Research rarely reaches teachers

EDUCATION BEAT

Science: Reading coaches look for ways to apply research in city classrooms.

November 11, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT OUGHT to be embarrassing, but few teachers understand the science of reading, and fewer still have any regular contact with those who conduct reading research.

Tom Bowmann set out to change that. Last week, the city school system's director of reading brought together Baltimore's elementary school reading coaches together and scientists from the National Institutes of Health, who know reading the way a podiatrist knows feet.

The meeting at The Forum in Northwest Baltimore was to discuss findings of the National Reading Panel, a group of experts that spent a couple of years examining a third of a century's worth of reading research, much of it conducted by scientists for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

This research, said Peggy McCardle, a branch chief at NICHHD, seldom gets into the hands of practitioners at elementary schools or colleges of education. One reason, McCardle said, is that educators don't pay a lot of attention to health agencies, which sponsor much of the reading research. But the nation's high rate of childhood illiteracy -- nearly 40 percent of elementary school children are poor readers or can't read at all -- "is a public health issue," McCardle said.

That raised eyebrows, as did McCardle's call for reform of teacher education, although, she said, the reading panel had been unable to reach "specific conclusions" about the best way to educate reading teachers.

During their Baltimore visit, McCardle and research scientist Vinita Chhabra summarized the reading panel's findings, and then the reading coaches broke into small groups to discuss ways to incorporate into classroom instruction the practices supported by proven research.

Easier said than done, of course, but this was a start, and a historic one. I know of only one other district in Maryland -- Montgomery County -- where educators have reached across the divide into the realm of research and tried to use research findings to inform their teaching practices.

Bowmann's effort to expose Baltimore teachers to nationally respected scientists is one of the bright spots in the Baltimore reading picture. The system is in its third year with citywide reading textbook series for kindergarten through grade two (Open Court) and grades three through five (Houghton Mifflin). The vast majority of elementary schools now have reading coaches, and Bowmann, installed in the summer as a high-profile reading director, is clearly fashioning a comprehensive reading program out of what had been a patchwork.

I heard some of the bad news around the tables at Tuesday's conference -- and from Bowman himself.

The reading coaches complained that turnover in the city's teaching staff makes it difficult to conduct a consistent, uniform program. "Some of [the teachers] are dropping phonics in the third grade, and some are coming in with no phonics background," said one coach.

The National Reading Panel concluded that phonics instruction significantly improves children's reading comprehension. Phonics helps children learn the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language, but those relationships have to be organized systematically and taught explicitly, according to the reading panel.

It's a tall order even for the best teachers, said Bowmann. He said he asked city kindergarten teachers how many of their pupils knew the letters of the alphabet in upper and lower case, and he asked first- and second-grade teachers how many of their children knew letter-sound relationships. "Nobody knew how many kids were getting it. Nobody knew," said Bowmann.

So city teachers now are required to keep "running records" of pupils' progress in reading, and coaches must submit detailed quarterly reports. The goal, said Bowman, is to promote no child who lacks basic reading skills.

NICHHD authorities say that with proper instruction in the early grades, the 37 percent to 38 percent of poor readers can be cut down to the 6 percent of children whose physical and mental barriers will never allow them to read proficiently.

The difference between now and only a few years ago, McCardle said, "is, we now know how to reach that goal."

Musical memories of elementary education

Reader Ruth Sadler wondered why the modern elementary music curriculum described in my column Oct. 28 seemed so "foreign."

Growing up in South Jersey during the 1950s, Sadler wrote in an e-mail, "I marched around kindergarten and first grade with rhythm sticks, triangles, tambourines and other low-grade instruments, beating time. We sang throughout elementary school, never sitting. ... Notes and fractions were discussed in fourth and fifth grade in music and arithmetic (it wasn't called math until seventh grade), whenever the concept came up. We also had music appreciation."

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