Harford County school officials have never been eager to follow educational fads -- and, at least when it comes to reading, parents and teachers are grateful.
"Harford has always been kind of slow to change, and when whole language came on, we weren't quick to take on that change," says Sandra Wallis, Harford schools' former supervisor English and language arts.
"When many other counties were eliminating reading specialists, were actually adding more to the schools," she says. "Reading has always been a very high priority in Harford."
Harford officials believe they are one of two counties -- the other being Howard -- on track toward meeting the state goals of having 70 percent of pupils reading satisfactorily by 2000.
To achieve this, they have begun a system-wide one-on-one tutorial program for first- and second-graders, dubbed REACH -- for Reading Achievement.
It features reading specialists who work with pupils and assist teachers in staff development, and uses a curriculum that emphasizes phonics, or word decoding.
The system has a separate program for kindergartners identified as potential problem readers -- a program in which teachers meet with small groups of pupils for 15 to 20 minutes to work on phonetic reading.
To address reading problems among fifth- and eighth-graders, Wallis says that, over the past year, county schools have increased use of a small-group tutoring program focusing on improving reading comprehension.
These efforts appear to be working. Since 1993, Harford's third-grade state reading scores have risen 18 percentage points, fifth-grade scores have risen more than 25 percentage points and eighth-grade scores are up more than 4 percentage points.
Harford schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas says that while administrators consider all subjects important, the county has had a long-standing focus on reading -- one supported by teachers and parents.
"Most educators will tell you that a person must be able to read and write well to broaden their understanding in any content area," Haas says. "Nowadays, students have to be able to read multiple works and synthesize the information."
At Forest Lakes Elementary School, which opened in Forest Hill last fall, Jennifer Palmer's first-grade class sails through a language arts lesson one recent day. Palmer uses a "magic wand" as pupils anxiously raise their hands for the opportunity to place silent letters at the end of words and change their meanings.
'The blended strategy'
"When you read and you are using the blended strategy to sound words out, one of the things you look for is a silent letter," Palmer tells her pupils. "That silent letter can change the sound."
As her class uses "mumbling voices" to read their books quietly to themselves, Palmer -- who recently passed a rigorous months-long evaluation to become one of 13 teachers in the state to receive national certification -- says she and other teachers meet several times during the school year to discuss their teaching and how to better teach phonics.
She says that meeting with other teachers has helped her sharpen her lesson plans. Without the mix of phonics and whole language -- of word decoding and literature comprehension -- that Harford has promoted, Palmer says, some of her pupils would be lost.
"My university teaching was whole-language-based, and the minute I started teaching my supervisor started working with me in the areas where I needed the most assistance," including in phonics, says Palmer, who has been teaching for six years.
"My personal feeling is that phonics is very important and you have to have it," Palmer says. "If you teach all phonics, you are going to lose about 30 percent of the kids, and if you teach all whole language, you will lose 30 percent of the kids.
"There isn't one right way to teach, and what a teacher has to do is identify what each student needs."
That approach drives the county's REACH program, the county's tutoring program.
At Magnolia Elementary School in Joppa, reading specialist Julie Thomas coordinates seven instructional assistants who work one-on-one with five pupils each for 35-minute periods as part of REACH.
Along the way, the pupils develop a close relationship with the assistants and more confidence in their reading, Thomas says.
'They get excited'
"They get excited when they come here and they can be successful in their reading," Thomas says. "It does a lot for the children."
One recent morning, second-grader Kevin Clark reads aloud to Kathy Voso. Kevin runs his finger along the words as he says them aloud.
"Did you see the seals," he reads.
"Good reading voice," Voso says, urging him on. "You are doing really well, Kevin."
Parents of REACH pupils are required to sign their children's homework.
Barbara Dettbarn, of Bel Air Middle School's PTA, says area parents have always demanded that phonics be taught in the schools.