Young readers left to struggle Education: Millions of students read poorly, not because they can't learn, but because schools aren't teaching them properly. The good news: The problem can be fixed by proven methods.


Laura Apicella began school with many of the right tools: a healthy IQ and a home full of books. But at Pinewood Elementary in Timonium, something went wrong.

When she read aloud, her classmates would laugh, and she'd flee the room. In second grade, she cried every morning. In third, she'd escape to the counselor's office. By fourth, she was two years behind, and other children were calling her "dummy."

"I felt stupid," says Laura, now 10 and finally learning to read in a private school. "I was glad to find out that I'm smarter than a lot of people."

Laura illustrates a terrible failing in American education: Millions of children aren't learning to read properly during the crucial early grades of school - not because they can't but because their schools aren't teaching them how.

About 40 percent of all schoolchildren are poor readers, and half of these students, like Laura, have severe problems.

Research shows that most children who haven't learned to read properly by third grade, usually age 9, are likely to be poor readers their whole lives. With that failure often comes a lifetime of disappointment and privation - and burdens for society.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers now consider reading problems a major public health threat.

"It's hard to think of an area it's not affecting - it affects the economy, the democracy and the culture," says Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan.

In Maryland, two-thirds of third-graders aren't meeting the state's chosen standard for reading, as measured by the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test, which gauges analytical skills as well as the basics.

Reading problems are most severe in Baltimore, but failure is everywhere, as shown by MSPAP reading test results in the region's school systems:

* Baltimore, 89 percent rated below satisfactory

* Baltimore County, 64 percent

* Anne Arundel County, 56 percent

* Carroll County, 53 percent

* Harford County, 53 percent

* Howard County, 47 percent

The most respected national test yields similarly bleak results. About 45 percent of Maryland's fourth-graders scored below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress - meaning they showed little or no mastery of grade-level work.

Robert E. Slavin, a leading educational researcher at the Johns Hopkins University, says such numbers of poor readers represent a national scandal: "It's shocking and awful, but it's true."

This has been so for years. But now, researchers say, it is needless. The accumulated evidence from two decades of educational and medical research supported by NIH shows most reading problems are preventable. Recent studies strongly suggest that many more children - including almost all of the poorest readers - can be taught to read in early grades with readily available methods.

If all students in kindergarten through third grade in Maryland's public schools were taught to read adequately - instead of generally reaching about 60 percent - more than 90,000 citizens would be better equipped for the 21st century.

The key, the NIH-sponsored research says, is the right kind of instruction, beginning with early and intensive training in the sounds of the language and sound-letter relationships, while exposing students to stories that engage their interest.

The research shows that this sequence of reading instruction can even succeed independent of other factors outside of school that affect learning.

"This is totally fixable," says Marilyn Jager Adams, a Harvard scholar and author of "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print," the latest bible of the reading profession.

"The data indicate that the ability to learn to read is remarkably independent of ethnicity and parental education and children's IQ," she says. "Everything we can measure says it depends on what they learn, which means it depends on what we teach them. And consistent with that, we have all these programs demonstrating that classroom instruction can make all the difference."

But reading instruction in this country has been buffeted for decades by a vitriolic war between proponents of two dramatically different methods, "phonics" and "whole language" - war in which firm evidence is often ignored in favor of fads and shifts in political winds.

In recent years, this conflict has been most apparent in Calfornia. That state adopted the whole-language approach in 1987. Test scores plummeted, spurring the state legislature in 1995 to write phonics into law. California, in turn, is now leading a national swing back toward phonics.

Phonics - the traditional approach to reading dating to the 1700s, when the Bible was the first textbook - teaches children to pronounce most printed words by breaking them into the sounds of the English language and learning how to blend these sounds into words.

For example, once young children learn how the sounds b-a-t form the word "bat," they are on their way to sounding out "hat," "cat," "fat" - and even to decoding unfamiliar words with similar sounds.

In the reading war, phonics has become a rallying point for some political conservatives and elements of the religious right. Opponents attack it for its reliance on drills, which they characterize as heartless drudgery that turns children away from reading.

