phonics." But much of what passes for phonics instruction throughout the state is a haphazard approach that could be called "contextual phonics."

The Learning First Alliance report points out "some teachers teach a little phonics on the side, perhaps using special materials for this purpose, while they primarily use basal reading programs that do not follow a strong sequence of phonics instruction.

Others teach phonics 'in context,' which means stopping from time to time during reading or writing instruction to point out, for example, a short 'a' or an application of the silent 'e' rule. These instructional strategies work with some children but are not consistent with evidence about how to help children, especially those who are most at risk, learn to read most effectively."

Explicit phonics

I have seen many children, including children who have supportive, attentive parents, fall behind in first-grade reading because they were not taught the alphabetic code in a clear, easy-to-follow sequence.

I know parents who had to provide phonics instruction at home because their child was receiving little, if any, clear instruction in the classroom. Parents should be reinforcing classroom instruction, not having to fill in critical gaps.

The report's executive summary states that educators should "provide all children explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and exposure to rich literature, both fiction and nonfiction."

Useful for all children

Although explicit phonics is most critical for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, that doesn't mean that clear phonics instruction isn't useful for all children.

Some children can figure out the phonetic code by themselves over time and some children can advance through phonics instruction very quickly. But still, a clear, systematic instructional approach makes sense for all children.

The debate is no longer over whether phonics should be part of reading instruction.

The issue is whether teachers will implement explicit, systematic phonics instruction that unlocks the written language for the greatest number of children, or continue to use "contextual" phonics instruction, which allows the alphabetic code to remain a mystery to many children.

If explicit instruction works best for most children, that is the kind of instruction we should provide, beginning the first day of school.

The writer is an educational policy consultant and a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates in Legislative District 13A.

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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