Literacy experts declare a truce

Panel supports mix of reading approaches

May 26, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A group of the nation's top literacy experts declared an end yesterday to the decades-long "reading wars," issuing a set of precise expectations for what youngsters across the country should learn in their earliest years of school.

The 22-member "New Standards" panel -- deliberately drawn from the leadership of the opposing whole language and phonics approaches to beginning reading instruction -- said the two widely divergent methods can coexist in a teaching program for kindergarten through third grade.

In a nod to the whole language approach, the group's new set of "primary literacy standards" gives equal billing to reading and writing -- calling for kindergarten pupils to write every day.

In line with the phonics method, the standards also emphasize that youngsters learning to read must first develop knowledge of letters and their sounds and eventually learn how words are made up of individual sounds.

Many states and school systems have developed new guidelines for teaching reading and other disciplines in recent years, but the national standards released yesterday go beyond these general statements. They give concrete examples of expected performance levels -- making it easier for teachers and parents to tell whether children are performing to expectations.

The standards will be published this summer and be made available at a minimal cost to schools, said Phil Daro, executive director of New Standards, the Washington organization that convened the panel. He added that a version for parents will be developed for sale.

Maryland educators, under pressure to strengthen reading instruction, are working on their own reading instruction standards, due for approval by the state school board this summer.

"We'll be anxious to look at these new guidelines and see how they align with what we're doing," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's superintendent of schools. "We're hoping they'll be very close, but we can always learn."

The efforts to outline clear expectations for how well children should read by the third grade -- and how to bring them to that level -- underscore rising national concern over the poor marks of young children on reading tests in early grades. In response, many states and school systems in recent years have declared a goal of teaching virtually all of their pupils to read adequately by the end of the third grade.

Daro said building "literacy habits" in the primary grades is crucial because children move from oral learning to learning by reading during those years. Young children need to read about 1 million words a year to confront enough new words to build their vocabularies adequately, he said.

When phonics and whole language proponents were consulted before the project, Daro said, practitioners from both camps complained that 90 percent of reading instruction was improper. Panel members took a year to smooth over their sharp differences.

"What happened here is that individuals who have been egged on by champions elsewhere ended up in the same room quite prepared to be governed by what research really says," said Marc S. Tucker, co-director of New Standards.

Release of the standards follows by more than a year a National Research Council report calling for a "balanced" approach to reading instruction.

Sounding out words, as in the phonics method, and learning to appreciate the beauty of language through literature, as in the whole language method, can occur simultaneously in a classroom, the council report says, and that theme is repeated in the new standards. Five of the New Standards panelists helped write the research council report.

New Standards, however, did not consult some of the standard-bearers on both sides of the reading wars. Kenneth Goodman, a retired University of Arizona professor known as the "father" of whole language, said he knew nothing about the project. Also neglected were leaders of the National Right to Read Foundation, ardent proponents of the phonics method.

"The notion that there is one specific way to teach a child to read is an absurdity," Goodman said. He fears the standards "might be written into the laws of states and localities, something that I see happening" with the National Research Council recommendations. "That should never, ever happen," he said.

G. Reid Lyon, chief of reading research for the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, praised the standards.

"If there's anything we've learned, it's that standards are critical, and every profession from neurosurgery to hair cutting has standards," he said. "The major issue here is how to integrate a philosophy -- whole language -- with an empirical approach to teaching -- phonics. In my estimation, New Standards has managed to accomplish this."

At the kindergarten level, the standards urge that pupils memorize at least 20 words by sight, high-frequency words the children encounter in their everyday lives. "Each student may know a different set of words," the standards say.

In writing, actual student work accompanied by expert commentary illustrates each standard.

A kindergarten narrative beginning, "I WiT to my Gamo s Has" -- I went to my grandma's house -- for example, meets the standards because the author, Jill, tells a story, presents a sequence of events and includes a drawing illustrating the trip to Grandma's. Moreover, words in Jill's narrative "are represented phonetically with some consistency."

New Standards is a joint program of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Its work is financed by foundations, dues from member organizations and the federal government.

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