By contrast, whole language, which swept this country in the 1980s after highly touted successes in New Zealand, teaches children to read by immersing them in literature. It relies on grasping whole words at once and, if need be, discerning their meanings from context or pictures - or even outright guessing. Its core belief is that a love of reading will inspire more and better reading.

Most whole-language programs include phonics lessons, but in practice these are often ignored or reduced to an inconsistent smattering of drills.

Whole language has been backed by proponents of more liberal approaches to early education. Critics attack it for failing to teach decoding skills - the sound-letter associations that are needed to connect spoken and printed words.

The result has been a fractious debate that has left teachers confused, parents angry and children unable to read.

"It's horrible," says G. Reid Lyon, a leading authority on reading and chief of the child development and behavior branch of NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda. "It's so counterproductive. It takes time away from the professional dialogue, from children in terms of getting the best practices to them.

"It really reflects the arrogance of adults on all sides," he says. "They put their own points of view and philosophies above the lives of children."

Need for phonics

The NIH-supported research involves classroom instruction studies and, more recently, physiological studies in which scientists use imaging devices to watch the brain activity of children trying to read.

The research argues strongly but not exclusively for phonics. It shows that effective instruction begins with teaching the sounds of the English language and linking these sounds quickly and accurately to letters as in phonics. At every step, children should be exposed to literature, as in the whole-language approach.

Despite the research advances, schools in the Baltimore area and around the nation have swung widely and haphazardly between phonics and whole language. Even as many of the region's school systems head back toward phonics, many schools lack proven, consistent instructional methods for teaching reading.

Experts say the heart of the problem is the poor training of teachers. Most prospective teachers take few courses in how to teach reading, and these courses have tended to promote whole language at the expense of phonics.

Concern over America's reading problems is mounting. President Clinton has proposed spending $2.75 billion over five years to get all children reading by the end of third grade, a plan that calls for training a million volunteer tutors. In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush has set a goal for children to read at grade level by third grade.

In Maryland, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has asked a task force to improve teacher education and to design a statewide reading curriculum that will include a heavy diet of phonics. Baltimore is hiring more reading specialists to try to boost test scores. Baltimore County has set a goal for every second-grader to read at grade level and last year switched to a curriculum that includes more phonics.

In the interim, parents continue to battle schools over reading instruction, hire tutors and agonize as their children lose ground. That's what the Apicellas have been going through with Laura.

Despite her average IQ, Laura was stymied by decoding the sounds of words. Private testing eventually identified her as dyslexic, an often misunderstood label that some researchers say can be applied to about 20 percent of children - in many cases, extremely bright ones - because of their severe reading problems.

The NIH-backed research indicates these perplexing problems often can be corrected by intensive instruction in sounds and phonics.

But for several years, administrators at Pinewood Elementary, Laura's school, wouldn't acknowledge her problem, says her mother, Patti Apicella: "I got a lot of 'she'll catch up' kind of thing." One administrator kept suggesting Laura take the drug Ritalin for attention deficit disorder (ADD), even though no doctor had diagnosed that, Apicella says.

Teachers recognized her problems and helped where they could. And Dena Love, now in her second year as Pinewood's principal, says the school gave Laura lots of services. Overall, the school ranks well above the county average in reading.

But Laura only recalls being mystified when it came to reading: "Every teacher had a different way of doing it. Some would say, 'Sound it out.' Some would say, 'Skip it.' Some would just tell you the word. Some would say, 'Break it down.' It was confusing."

By the end of the fourth grade, even with tutoring outside school, Laura was still floundering. She had few friends, was excluded from parties and got in playground fights almost daily. So this school year, the Apicellas enrolled Laura in the Odyssey School, a private school for dyslexics that costs almost $15,000 a year.

Already, her performance and attitude have improved. "It's almost like somebody who couldn't see and [you] gave them glasses, and they said, 'Oh, this is what the world looks like,' " Patti Apicella says. "She'd always say, 'Why can't I learn? I'm just stupid.' Now, she's only been there a month, and she sits on the deck reading all the time."

