Teaching reading involves more than the technique, experts say

Letting pupils go it alone important as helping hand

April 09, 2000|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When reading teachers get together, there's plenty of talk about "balance" -- how to achieve the right mix of phonics and comprehension to ensure achievement in the classroom.

But more is involved in successfully balanced reading instruction than classroom technique, said John F. O'Flahavan, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who addressed a recent statewide symposium sponsored by Maryland State Teachers Association.

"Parents, teachers and administrators need to be there to help students become better readers," said O'Flahavan, who coordinates the elementary education program at College Park. "However, if you don't eventually let them read on their own, they will become more dependent."

He made his remarks as he and Robert Slavin, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, talked to 200 teachers in New Carrollton about ways educators can best promote reading achievement.

O'Flahavan told the educators that classroom instruction needs to be consistent, especially from kindergarten through fourth grade.

"Children need to be able to make sense of their trip throughout school," he said. "It becomes difficult when you have a teacher one year who stresses interaction between the teacher and the student, and the next year the teacher stresses just lecturing."

In his remarks, Slavin cautioned teachers against thinking that instructional approaches alone will improve reading performance. He noted that despite a variety of approaches in the past 30 years -- including phonics-based learning -- test scores basically have remained the same.

"Most children will learn to read no matter what method is taught, which is why most any fad works for a while," said Slavin, who has written or co-written more than 200 articles and 18 books dealing with education.

Even so, he said, "currently, nearly 31 percent of white students aren't reading at the right level, which is not good. But 69 percent of African-Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics not reading at the right level is a crisis."

Early intervention in kindergarten and first grade is vital for success in reading, Slavin said.

His recommendations include teaching a strong language base, helping students understand what a book is and what it includes and phonemic awareness.

"There are actually only 10 percent of students who are troubled readers, and by helping them early, they won't become remedial readers and it will keep kids away from special education," he said.

While O'Flahavan agrees that early intervention is important, he stressed the importance of continuing education for teachers.

"If you educate the teachers, student improvements will follow," he said. "Schools need to do things like have after-school meetings and provide weekend workshops to help teachers be as prepared as possible in the classroom."

Nancy Jarvis, a first-grade teacher at Pot Spring Elementary School in Baltimore County, said she was reassured to hear Slavin and O'Flahavan emphasize things she knew.

"Intervention is the key," she said. "It is much easier to remediate 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds than older children. Some schools don't always have the resources, but I'm lucky that I teach at a school with a lot of volunteers who make a big difference."

But Mary Ann Morgan, an elementary school teacher in Frederick County, sees things differently. Though she agrees with O'Flahavan's ideas in theory, she said they can be difficult in practice.

"Some things are out of everyone's control," she said. "For continuing development to be successful, you need to have a stable teaching pool. But today, there are more and more teachers retiring [more] entering the field with a master's, but no educational background and young people who see teaching as just one of the many careers they will have in their lives."

O'Flahavan responded by saying schools need to develop ways to cope with the instability in the teaching profession.

"I know there are some school districts that have 30 [percent] to 40 percent turnover in their staff every year. For those schools, there needs to be mentoring systems in place, as well as putting resources into on-the-job training to help lessen the blow when turnover does occur."

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