Bold reading reforms bog down in colleges

Phonics: The Maryland superintendent's ambitious drive to improve reading instruction hits snags in the state's teacher colleges.

May 13, 2001|By Mike Bowler | By Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Maryland moved to put muscle where there had been flab in reading instruction in the state's public schools -- by greatly increasing the number of college reading courses required of almost all teachers and those waiting in the wings at the state's education schools.

It was a bold initiative, heralded as the toughest in the nation.

But even though the state called for significant improvements at its teacher colleges, the changes have been agonizingly slow, according to educators and state officials.

The almost glacial pace can be attributed, in part, to the reluctance of some of Maryland's key teacher training schools to raise their standards -- particularly to give greater emphasis to systematic phonics and other methods now widely recognized as essential to beginning reading instruction.

Schools in Baltimore and Prince George's County and special education classes across the state have suffered.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick acknowledges that many Maryland colleges have dragged their feet in response to her drive for teachers who are better trained in reading instruction.

Her staff rejected many colleges' initial plans for the new courses.

They said at least one school, Salisbury State University, just dressed up some of its old courses with new titles rather than rewriting them.

"Unfortunately, it's still very uneven," Grasmick says. "We're nowhere near where we want to be, but we're far ahead of where we would have been had we done nothing.

"What is not happening on a grand scale is having people in the colleges who embrace the new knowledge about phonics and phonemic awareness."

Phonics is the relationship between letters and their sounds, and phonemic awareness is the skill of deciphering basic language sounds. National experts agree that children need to develop that awareness to be able to read.

To be sure, reading instruction is taking a higher priority in many Maryland schools these days as compared with three years ago, thanks to several of Grasmick's related initiatives.

But it's still very common for newly minted teachers to arrive in schools across the state inadequately prepared to teach reading -- the first and probably most important skill.

Ask Ann W. Mintz, a reading authority in Howard County schools. Four years ago, she told a congressional committee that "too many beginning teachers ... lack an understanding of what good reading instruction entails."

These days, she adds: "I'm sorry to say that ... I haven't seen much improvement."

As a result, glaring differences in content and focus persist among the state's 22 teacher-training schools.

For example, teachers-to-be at Loyola College spend as much as 40 percent of their basic reading instruction courses learning about phonics and the structure of the English language.

But at the single largest source of new Maryland teachers, Towson University, future teachers in two early-literacy courses attended by a Sun reporter last year were given only brief overviews of linguistics, phonics, phonemic awareness and the latest research on how the brain responds to reading.

Instead, they spent hours on such activities as constructing "family literacy bags," reading to each other, keeping journals of their student teaching experiences, and acting out popular children's stories in a "reading theater."

In one of these two main courses about beginning reading instruction, a phonics textbook was recommended but not required.

Learn on the job

As a result, some of the most earnest and brightest of the 500 or so new teachers graduating from Towson each year would be hard pressed to claim they are prepared to teach reading.

They'll have to learn on the job.

Alison Howell, 24, is one of them. Weeks after graduating cum laude in January from Towson and receiving three job offers, she found herself overwhelmed with 29 third-graders at Jessup Elementary School in Anne Arundel County -- her first solo teaching job.

Howell says she's thankful that Rosemary Thompson, Jessup's principal, assigned a veteran reading specialist as her mentor. "Alison is going to be an excellent teacher," Thompson says, "but she's not a finished product."

At Towson, Howell got strong grades and learned a lot about classroom management, writing lesson plans, setting up learning stations, child psychology and children's literature. "She has the heart of a teacher," says one of her professors, Patricia Waters.

But in her classes and at the university's "professional development" school where she worked under experienced teachers in public school settings before graduating, Howell learned very little about the basic structure of language, the research on the best methods of teaching reading and the emerging science behind those methods.

Neither did she learn much about phonics-based reading programs commonly used in Maryland, such as Open Court, Direct Instruction and Success for All.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.