Downward spiral

If parents worry, they have good reason: When reading problems aren't caught early, they often lead to a downward spiral through high school into adulthood. Among children identified as learning disabled by the third grade, 74 percent remain disabled in 12th grade, Lyon says.

That's largely because most schools wait until the third grade to identify children for remedial classes. Starting remedial efforts then is more expensive and less effective than starting earlier: NIH-backed research shows that reading problems solved by 30 minutes a day in kindergarten and first grade require about two hours a day in third grade.

These studies don't begin to depict the pain of nonreaders. Susan Grant, a Lutherville neurolinguist who sees children from Maryland and surrounding states, describes the stages of this ,, struggle:

At first, children are simply frustrated and embarrassed. Then they start to say, "I hate to read." By fourth grade, they begin to feel isolated. They can't write a simple sentence because they can't spell. They can't do word problems in math. They start to deny their problem - they say, "I don't care. I could read if I wanted to."

Brighter children become crafty about hiding their problem behind their verbal and social skills. In groups, they let others do the reading and writing. They copy from other children. They're polite. They volunteer to help the teacher. They say to their parents: "Can you read me this story tonight? I'm too tired."

The less savvy withdraw or misbehave; some end up misdiagnosed with ADD. "You see them rubbing their hands together, tapping their feet and not looking at you," Grant says. By sixth grade, they often develop anxiety and conduct disorders or severe depression. "They really start to get angry in middle school," she says. "They think of every reason why they shouldn't go to school."

By high school, nonreaders are far more likely than their peers to drop out and get in trouble with the law. Even among those who eventually learn to read and graduate from college, the trauma often persists throughout their lives.

"Reading failure leads to school failure, and school failure is crushing," says Hopkins' Slavin. "This is their full-time job. They're not allowed to switch jobs. Imagine every single day having to do something you're not good at. It's psychological torture."

Poor readers, especially bright ones, are often invisible - even to their parents. "They can be articulate and perform well in other areas," says Grant, the neurolinguist. "You don't see their disability until they become visible by having behavioral and emotional problems."

Michael Proctor of Howard County, a seventh-grader who attends Catholic school, was perceived by his first- and second-grade teachers as lazy. His mother noticed he couldn't read the instructions for his homework. Finally, she got him the kind of tutoring he needed: help in decoding words.

"He was usually taught in a sight-word [whole-language] reading program, and he just wasn't getting it," his mother, Terry Proctor, says. "He learned the word 'plant,' and he put it in his mind, and he never learned to decode it. Nobody realized he wasn't getting it."

The NIH-sponsored research now strengthens the argument that school districts can be accountable for teaching almost all students to read. More parents these days are filing suits to get public schools to pay for tutoring, private schools or other remedial reading efforts.

"We know how to fix the problem for most of the kids who don't have a serious phonological problem," says Edward J. Kameenui, a University of Oregon expert in reading. Children don't get help, he says, "because there's no accountability. Are teachers accountable when kids fail? When a business fails, the accountability is clear. I When kids fail, we pass on the failure."

But many parents lack the resources to take on school systems.

As other sixth-graders around the Baltimore region embark on a year that may include oceanography and East Asian studies, 11-year-old Michael Yates of Northwood in Baltimore is still wrestling with the sounds of the alphabet.

He can't read the ingredients on the label of the Puppy Chow he buys for his new dog, Snowball. He can't read street signs - so when he rides the bus, he has to count stops and look for landmarks to tell him where to get off. Though he's good at math, he often has to guess at what word problems ask him to do. "I look at the numbers and try to see if I add, subtract or multiply," Michael explains.

Polite and affable, Michael loves books, especially R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series, but his mother, Patricia, has to read them to him. The most he can tackle is Dr. Seuss' "Cat in the Hat," though with mistakes, such as substituting the word "home" for "house." Despite three years of special-education classes, he reads at a first-grade level.

