Phonics program sounds like a hit

City teachers happy with new regimen

April 04, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Like other veteran elementary school teachers in Baltimore, Ellen Mass-Soltz was skeptical -- perhaps even a bit cynical -- about the new phonics-based reading textbooks bought last summer for every elementary school.

But after seven months, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School teacher says she is a believer in the new books, if not yet a crusader for them, because her children are reading and writing better than in past years.

"It is not utopia. You can't expect it to be," Mass-Soltz said. "But what I have seen is very rewarding to me."

Dawn Simon-Matthews, a young, less experienced teacher miles away at Ashburton Elementary School, has been impressed as well. In her fourth year of teaching, she had felt ambivalent when school officials handed her a third approach to reading.

But now, she says, "I like the program very much." The Open Court Publishing Co. series has helped her slower learners by giving them tools to break down words.

The selection of $3.8 million in new elementary textbooks last year appears to have been embraced by veteran and novice teachers throughout Baltimore. They say they are seeing improvements in reading, spelling and writing -- particularly in kindergarten and first grade.

If they are right, and those improvements translate into better test scores, the city school system may be about to see its first victory in the battle to reform a system labeled "academically bankrupt" by the former schools chief.

Marriage of two series

Initially criticized for its failure to include a strong phonics-based textbook among the choices from which the school board could select last year, the city school staff regrouped and recommended a marriage of two series.

Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars was chosen for its phonics and structure in the early grades, and Houghton Mifflin's Invitations to Literacy was picked for the last three elementary grades for its focus on literature and critical-thinking skills.

It was the school system's first major textbook purchase in a decade.

Houghton Mifflin representative Dana Dreher said the introduction of the series in third through fifth grades has gone well.

Mary McAdoo, a consultant for Open Court, is so confident the series is changing reading that she predicts improved standardized test scores this year for first-graders. While she says that not every teacher or every school has accepted the new approach, she believes 85 percent of the schools have done a fair or good job with the reading series.

How well Baltimore students do in the coming years is important for the publishers as well as the children.

Other urban school systems around the country will be watching whether test scores improve. And Open Court, a small, less-established reading series, could stand to benefit.

With that in mind, both publishers agreed to provide, free of charge, four full-time consultants who come in each week to coach principals and teachers.

A change in teaching

The Open Court series for kindergarten through second grade has forced many teachers in the system to change the way they teach.

Rather than memorizing words, students are required to learn the sound made for each letter and how to blend the sounds to form words.

Each teacher is given large alphabet cards to display all year in the classroom, a reading anthology, workbooks and a textbook. They must follow a daily format that dictates how and what to teach.

On any given day, thousands of the city's first-graders are supposed to be learning exactly the same lesson.

One administrator said she visited three classrooms in three schools one day and found all the students on the same lesson.

That is in sharp contrast to previous years, when each school could choose its own textbook series. More than a dozen reading textbooks were used in the system. Sometimes, first-grade teachers across the hall from one another used different teaching methods.

The different methods proved disastrous for the many children who moved from one school to another in the middle of the year.

It was a problem recognized throughout the system. Even so, many veteran teachers had found their method and were not easily persuaded to try something new.

"I have a lot of teachers on my staff who are veterans. They said, `You can't teach an old dog new tricks,' " said Jacqueline Waters-Scofield, principal at Mount Washington Elementary School.

But as the year goes on, she said, teachers have expressed satisfaction with the new programs.

Kindergartners will begin next year having mastered the sounds that letters make, and some are reading, she said. Teachers expect next year's first- and second-graders to be better prepared, and therefore able to learn to read more proficiently.

Teachers say their main concern about the new reading program is that this year's second- graders missed the phonics they needed. Teachers began the year using first-grade materials and probably won't be able to finish the second-grade readers by the end of the year.

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