First phonics, then literature: a pattern for pupils in Baltimore Board weighs books that stress 'decoding' and critical thinking


It's a marriage that city school officials hope will combine the best of textbook families.

Interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller and his staff recommended last week that $3.8 million in new textbook funds be split between a strong phonics-based textbook series and a traditional series rich in children's literature.

One partner would be Open Court Publishing Co., whose phonics-oriented Collections for Young Scholars would be used citywide in kindergarten through second grade.

Then the other partner, Houghton Mifflin's Invitations to Literacy, would carry students through the fifth grade.

The thinking, as Schiller explained it, is that urban students need direct, systematic instruction in the sounds and structure of the English language as early as possible. Then they need to focus on critical thinking - a skill taught well in the Houghton series and required for success in the third- and fifth-grade tests of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

The school board is expected to decide Tuesday whether to accept the staff recommendation. This is the first major textbook purchase in a decade. For a system where 88 percent of third-graders fail to meet state reading standards, the decision is crucial.

Already, there has been controversy.

First, a 35-member panel of city educators recommended in March that the system adopt either Houghton or Macmillan/McGraw-Hill in all elementary grades. Macmillan is another literature-based program used in some Baltimore schools.

In late April, officials changed direction and reopened the competition. When Schiller presented the Open Court-Houghton marriage to the school board last Tuesday, he and his staff were peppered with questions, particularly about whether it makes sense to tie together two very different programs.

To help shed light on the deliberations, The Sun asked expert reading researchers, professors and teachers - local and national - to review first-grade materials presented by four publishers seeking the lucrative Baltimore contract.

Most panel members recommended two "direct instruction" programs - Open Court and SRA Reading Mastery - as best for Baltimore children in the early grades. A majority favored Open Court as more applicable to the general student population and more palatable to teachers.

Cracking 'the code'

The crucial question is how well the books help students "crack the code" of the English language. Not all phonics, the experts say, is good phonics.

One school of thought, to which Schiller subscribes, favors the direct instruction approach for early elementary school. Both Open Court and Reading Mastery teach explicit phonics - they introduce letter sounds in isolation, ask children to blend them together to form words and proceed systematically through the stages of reading.

"The assumption is that children who are learning to read need to have great facility with the code," said Barbara Fox, a reading expert at North Carolina State University. "They need to know how letters and sounds relate, and understand how letters are patterned and how patterns of letters represent sounds."

The other camp favors the all-things-to-all-children approach of mainstream publishers Houghton and Macmillan.

Dual approach

Phonics - the "code," as some call it - gets attention in the Houghton series, and more has been added in the 1999 edition the publisher is offering Baltimore. But it is taught implicitly, researchers say, a more roundabout method that often starts with a story, pulls out clusters of letters or words and only then teaches children letter sounds.

Houghton places equal attention on "comprehension" - understanding the meaning of words. It introduces simple stories even as it teaches beginning phonics, before children can read the majority of words, and it stresses literary activities - predicting, for example, what happens next in a story.

"After all," said Gwen Durden-Simmons, a Houghton Mifflin vice president, "we're being judged on comprehension. The third-grade MSPAP test in Maryland requires it."

A split over methods

Underlying these arguments is a split between educators who operate on long-standing theories and experiences and those who insist on methods validated through independent, reliable research.

In response to public outcry in recent years over low reading test scores, educators and policy-makers in many states are demanding "research-based instruction."

That can mean several things. On one level, it means a program that has been field-tested in classrooms before it's published. On another level, it means a program that has performed well when compared with others in controlled studies. Only a handful of programs fit that category.

It can also mean a program that has been developed by researchers seeking to put into practice proven findings - not theories - about how good readers learn to read.

Despite nearly 30 years of studies showing the importance of phonemic awareness and early phonics - studies that heavily favor the approaches of Open Court and Reading Mastery - many of the findings have been ignored by education colleges, schools and textbook publishers.

In part, that's because teachers' experiences may be at odds with the research. In the past decade, many teachers were trained with "whole language," which emphasizes engaging literature over phonics.

Many veteran educators also disregard the research because it seems to contradict their experiences in the classroom. Some teachers and administrators, for example, argue that some children are "visual" readers - they appear to learn by sight reading, or memorizing whole words - and therefore phonics wouldn't teach them to read.

Recent studies, though, have demonstrated that all children learn to read by decoding - breaking words into sounds - even if they do it intuitively. But often those who need explicit phonics most are children from low-income families, who often come to school without the language experiences of their more well-off peers.

Adapting to needs

"One of the things we're battling is how to adapt a reading program to our special needs," Schiller said. He means the city's 18,000 special education students and its huge number of children in poverty.

In many cases, he said, "they're placed in special education because this regular education program is failing them."

Another reason the research has not had as much impact is that many educators regard phonics as repetitive and boring. Open Court and Reading Mastery have taken great pains to counter that impression, but it won't go away.

"[Reading Mastery] works with kids," said city school board member Dorothy G. Siegel. "The problem is with teachers. I don't see how a reasonably bright teacher could survive after a couple of years of it."

Reading Mastery, with its scripted directions for teachers, often has been termed "teacher-proof," an expression that demeans teachers and is firmly rejected by the program's publisher and proponents.