Michael's IQ is within the low average range - 80 to 89, meaning he is able to learn - and that score likely is artificially low because poor reading has stunted his intellect. His mother, Patricia Yates, blames his reading problems in part on a lack of phonics. She recalls his fourth-grade teacher complaining that the school system was pushing whole language.

At a tutoring program last summer, a specialist recommended a thorough evaluation of Michael's problems that could cost from $700 to $2,000 - money Patricia Yates doesn't have. "I lie awake at night thinking, 'What can I do?' " she says. "It's so depressing."

High costs

As nonreaders grow up, their lives become even more difficult.

Judy Moellman, 38, sits down to read a novel in the "Sweet Valley High" series, pronouncing it "Sweet Berry High." When she knows words, she quickly glides through sentences, but unfamiliar words stop her cold. She reads "reckless" as "redneck" and "argument" as "amazing."

The South Baltimore native is a 10th-grade dropout, a 17-year welfare veteran and a single mother raising four children on $525 a month. She's tried to earn a high school diploma about 15 times. A new federal law will kick her off welfare in four years, so she's in a literacy class.

"Your kids call you dumb and stupid because you can't spell," she says. "The only skill I have now is housecleaning."

Nowhere in the region is reading failure more rampant than Baltimore, which received its perplexing motto, "The City That Reads," during Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 1987 inauguration-day pledge to fight illiteracy. Since then, the city has worked with private groups to help 45,000 adults read. A 1992 survey found that 38 percent of Baltimore's adults read below the eighth-grade level, almost twice the state average.

Reading failure drains the region's and America's economies. Three-fourths of the nation's largest 500 firms provide remedial training for their workers, according to Investors Business Daily. A study of eight southeastern states in 1988 found illiteracy cost $57 billion a year in lost productivity and taxes, substandard work and unemployment claims, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

By some measures, American schoolchildren aren't doing that badly. In a recent survey, U.S. 9-year-olds ranked second overall in reading among students in 26 nations. And in the past 25 years, little has changed in reading performance among U.S. readers at three ages - 9, 13 and 17 - according to NAEP. But a flat curve is out of step with an increasingly demanding society.

"We used to be able to plan that a third of the kids would be illiterate. That's what we called the bottom group, the ones who got the job in the auto plant," says reading authority Richard L. Allington of the State University of New York at Albany. "Those jobs aren't there anymore. And if they are there, they have to be able to deal with robotics."

In Maryland, poor reading skills are holding back the state's economy, says David Clinch of the Maryland Business Research Partnership. Consider what Bindagraphics, a southwest Baltimore bookbinder has to do to find unskilled workers to pack cartons and feed books onto machines for $5.30 an hour.

Half its applicants can't fill out applications. "They ask us to read them sentences and explain them to them," says Chris Colehouse, Bindagraphics human resources director.

Poor reading skills have also been linked to crime. On average, inmates in Maryland prisons read at the sixth-grade level. "The frustration makes some people violent," says Gerard Anthony, an inmate who tutors fellow prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup.

The costs begin with remedial programs. Studies of "Success for All" - a phonics-based program developed by Slavin, the Hopkins researcher - show intensive instruction in early school years can cut special-education enrollment by half to three-quarters. Special-education programs usually add from $2,000 to $4,000 per pupil.

In 1995, one in eight college freshmen nationwide needed remedial reading work. Such reading, writing and math courses cost American colleges $1 billion a year, estimates David W. Breneman, an economist at the University of Virginia, including roughly $18 million a year in Maryland.

The $1 billion private remedial tutoring industry is growing by at least 20 percent annually, led by Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning System's 640 tutoring centers nationwide.

That growth comes partly from more schools contracting for remedial instruction, but experts say it is also driven by a need for better reading instruction - particularly in phonics.

This is "absolute confirmation that our schools, in general, are failing to educate the populace," says Michael T. Moe, growth stocks director at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. "The parents who can afford it are taking it in their own hands because they need to. The unfortunate thing is that many parents can't afford tutoring."

