Reading professionals are on the move. Spurred on in part by money promised in the recently signed federal education act to upgrade elementary schoolchildren’s skills, they feel confident if not always in strict agreement about teaching methods that work.
Among other things, the act, called No Child Left Behind, increases Title I funding for disadvantaged children, provides new funding for reading instruction and invests in the training and retention of high-quality teachers. This is done to ensure that as many public schoolchildren as possible will read at or above grade level by third grade.
The fact that successful methods to teach reading already exist may be news to a large number of people concerned about literacy rates and falling scores in public schools. It is decidedly not news for Barbara Laster, an associate professor of reading, special education and instructional technology at Towson University in Baltimore County.
“It may take longer for some children [to learn] because brains work differently,” she says. “The only people I can’t teach to read have profound mental retardation.”
Grade three is critical, Mrs. Laster points out, as “the time when you hope the majority of kids can learn to be fluent readers.” The tender years are vitally important, she notes, but “learning to read at age 2 doesn’t mean better readers at age 6. Parents need to talk to kids and engage them in oral language in order for them to be good at written language. If kids are denied oral language development, they will have a problem reading text.”
She worries, too, about overemphasis on phonics, which is teaching by phonetics or speech sounds. “Of course, you teach phonics, but if all you do is phonics, you could end up with [only] word callers,” she says, children who say words without understanding them.
Different methods are used in different situations, but she believes most formal instruction in reading should involve five stages. The first is “emergent literacy,” when a child becomes acquainted with certain conventions of text, such as knowing what a word is and that books have a front and back. This also is the stage when a child especially one in what she terms “a good, literary-rich environment” learns how text sounds.
Next comes learning words, sounds and how words go together, “the simple independent reading of very short books. This typically is done in first grade.”
The third stage is “getting to fluency,” automatically recognizing words, and the fourth stage is reading to learn and reading for pleasure, the stage when longer texts are read and the individual either gets hooked on reading or doesn’t. Typically, this stage is reached between third and fourth grade.
Last comes what Mrs. Laster calls “mature reading,” which is learning to read critically. “A lot of sixth-graders and beyond should be focusing on this; a certain cognitive development is needed to analyze multiple sources.”
*J*p(0,10,0,9.5,0,0,G)>A method of teaching reading to underachieving students was developed originally in New Zealand and is employed in many school districts in this country through the use of Title I money. Called Reading Recovery, the program for first-graders is expensive because it requires a 1-1 teacher-pupil ratio.
Teachers are trained to use special instructional materials and take periodic review courses. In addition, parents who must pledge to help children with homework are given explicit directions on how best to work with their children.
“It’s a race,” says Martha Hansen, a Reading Recovery teacher in Anne Arundel County’s Georgetown East Elementary School. She works 45 minutes a day with each of four children. Mrs. Hansen also recently began a group reading club for children who have graduated from the program and are reading at their grade level but who she feels need extra practice to continue to improve.
Class sessions are structured carefully normally each pupil has 60 lessons over 20 weeks’ time, equivalent to a semester and the teacher keeps careful records on the progress of each child. Homework includes reading several books a night and reassembling a sentence that was broken down in class in order to reinforce what has been learned about sentence structure.
“There is a very specific way we teach,” Mrs. Hansen says. “We introduce just one new concept each day, because their brains usually can’t handle more than one at a time.”
Charts are kept to detail every step a pupil takes through the process, including what kind of errors a child makes and when he or she makes a self-correction.
“That way we know what strategy each child uses and can prompt them to use another strategy for the next day. We count them up. If at a certain point the child scores less than a 95 percent accuracy rate, we know the work is too hard for them.”
The program focuses on giving children the opportunity to make their own meaningful links between reading and writing. The technique of having students read many short, predictable, patterned books is intended to develop independent problem-solving skills. Students learn how to hear sounds in words by writing simple stories. They read and reread while the teacher analyzes reading behaviors and adjusts his or her approach accordingly.
“We try to make the lessons fun and easy, but we are pushing,” Mrs. Hansen says. “It involves a very critical thinking process for the teachers.”
Most of the children she has taught this way in the past five years stayed at the appropriate grade level, she notes. Reading Recovery program materials claim that more than three-quarters of the students become competent readers and keep up with regular classroom reading and writing even after the intensive intervention has ended.
By contrast, Linda H. Butler, a reading content specialist who works out of the academic services office of the D.C. public schools, is concerned mainly with children who do not receive special attention in school. She also has worked as a professional development specialist for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, whose research is part of the federal education act.
“There are lots of questions about reading methods,” Mrs. Butler concedes. “The most important aspect of the new reading initiative is to prepare teachers. It takes a well-trained, competent teacher to teach reading, which is so complex. Not just anybody can do it. You have to be trained in the reading pedagogy of today.”
The first element needed, she says, is “the study of sounds. You then go on to phonics, decoding and comprehending language. Teachers don’t have enough information on phonics and decoding,” a process she explains as “breaking down words into sound syllables and putting them back together.”
Mrs. Butler says she spends most of her time these days “going through with school principals the six dimensions of reading awareness that came down from the National Reading Panel report.”
(The panel was chartered by Congress to examine research, including findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and draw conclusions on recommended methods for teaching reading. According to Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for research and improvement, the panel’s report is one of two main reports that were used in drafting the recently signed education act. The other was done by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences.)
“If you have these six components or dimensions of early reading instructions, your child will become proficient in reading and read at grade level and above, although there always will be children who miss the boat for reasons that may go beyond dyslexia,” the impassioned Mrs. Butler attests. “Phonics is key, but insufficient alone. Letter recognition comes in early, then comprehension and fluency, followed by vocabulary and background knowledge.
“Reading is the big focus now, but writing is important. They go hand in hand. When children read, they should respond, and writing is the best way to do that. They should do a retelling. Do something.”
Teachers observed in Mrs. Butler’s research were most effective when they remained “on task,” and reading scores reflected that, she says. “We scrutinized every minute in the classroom. Teachers don’t realize they waste time fussing and passing out ditto sheets.”
Another of the findings, she says, was that some college-level education is of poor quality. “A young kid out of college with an education degree didn’t know what a dipthong was. Can you believe it?”
Fearful of overemphasis on “scientifically researched methods” for teaching reading a phrase used about 111 times in the new education act, according to Mr. Whitehurst Mrs. Laster adds a cautionary note. “Classrooms are real-life settings. Professionals should make decisions [on what methods to use] based on who the kids are in their classroom.”