Test scores not affected by teaching methods Results: Two city schools set out on different courses to improve reading levels, but test results were similarly low.

October 03, 1998|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

At City Springs Elementary, where phonics ruled instruction last year, first-graders sounded out words in twice-daily reading classes, drilled relentlessly with a teacher and an aide and took ,, weekly tests.

At Lyndhurst elementary, children memorized lists of words and read aloud from storybooks; their classrooms had no aides and some teachers rarely gave diagnostic tests.

While the reading instruction at the two schools couldn't have been more different, their students' results on citywide tests released last month, it turns out, were equally mediocre.

The first-grade average at both schools was 1.4, which means the children finished the year six months below second-grade level (2.0). The schools also were a month behind the lackluster city average of 1.5.

Testing experts warn against drawing too many conclusions from standardized tests given to very young children. But the experiences at both schools seem to underscore what reading experts have been saying for years: Neither phonics alone nor a literature-rich program can give young readers everything they need.

Children need both, in the proper order -- phonics first, then literature.

The phonics drills at City Springs and the word-memorization at Lyndhurst took students only halfway to their mutual goal -- reading on grade level. The average first-graders at both schools reached the same middling mark, but they arrived at it from opposite directions.

"At the end of the year I had some kids who couldn't read what you just put in front of them, but they could read the words we knew," says Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Garrison Brodie, whose students scored in the low to middle range on the test. "I think they needed more phonics."

The two schools, threatened with state takeover and striving to raise abysmally low reading scores, had set out in September 1997 on what each hoped would be the road toward academic redemption. City Springs undertook its second year with the boot camp-tough Direct Instruction program, funded by the Abell Foundation and supervised by the Baltimore Curriculum Project. Lyndhurst rewrote its school improvement plan to stress teacher training but opted to continue reading instruction with whole-language texts, much as it and other city schools have done for the last decade.

Encouraged by progress

Though their students' scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, given in May, were not what either school had wanted, each was encouraged by the progress the children achieved.

"I had hoped we would do better," says City Springs principal Bernice Whelchel, whose students' reading scores on state tests two years ago were among the lowest in the city, "but just reaching the city average is a big accomplishment for City Springs."

Lyndhurst principal Elaine Davis retired at the end of the year and declined to be interviewed. But teachers at the West Baltimore school stressed that they believed their children benefited from the school's emphasis upon building vocabulary.

Classroom walls of the school were covered with words and children memorized lists for spelling tests each week.

Importance of variety

Like the other first-grade teachers at Lyndhurst, first-grade teacher Betty Pierce expected her students to glean the meaning of new words from the context of the stories they read. But Pierce, whose students' scores were the highest at Lyndhurst, also recognized that her students needed to learn how to "sound out" words to be able to read fluently.

A veteran of 30 years, Pierce used a homemade kit of plastic animals and cardboard letters to teach phonics until mid-year when phonics books were purchased for first-graders.

For Pierce, variety was important. "Different children learn in different ways," Pierce said. "With the variety I gave them, every child got something that would help them."

Poverty's effects

Lyndhurst, like most city schools, this year will use the phonics-based Open Court curriculum to teach reading. Brodie and Pierce say they welcome the new program's formalized training in phonics, but they worry that its structure doesn't leave enough time for their free-form vocabulary lessons.

"Last year what I did was 10 percent to maybe 20 percent phonics," says Brodie. "This year is like 90 percent phonics. I love the new phonics program, but I'm not sure how it will affect the children to not have the vocabulary."

City Springs, by contrast, relied almost exclusively on phonics, teaching its students to recognize letters, then words. The drills were stripped down to the essentials to avoid confusing young readers. Lessons built one upon the other.

The vocabulary, too, was purposefully constrained, as students were introduced to words only after they had mastered the sounds they comprised. In this way, even the weakest students learned to decipher simple sentences.

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