Proper instruction

Grant, the Lutherville neurolinguist, has seen about 1,000 children during the past three years - many of them affluent children who haven't learned to read. "These are children who, if they had the right instruction, wouldn't be having these problems," she says. "They weren't deprived in the home. It's an educationally driven reading disability.

"They use an intervention model instead of a prevention model," Grant says of most schools. "Nobody thinks we shouldn't prevent measles, mumps and rubella. We wiped out polio with a vaccine. Nobody thinks that isn't money well spent. Why don't we think a prevention model isn't just as important in education?

"How can you have an entire industry like Sylvan Learning Systems and say the schools are doing their job?" she says.

And it doesn't have to be that way, says Lyon at NIH. Children can be identified as poor readers as young as age 5, based on their print awareness and how they hear, remember and repeat sounds, name letters and numbers, he says.

About 5 percent of children are identified by schools as learning disabled, most with reading problems, but usually not until the third grade. NIH-backed research, however, shows that 20 percent of children have serious reading difficulties. That means many children aren't being identified - let alone given remedial training in time to make a difference.

Recent studies conclude that at least 95 percent of even the poorest readers can be taught to read at grade level, Lyon says.

"If our teachers were on the same page with respect to early reading instruction, particularly with kids who aren't picking it up, you might not even have the 5 percent - much less the 20 percent," Lyon says.

In Carroll County, the Mullikin family is living the consequences. Rebecca and Ali, nearly identical-looking girls, had similar reading problems - with widely different results.

Rebecca didn't get help early enough. Despite an average IQ, she grew up feeling inadequate and hating school. She spent three years in special-education classes, where she felt out of place. Now at 22, she still labors over printed words as she works toward a nursing degree.

By contrast, Ali, now 15, got phonics tutoring in first grade. She has thrived academically and socially, making the honor roll last year.

Their father, Philip Mullikin, who had reading problems himself, wishes he'd known how to help Rebecca earlier. "It made all the difference in the world," he says. "Ali is totally Rebecca's opposite, friendly, outgoing, quick to laugh. With Rebecca, it's still affecting her self-esteem. She's a loner. Reading has a lot to do with it."

Rebecca won't blame all her woes on her reading problems. She notes that after her family moved to Carroll County from Baltimore County, she didn't fit in with the rural crowd. But now, ++ four years out of high school and attending Frederick Community College, she wonders whether she should already be a nurse - instead of drudging through school.

She can't get all her reading done. She often fails tests because she can't read quickly enough. And she tenses at the thought of taking organic chemistry and microbiology.

"If I ever have a kid who looks like me or Al or my dad," Rebecca vows. "I'm getting them tutoring, and they're going to read when they're 2. I don't want anybody to have to suffer like I did. That's terrible."

From the editor

With this series of articles, The Sun begins a long-term campaign to shed light on the frequent failure of schools to teach children to read by the third grade, or age 9.

FUTURE articles published with the "Reading by 9" logo will explore this problem, and possible solutions, at the local, state and national levels.

These articles will include reports on individual schools and test results. The latest third-grade reading scores for every elementary school in the Baltimore area are on Page 12a.

About this series

Today: Many children aren't learning to read properly, and it doesn't have to be that way.

Tomorrow: Research backs reading instruction that begins with teaching the sounds that make up words.

Tuesday: Among school districts, schools and even classrooms within the same school, methods of reading instruction often vary widely.

Wednesday: Most teacher-training colleges don't prepare their graduates to teach beginning reading.

Call in

We'd like to hear your comments about this "Reading by 9" series. To register your opinion, call SunDial at 410-783-1800 and enter Code 6130. A full list of SunDial numbers appears on Page 2A.

To learn more

For more information about reading issues and the performance of individual schools in the Baltimore area, go to The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at

For reprints

A reprint of this series is available for $7.95 plus tax from SunSource. A full-year subscription to "Reading by 9" reprints, .. including this series, future stories and a binder, is available for $24.95. To order, call 410-332-6800.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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