Phonics teaching gets top grade

Panel determines approach works best for all grades, pupils

Valuable and essential

April 14, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON National experts who sifted through 34 years of research on reading reported to Congress yesterday that instruction in systematic phonics is significantly more effective across all grade levels and student abilities than instruction that doesnt emphasize phonics or neglects it.

The National Reading Panel, ordered by Congress two years ago to cull from thousands of studies the most effective teaching methods, concluded that systematic phonics instruction is a valuable and essential part of a successful classroom reading program, makes better spellers of children and is especially valuable for disabled readers.

The panel said research also confirmed the effectiveness of early instruction in phonemic awareness, the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of language. Kindergarten isnt too early to start instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge of the relationships between letters and sounds the report said.

Educators said yesterdays findings are bound to hasten the recent national and local swing from the whole language approach to reading instruc tion which stresses literature and often neglects phonics to systematic phonics.

The two contrasting methods have long been the subject of an internal war among the nations educators. The latest reading research says a balanced approach that begins with phonics and then stresses good literature is generally best, and the panel took care to note that reading isnt and cant be all phonics all the time.

It also stressed that phonics, often viewed as involving too much dull drill, can be taught in an entertaining, vibrant and creative manner.

Phonics instruction is a means to an end, the report said, and programs that focus too much on the teaching of letter-sound relations and not enough on putting them to use are unlikely to be very effective.

Maryland steps

Two years ago, Maryland increased the required number of courses in reading instruction for teachers as a first step toward encouraging widespread improvement in the states stagnant reading test scores. Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland schools superintendent, said, This report should force another step with its implications for both higher education and our instructional programs.

Maryland reading test scores stagnated last year after slow but steady improvements for several years. Marylanders showed a modest gain from 1994 in the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Grasmick praised recent improvements in the reading programs of Anne Arundel, Cecil, Charles and Montgomery counties:

In Montgomery, officials have lowered reading class sizes and have fashioned their instructional program around the latest research findings, which also stress the primary role of phonics.

This school year, Arundel began a similar program called Word Masters, which provides teachers a month-by-month plan for teaching phonics. We are unifying our teachers in beginning reading instruction, said reading coordinator Ruth Bowman.

Charles and Cecil also are placing increased emphasis on beginning reading. This summer, Charles will hold a summer camp for 1,000 first- and second-graders who need help in mastering the first R.

First-time effort

The 14-member national panel on reading research of the past three decades the first time such an effort has been made was headed by Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

Langenberg, who oversees all public teacher education in Maryland, except at Morgan State University and St. Marys College, said he would try to apply the panels findings to the state university system where training in the teaching of systematic phonics and phonemic awareness is spotty at best.

The panels charge was to sift through more than 100,000 studies of reading since 1966 and narrow them to those that meet rigorous standards similar to those applied in medical and behavioral research.

A few hundred met those criteria.

In phonics, 38 of 1,373 studies since 1970 qualified. The panel found almost no reliable studies of how the education of teachers affects reading comprehension, as well as a dearth of research on comprehension among very young children.

'A lot of work to do'

Its fair to say we have a lot of work to do, said Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and professor of pediatrics at Yale University, the panels only medical representative. She has been using magnetic resonance imagery to conduct research on the brain functions of problem readers.

Shaywitz said many in educational research arent familiar with the scientific rigor of medical studies, but now we know what areas need more work.

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