Professor is unwavering on importance of phonics

The Education Beat

Mentor: Loyola College's Donald B. Hofler, who taught many reading teachers and prospective teachers about the advantages of the learning method, retires.

April 23, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

DONALD B. HOFLER taught his last college class Monday evening, so Loyola College students will hereafter be deprived of watching the professor write on the chalkboard upside down and backward with both hands simultaneously.

That little trick is one of Hofler's trademarks. He's been teaching reading courses to Loyola education students since 1973, so hundreds of teachers, principals and professors in Maryland -- a couple of generations of abecedarians -- have seen the routine.

About to turn 66, Hofler retired last year. Loyola made him professor emeritus and asked him to come back for one last run around the track, teaching a graduate course in reading foundations.

Lecturing with a dictionary always at hand, Hofler is an authority on the history of the English alphabet, the sounds of the letters, and on the construction of words. They're spelled the way they are, he insists, because they sound the way they do. Phonics is the application of sound to printed symbols, or letters, and it's a necessity in the teaching of reading.

Once you master that concept, Hofler's course becomes a series of revelations.

Many native Baltimoreans turn "sink" into "zink" for a reason: The letters s and z are consonant cognates, Hofler says, pronounced similarly and often confused by children and adults.

It's critical that reading teachers know the cognates, Hofler says, because it will help them understand the mistakes children make in reading and spelling. What many educators call invented spelling is interpretive spelling. It's children writing what they hear.

(Two days after Hofler's lecture on cognates, I see "favorite" spelled "vavorite" in a second-grader's journal in Anne Arundel County, and I know why: "f" and "v" are cognates.)

All of this might seem obscure, if not trivial, but Hofler insists teachers need to know the rules of phonics to teach reading. When he asks his 20 graduate students, most of them working teachers, if they were taught about cognates as undergraduates, not a hand goes up.

"He's taught me how to recognize the mistakes," says Hannah Heller, 42, a teacher at Woodstock Job Corps Center who is taking Hofler's last course.

Hofler devotes about a third of the time in his reading courses to phonics, more than most education professors. "For almost three decades, he's helped hold us on a steady course," says Loyola Professor Donald J. Reitz, 67. "While everyone else was going to whole language and who knows what else, Don was sticking fast to the importance of phonics."

Nor does Hofler hesitate to discuss controversies. Teachers want structure, he says, "yet how do they teach reading? Without structure."

He dismisses whole language, the philosophy that children learn to read through exposure to literature. "The trouble with whole language teachers is that they don't know anything about language." All that "feel-good stuff," says Hofler, isn't teaching kids to read. "There is no correlation between achievement in reading and self-esteem," he declares.

Another neglected aspect of reading instruction in most schools, Hofler says, is vocabulary-building. "The mother of learning is repetition. The father of learning is vocabulary," he says.

A favorite target of Hofler's is the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. MSPAP, he tells his students, was conceived by people who don't know what they're doing. Many of the MSPAP reading exercises are too advanced for the grades in which they're tested.

MSPAP, says Hofler, "has turned Maryland into a state with a curriculum driven by an assessment. We're testing the curriculum, not the children."

A native of Baltimore, Hofler was twice held back in school as a boy, not graduating from Southern High until he was age 20. He says he got into reading when he discovered his two sons couldn't read textbooks.

To this day, father and sons are poor spellers, Hofler says, "although reading was never my problem. Something in my neurological makeup makes it difficult for me to write. I have trouble sequencing."

That may explain why Hofler, with all those years in academe, never earned a doctorate, never got the promotion to full professor that goes with the highest degree. Ever the contrarian, he says: "I didn't want to be corrupted."

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