Phonics experiment has sound of success

The Education Beat

California: In the second year the Open Court program has been used in some high-poverty schools, youngsters are excited about reading.

February 07, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- They dressed the program in edu-talk.

The Packard Foundation would sponsor a "major initiative to support systematic and explicit reading instruction in selected California school districts." The goal would be "replicable evidence for the actual outcomes of clearly defined educational practices."

Translation: The foundation would finance a phonics reading program that could be copied.

The result in classrooms in this capital city: Halfway through the project's second school year, kindergartners in high-poverty schools know the alphabet and are well on their way to reading proficiency.

First-year testing last spring showed good results, particularly in first grade. In a tour of several Sacramento schools late last month, I saw on first-graders' faces the expressions that make teaching (and writing about it) worthwhile. These are kids experiencing the epiphany of reading.

Many teachers are happy, too. Maybe it's the "Hawthorne effect." Maybe good things are happening in Sacramento, Inglewood, Fremont and 24 other California school districts because educators are aware that this is a grand experiment. Or perhaps the difference is the $15 million that billionaire David Packard, son of the late electronics pioneer, is spending yearly on a "read by age 9" effort known as the Reading Lions project.

That's $15 million on top of regular operating expenses. It's $15 million targeted at classrooms that, by state law, can have no more than 20 pupils in early grades.

There's a reason the Reading Lions project is of interest to Baltimore. The 211 schools in the California experiment are using Open Court, the book series and program adopted last spring for beginning readers in Baltimore's 120 elementaries.

Open Court, with its heavy emphasis on phonics, has a beefy body of research to back it up. Of the four reading programs under consideration in Baltimore last spring, Open Court was rated No. 1 by a national panel of reading experts convened by The Sun.

But Open Court is only the sixth most popular commercial reading program in U.S. schools. Critics say it doesn't stress "comprehension" adequately, that it's too drill-oriented.

Those critics should see the excitement in Sacramento. They should see 5- and 6-year-olds learning that the English language has a good deal of magic about it -- along with the rules they must learn. When a kindergartner in a school with a 65 percent poverty rate points at an Open Court "sound card" for the letter "n" and observes that "kn" makes the same sound, something remarkable is happening.

Reading Lions "is the first serious attempt to bring us out of the doldrums," says Marion Joseph, 71, a Menlo Park grandmother widely credited (and blamed) for steering California schools in the direction of phonics. Her doldrum is "whole language," the free-for-all reading philosophy that swept the Golden State in the mid-1980s. Now whole language is out, phonics in, as the pendulum swings once more.

"Open Court gives legs to readers. All the others give crutches," says Joseph, a member of the California state school board who helped persuade Packard to finance Reading Lions.

A former college professor of Greek and Latin whose interests range from restoring old movies to collecting the writing of Benjamin Franklin on CD-ROM, Packard says any program that helps beginning readers break the code of the English language would do as well as Open Court. That includes Direct Instruction, used in 18 Baltimore schools.

"I'm ready to be convinced that Open Court works in the first grade," Packard says. "About the higher grades, I'm not so sure."

Reading Lions will have to be weaned from Packard financing. He has no intention of writing checks forever, the philanthropist says a bit crustily.

But thanks to Packard's money, what California has that Baltimore doesn't is a network of "coaches," roughly one for every two schools. The coaches, experienced reading teachers thoroughly trained in the Open Court method, act as mentors to reading teachers. "The coaches become the defenders, almost the den mothers, of the teachers," says Betty J. Flanary, a Reading Lions coordinator.

A little more than halfway through the first year with Open Court in Baltimore, reports are encouraging. Some teachers have continued the old ways, I've heard, but Flanary says the same is true in California.

"So far, I'm really encouraged," says Tom Bowmann, principal of Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore, where 47 percent of pupils scored at or above grade level in reading last spring. "We have set 70 percent as our goal by next spring. If we don't do it, we should be held accountable."

A few million from a generous foundation might help. Breathes there a David Packard clone on the right coast?

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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