AUGUSTA, Maine -- Maybe it's something in the water, of which there's a plentiful supply in Maine, but the state appears to be doing something right in reading instruction.
Maine students scored at or near the top in the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests, reprising a similarly stellar performance in the 1994 version of those exams.
Yet there's no grand plan at work here. No "reform" with a fancy name. No state mandate, as in California, to install direct phonics in all reading classrooms. There's no such thing as a uniform curriculum in a state where local control is jealously guarded.
Instead, Maine teachers, more by agreement than mandate, have joined reading and writing at the hip from the earliest grades -- surrounding children with real literature. Over the past 15 years, reading textbooks -- "basals" in the lingo of educators -- have been replaced across Maine by novels, poems and compelling essays.
And Maine is holding fast to that approach in the face of a recent pendulum swing in reading instruction across the nation -- one prompted by rising concerns in the biggest states over poor reading test scores.
Maine's method retains some of the characteristics of "whole language," the philosophy that children learn to read by exposure to literature.
This is in contrast to states such as California and Texas, which lately have turned away from whole language in favor of prescribing heavier doses of phonics -- instruction in the sounds of letters and words.
"I've seen a lot of changes in 30 years," says Mary Cluff, a teacher at Hodgkins Middle School in Augusta, the state capital, "but one of the most discouraging has been having everything dictated by California, New York and Texas. Back in the '80s we started usingtrade books and putting the basals aside. We're still doing it, and we're proud of it."
One example of how Maine fuses reading and writing is evident in Cluff's eighth-grade classroom. When Wayne Clarke, 15, gets up to deliver a book report, he's already progressed through a sequence of reading and writing exercises.
First he has written a draft, then presented it to a small group of fellow students and Cluff. They ask questions and make suggestions. Clarke then returns to the drawing board and revises his piece. The product is finished only after an editing conference with the teacher.
`A learning process'
In rural Chelsea, 15 miles southeast of Augusta, it's much the same process in Natine Abreu's seventh-grade class. Abreu's 13-year-olds, dealing with a child's moving description of Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust, must accompany their reports with a drawing or photograph, and they must relate their reactions to the Holocaust.
"It's a learning process for teacher and student. Everything we do in writing is integrated with reading," says Abreu.
Adds Nancie Atwell, a Maine teacher and writer who has influenced much of the state's language arts instruction through her own small school and books: "The process makes a researcher of the teacher and of the student."
`Literature based' learning
Educators here say the shift to "literature-based" instruction occurred gradually over the past 16 years by informal consensus among teachers.
The idea is that in the evolutionary process of language, the second "R" -- writing -- actually precedes the first.
When children arrive at kindergarten, explains Brenda Power, a writing specialist at the University of Maine at Orono, they have a large oral vocabulary, but they can read or spell only a few, if any, of those words. By writing familiar words, they learn to read and spell them.
`Writing is a bridge'
"Writing is a bridge between books and the talk we hear on the playground," Power says.
With 220,000 students -- roughly the enrollment of the Baltimore City and county school systems combined -- Maine is described by Power as "a small town masquerading as a state."
Teachers are separated by vast distances, but they confer frequently, and twice a year they get together in a seminar setting to grade the writing exercises of their students in the Maine Educational Assessment.
"Those sessions are of immense value," says Atwell. "They help teachers learn so much about each other and about what their students are thinking and writing. Maine is a state where teachers read more, talk together, read together. Ironically, much of this is related to the fact that they're geographically and culturally isolated."
Teachers in other states, including Maryland and California, also grade tests, but Maine has so few students -- about 16,000 in each grade -- that teachers can complete the scoring in two sessions that give them plenty of time for discussion. (California has almost 6 million students.)
Grading sessions started in the mid-1980s in a rural camp. Today they're held in a cavernous former department store in Waterville borrowed from Maine's mail-order giant L. L. Bean.