Teaching kids to read needs scientific method

The Education Beat

Campaign: Maryland aims to change the way reading is taught, using a systematic approach.

October 26, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AMONG YOGI Berra's famous malapropisms, "This is like deja vu all over again" has become a cliche.

No doubt that's why it kept coming to mind Wednesday, as 367 Maryland educators gathered at Turf Valley conference center in Ellicott City to launch a multiyear, $66 million campaign to help Maryland children learn to read.

From state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and several of the nation's eminent reading researchers, the educators heard a familiar litany:

Four of every 10 Maryland third-graders lack proficiency in reading.

Special-education programs are bursting with kids who can't read or who read poorly.

Many teachers are clueless, believing kids learn to read by osmosis.

It's not only an education crisis; it's a health and economic crisis, because 70 percent of kids who read poorly in third grade also read poorly as adults. In the upper elementary grades, the "Matthew Effect" takes hold: Good readers get better and poor readers deteriorate.

They'd heard it all before.

"Guess what," said Grasmick, kicking off the one-day conference. "Our reading scores haven't improved substantially over a 10-year period."

Which is disgraceful, given everything that's happened over that decade.

Two U.S. presidents made reading a priority. So did Grasmick and the state school board. Maryland elementary teachers were required to take new reading courses, and literacy courses were added to the teacher education curriculum.

All of it appears to have made little difference, in large part, Grasmick said, because few teachers wanted to abandon the old ways, in which reading is taught haphazardly, not in a systematic way based on scientific research.

It's as if everyone in the audience were to march over to Johns Hopkins Hospital and demand treatment, the superintendent said. If the hospital started dispensing pills without testing anyone, she said, "There would be general alarm." But that's what happens with the first R.

The shame is this: Studies show that 70 percent to 90 percent of dyslexic kids can learn to read in the average range if teachers intervene in the earliest grades.

The key is the instruction, said Jack M. Fletcher, a neuropsychologist at the University of Texas at Houston who demonstrated for the Marylanders the latest research in how the brain functions while a child is reading.

Scientists in Houston, New Haven, Conn., and elsewhere have been doing a whole lot of watching these 10 years. And, as Yogi also famously said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

A child's brain is wired for talking and walking, said Fletcher, and those two do come automatically and naturally. Not so reading. The offspring of kings, CEOs, nuclear scientists and welfare mothers - all must be taught to read by an adult, often by a teacher.

"The instructional aspects [of learning to read] are underestimated," said Fletcher.

He and his colleagues in Houston have been able to greatly improve the reading of dyslexic kids in Houston public schools in as little eight weeks. "It can be done," he said.

The latest federal initiative, known as Reading First, is different from its predecessors, said Christopher Doherty, a Baltimorean who heads the program in the U.S. Department of Education.

To get the money, he said, states had to propose a "comprehensive program instead of a little of this and a little of that." Maryland won approval from Doherty's office, but only after its first application was rejected - for proposing a little of this and a little of that.

That lack of substance may be at the base of what's been wrong these 10 years. It's not that the education establishment resisted phonics - though heaven knows it did.

Rather, it's that the establishment resisted the science of reading instruction in all of its components, from phonics to fluency and comprehension. Teaching someone to read isn't a mystery, but it's not easy.

As Yogi also said, "If you don't know where you're going, you will wind up somewhere else."

Lifesaving course for human's best friends

The Hagerstown Community College Center for Continuing Education recently announced a course on the techniques of CPR on a cat or dog.

"Every pet owner should be ready in case of emergency," said a college news release announcing the course, given for a $25 fee.

Toll observes 80th birthday on campus

John S. Toll, president of Washington College and a fixture in Maryland higher education for 40 years, turned 80 yesterday with a quiet party on the Chestertown campus.

Toll, a physicist who formerly headed what is now the University System of Maryland, will retire in the spring.


The $650,000 spent by the University of Maryland, College Park on a two-year marketing campaign in 2001 and 2002 came from privately raised funds, not from tuition revenue, as I implied in Wednesday's column.

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