Backing phonics as a reading tool

The Education Beat

Change: A California school board member seeks to reform reading instruction with a "systematic, direct" approach rather than "whole language" philosophy.

April 08, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MARION JOSEPH wasn't surprised by Friday's news that the nation's reading scores were still in the tank in 2000, virtually unchanged, on average, since the early 1990s.

"What I see is a lot of activity," said the 74-year-old California school board member, who is perhaps the nation's foremost reading reformer, "but not activity that's clearly focused. Furthermore, there's been no change at all in the [teachers] colleges. So, frankly, I would have been shocked if there had been major improvement."

But Joseph is hopeful. In the Baltimore area a few days ago to speak to the Maryland branch of the International Dyslexia Association, the self-described pit bull - she stands about 5 feet tall and speaks her mind freely - said there's plenty going on in her home state besides the power crisis.

The California State Board of Education, of which Joseph is the senior member, has established tough, phonics-oriented standards in reading instruction.

In January, the board will approve millions of dollars in textbook purchases, and Joseph said major publishers are offering books that promote "strong, systematic, direct" instruction. That's a major change for the better, Joseph said, but not unexpected in light of California's huge influence in the textbook market.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles and Oakland have joined Sacramento in tossing out the "whole language" philosophy and adopting phonics-based reading programs.

For Joseph, January's textbook adoption will culminate a decade of campaigning that began when she discovered that her grandson (who lives with her in Menlo Park) couldn't read his schoolbooks. If the pendulum has swung nearly all the way along the arc from whole language to phonics, we can thank - or blame - Joseph.

In her Baltimore talk last month at a Timonium hotel, called "One Woman's Initiative," Joseph urged members of the dyslexia association to join her campaign. Keep a close eye on reading textbook adoptions like the one going on in Baltimore County, she urged. Follow the money from federal reading initiatives "to make sure it's spent on programs driven by research evidence." Put pressure on college and university education schools, which she said appear to be impervious to reform, at least in California.

Above all, she said, don't be afraid to speak out. "Ten years ago, we were working in unfurrowed ground, but now lots of things are growing. No one dreamed it would be this difficult."

One woman asked Joseph whether the "people who don't get it are obstinate, evil or ignorant."

"All of the above," Joseph smiled. "But mostly they're uninformed."

Questionnaire results

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress administers a national test, it asks pupils to fill out a questionnaire. Here are some of the things learned from fourth-graders who took the NAEP reading test in the spring of 2000:

Fourth-graders who reported reading more pages daily in school and for homework had higher average scores than students who reported reading fewer pages daily.

Too much homework isn't productive. Pupils who reported spending a moderate amount of time on homework - a half hour or one hour daily - had higher scores than those who reported spending more than an hour with the books.

The percentage of pupils who reported in 2000 that they did not have homework was lower than it had been in 1992 and 1994.

Fourth-graders who reported that their teachers never or hardly ever helped them break words into parts scored higher than their peers who reported receiving such help daily or weekly.

Fourth-graders who reported that their teachers helped them understand new words on a weekly or monthly basis scored higher than those who said they got this help daily, never or hardly ever.

Pupils who reported reading for fun in their spare time had higher reading scores - and in 2000, three-quarters of American fourth-graders reported reading for fun at least weekly.

In 2000, 61 percent of fourth-grade pupils reported talking about what they were reading with family or friends at least weekly.

Not surprisingly, television was a negative influence. Kids who watched television three or fewer hours each day outperformed those who watched more television. The percentage of pupils who reported watching four or more hours daily decreased between 1994 and 2000, while the percentage of moderate viewers - three hours or fewer - increased.

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