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The Education Beat

Conclusion: Over the years, `Reading By 9' has spotlighted ideas and people who inspire the mental magic of reading.

March 03, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I DON'T LOOK at it as the end of a journey, but only as a stop along the way, this last "Reading By 9" Sunday page.

Four years and almost 200 of these columns ago, The Sun launched this weekly page with a promise that we would cover reading like the dew. We would look at reading instruction that appears to be effective and try to determine why. We would celebrate reading - the birthday of Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel, was a couple of days away - but we would not let dancing in the streets obscure some very serious problems.

We knew from the first news series in "Reading By 9" in November 1997 that 70 percent to 80 percent of youngsters in the nation's cities - not to mention a disappointing number of suburban kids - left elementary school without a basic reading foundation. Was the problem their instruction? Were teachers adequately prepared to teach reading?

We said we'd put aside serious matters from time to time and have fun. We'd take the page away from the classroom, find out what kids and their parents were reading. We'd look at reading of yore, from McGuffey to Winnie-the-Pooh to Nancy Drew to Beatrix Potter and Little House on the Prairie.

We did all of that and more.

My journey took me to dozens of schools throughout Maryland and throughout the country. In Oakland, Calif., I watched kids learning to read in a school where no English was spoken. In the West Texas town of El Paso, I observed children learning to read in three languages simultaneously.

In Johnson City, Texas, I observed reading instruction in Lyndon Baines Johnson's hometown, where the principal of Johnson Elementary School - could it be called anything else? - referred to her children as "kiddos."

In an auditorium converted into three classrooms in Sacramento, Calif., I saw the Open Court reading program in action. On one wall were posted the familiar picture alphabet strips - a nose for N, a dinosaur for D and so on - that are above chalkboards in Baltimore elementary schools and all others where Open Court is used.

I watched a child learning to read in a Catholic school in Pensacola, Fla., which she was attending with a taxpayer-provided voucher.

In Asbury Park, N.J., teachers demonstrated reading in Success For All, the Towson-based school reform program now reaching more than a million children in two countries. In Charlottesville, Va., I visited a Core Knowledge school. The program is the creation of E. D. Hirsch Jr., as close to a genius as anyone I encountered on my journey.

And there were hundreds of encounters, usually enlightening, often surprising. Many of them were with educators toiling in anonymity. Others were with academics and researchers who gave generously of their time.

And then there were people like Sister Brenda Motte, a nun of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, whom I met early in the journey while she was gathering books to stock one of Baltimore's under-supplied inner-city public school libraries.

And Willie Lamouse-Smith, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor who collected 250,000 books and journals (and 34 typewriters) and sent them to Uganda. And Donald B. Hofler, a Loyola College reading professor who reads dictionaries for pleasure and keeps one at hand while he lectures.

Reading research

And G. Reid Lyon, who has one of the longest titles known to humankind. He's chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. In short, Lyon directs reading research at the NIH, an agency that's quietly been studying readers (and nonreaders) since 1965.

Lyon's couple of dozen research centers across the country conduct scientific studies of reading, including examinations of how the brain functions while a person is reading - or having trouble reading. Yet little of the NIH research has been translated to classroom practice, largely because, until recently, few educators had heard of Lyon and his agency.

That's changed with the Bush administration, however. Lyon has emerged as the president's chief adviser on reading, and the new federal No Child Left Behind Act is sprinkled with references to "scientifically based reading research," apparently the only research the federal government now will support financially. All of this makes the silver-haired former Vietnam helicopter pilot a Very Important Person - and one to watch.

A few of those I encountered are no longer with us. Margaret Byrd Rawson died last year at age 102, having devoted her long life to the study of the learning disorder dyslexia. Peter W. Jusczyk, a Johns Hopkins University psychologist who studied how children acquire language, died in August, too young at age 53. And though I never met Jeanne S. Chall, I wrote an appreciation of her after her death in 1999.

I had admired Chall for decades. In 1967, her research demonstrated the necessity of systematic phonics in reading instruction. And she never wavered.

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