In a back-to-basics shift, some Howard County public schools for the first time in years will return this fall to a stress on teaching students to read via direct drills in phonics.
More than a quarter of the county's elementary schools plan this school year to offer to some of their beginning readers more intensive instruction in phonics, a traditional method that
teaches children to decode words by sounding out letters and certain letter combinations.
The move is in line with a national trend as school districts across the country are tempering their reliance on the more recently developed "whole-language" approach to reading instruction, which stresses reading for content and deciphering the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context.
In Howard, the step back to phonics follows a successful one-year pilot program involving direct phonics instruction during the last school year at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup -- a program that many other principals say they now will try to duplicate at their own schools this school year.
As a result of that pilot, books from the publisher most closely identified with phonics have been placed on the Howard school system's approved list for the first time, and schools this summer have been lining up to buy them.
The local sales representative for Open Court Publishing Co. says 10 of the county's 32 elementary schools have told her they intend to purchase books from her, assuming they can scrape together the money.
"We've been trying to get listed with the Howard County schools for a long time, and finally this is the year," said Mary McAdoo of Columbia. "But I guess it's not surprising given the changes that are going on across the country. Howard County is just part of the trend that we're seeing elsewhere in Maryland and in other states."
The decision by individual elementary schools to incorporate more phonics into their curriculum does not mean that Howard County will abandon the whole-language method of teaching reading. That approach -- rising in popularity across the country since the 1970s -- aims to generate interest in reading by exposing students to literature and opportunities for creative writing.
Howard school officials maintain that phonics always has remained part of the county's standard reading curriculum, and the new emphasis on phonics this year in some schools only will serve as a supplement for students entering school with little instruction at home.
But at least one area elementary-education expert sees the shift as substantial.
"Given that Howard County long has been teaching reading through a holistic approach, I am quite surprised about this change," said Bess Altwerger, an associate professor of
elementary education at Towson State University, who specializes in early reading.
"Open Court always has been associated with a very phonics-oriented program that teaches isolated skills. That's not what Howard County has been about."
But some parents and teachers are welcoming more phonics.
"Any time you carry anything to an extreme, I think you create problems," said school board member Stephen Bounds, who campaigned for office last year on a "back-to-basics" theme.
'Gone to an extreme'
"From talking to parents, a lot of them believe the school system has gone to an extreme and abandoned phonics. Clearly, there's a lot good about phonics. It has taught many, many kids. . . . I'm extremely pleased with these changes," he said.
Even school officials who insist that Howard has maintained a balance between whole language and phonics now acknowledge that something needs to be done to inject more phonics instruction into some classrooms.
"Perhaps there's a perception out there by teachers that the teaching of phonics is somehow prohibited, but in reality that has never been the case," said Edward E. Alexander, the instructional director of the county's elementary schools. "We at the central office may have indirectly given out that message, but it was not intentional."
That unintentional message likely was sent in such publications as a January 1994 report to the school board on the status of Howard's language arts program. The report documented the widespread changes in the way students are being taught to read, essentially describing Howard's approach to teaching reading as a model of the whole-language program.
"Classroom instruction has changed from using materials such as graded language and spelling textbooks, basal readers with controlled vocabulary, and workbooks and ditto sheets to an emphasis on having students read authentic literature, respond in reading journals, react to important issues in small literature discussion groups, and learn grammar and spelling rules based on grade-level expectations and individual writing needs," the report said.
New research into reading instruction "helped to place phonics instruction in its proper place: No longer the center of early reading instruction but one of three crucial ways to make meaning from unknown print," the report said.
Just last month, a Howard school system report on "curriculum overload" contained complaints from teachers who "indicated that there is not enough specific direction for the teaching of reading."
The report -- compiled from interviews with the teachers at every elementary school in the county -- found that too many competing objectives were distracting from direct reading instruction. For example, the report said, "some teachers
indicated that when they integrated social studies and language arts, reading time was lost."
Distracted from phonics
In the face of this strong bent toward the whole-language approach, some Howard teachers have continued to stick by phonics drills anyway. But Donna Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at Columbia's Bryant Woods Elementary, understands how many county teachers have become distracted from focusing on phonics.
When she entered Howard schools eight years ago, she said, "it all was whole language, whole language, whole language. . . . The good teachers know that you need a blend of phonics and whole language. But I can understand how the newer teachers can be a bit overwhelmed by all of the materials. They might have trouble including enough phonics."
The new reading materials from Open Court Publishing should address at least some of those problems, said Ann W. Mintz, the school system's supervisor of elementary language arts.
"An experienced teacher can teach reading using a variety of approaches and can easily put together different materials," Ms. Mintz said.
"But a lot of people, including many of the newer teachers, like the security of having some direction, and Open Court can provide some of that direction for phonics instruction."
The actual decision to order Open Court materials has been made independently by each school, without prodding from the central administration. Several principals who plan to use Open Court materials in their schools said they first learned that they could buy the books after reading a profile of the Bollman Bridge pilot program this spring in The Sun.
A significant commitment
At least 10 elementary schools either have placed orders for some materials from the company or said they intend to do so -- a significant commitment given the relatively few discretionary dollars that principals have to purchase new books.
Ms. Mintz also has ordered some books from the company to distribute to other schools out of her central office.
Principals and teachers say they plan to use Open Court primarily for first- and second-grade students who haven't learned phonics at home. Open Court's fifth-grade series of readers also is popular among principals and teachers because the subjects covered in its readers mesh with the county's social studies curriculum.
At Bollman Bridge, teachers and administrators estimated as many as half of their beginning readers -- and of those throughout the county -- could benefit from the stricter phonics instruction.
"Open Court has a sequence of skills to be learned that appears to be excellent for students who come in without a strong reading background," said Jackie Lazarewicz, principal at Clemens Crossing Elementary School.
She has ordered enough books for 25 students for next year and plans for teachers to share the materials.
"It will be interesting to see how it works and how the teachers adapt it for their classrooms."
The inclusion of more phonics into Howard schools comes at a time when schools across the nation are reconsidering the wisdom of their wholesale adoption of newer approaches to teaching beginning reading.
For example, California -- long considered a pioneer in novel approaches to teaching -- began reforming its curriculum this year after top educators there declared that the schools had swung too far from traditional instructional methods in such subjects as reading and math.
The California school superintendent has appointed a task force to study how to inject more traditional skills into the reading curriculum, and the state's lawmakers have passed bipartisan legislation requiring schools to place more emphasis on basic skills instruction.
Howard County elementary schools using phonics-oriented materials from Open Court Publishing Co. or expressing interest in ordering them for the fall include:
* Bollman Bridge
* Bryant Woods
* Clemens Crossing
* Deep Run
* Phelps Luck
* Stevens Forest
* Thunder Hill