The program is being piloted in some Baltimore schools, but is widely disparaged by city educators, and some fear that in a school system that has had trouble dictating policy from headquarters, many teachers would sabotage the program by simply ignoring it.

If the city adopts both Open Court and Houghton, children entering the third grade will experience a transition that worries some.

"Wouldn't be better with a series that goes K-5?" asked Siegel.

At Tuesday's meeting, she and other board members also questioned whether the Houghton materials would offer enough phonics for third-graders already struggling in reading. Diagnostic tests given last fall found city students on average two grade levels behind by the fifth grade.

Assistant Superintendent Clarissa B. Evans said Houghton Mifflin's package includes materials designed to intervene with students not reading at grade level.

One thing is sure. No matter which publisher - or publishers - are chosen, staff training will be required.

"Any of the materials will work for you if they're implemented by knowledgeable teachers," said Searetha Smith, the system's new chief academic officer.

Teaching teachers

All four publishers submitted plans for workshops, after-school sessions with administrators and parents, and expert consultants on call 24 hours a day. Houghton's "staff development" proposal is particularly detailed, including a company-paid trip to headquarters in Boston for a select group of teachers.

Most agree that the quality of teaching is more important than any textbook.

"When push comes to shove, the teacher is the key," said North Carolina State's Fox. "A wonderful teacher will do great with the weakest program, and a weak teacher will do poorly with the best materials."

Schiller agrees. "It goes back to teaching our teachers," he said. "It is not just a purchase of materials, butt a wholesale retraining of our staff so that they can be more effective at teaching reading."

Experts rate the programs

Textbook -- Transition and Review Guide

Publisher -- Open Court Publishing, SRA/McGraw-Hill

Title -- Collections for Young Scholars

Market -- Sixth most popular reading series last year, with 6 percent of national sales. Used in suburban and urban districts, including Howard County, 22 Baltimore schools and Sacramento County, Calif.

Summary -- Most reviewers picked this series as the top choice for Baltimore, citing its long history of phonics-based instruction, proof of effectiveness, research-driven lessons and engaging literature. Series has more research backing than most of its rivals. Recent federally sponsored study in Houston area found first- and second-graders taught with Open Court far outperformed peers who were given other reading programs. Students taught with Open Court have shown significant gains in schools in California, New York and other states.

Strengths -- * Emphasis on crucial precursors to reading: print awareness (reading from left to right, what's a word); phonemic awareness (recognizing that the language is made of individual sounds) and explicit phonics (direct teaching that sounds are connected to letters that blend together to form words).

* Good systematic sequence, requiring students to master simple concepts before moving on to the more complex.

* Children can sound out almost all words in stories, enabling them to practice each new skill.

* Scripted program that guides teachers through phonics instruction that many have not received in college training. "This series is easy to navigate with little interpretation left for the teacher to try to understand what should happen next in the lesson," said reviewer David Chard.


Teacher introduces short 'a' with a card that shows a lamb and a story that helps kids remember the sound: "I'm Pam the lamb, I am. This is how I tell my Mommy where I am. a a a a a."

Weaknesses -- * Concern that the phonics program moves too quickly for poor, inner-city children who come to school with inadequate language training.

* Mixed reviews on comprehension. Three reviewers thought the early first-grade program devotes too little time to authentic literature and strategies for summarizing and predicting. Others said the program wisely focuses on decoding in early first grade so children can quickly begin reading literature independently.

Textbook -- Teacher's Guide

Publisher -- SRA/McGraw-Hill

Title -- Reading Mastery

Market -- Less than 1 percent of national sales last year. Used primarily in urban districts with many "at-risk" students. Used in 11 Baltimore schools.

Summary -- Of the reading programs considered, this has the most data to support claims of success. Reading Mastery won out over eight other programs in a federally sponsored study of 14,000 children during the 1970s. It has outperformed other programs in more recent studies, and been extensively field-tested. Most reviewers ranked it second highest after Open Court, for Baltimore. But many teachers feel confined by its highly scripted approach and therefore abandon it.

Strengths -- * Track record of success in teaching children to read, particularly in poor, urban settings. Constant assessment ensures that children master each skill.

* Children get to practice phonics skills by reading stories in which they can sound out all the words.

* Well-regarded for teacher training and monitoring from central office. Once-a-week conference calls to discuss strategy.


The script tells the teacher exactly what to say in its well-paced, explicit instruction. (Italic shows what teacher says to children, roman type shows her instructions from book).

First you're going to say a word slowly without stopping between the sounds. Then you're going to say the word fast.

Listen. Hold up a finger for each sound. Say (pause) rrraaammm. Get ready. Hold up a finger for each sound. Rrraaammm.

Again. Get ready. Hold up a finger for each sound. Rrraaammm.

Say it fast. (hand signal) Ram. Yes, ram.

Weaknesses -- * The program focuses narrowly on the mechanics of reading and requires schools to add supplementary literature to teach sophisticated comprehension strategies.

* May move too slowly for some children; perhaps best used as an alternative for struggling readers.

* Because vocabulary is so highly controlled, some reviewers found the stories boring and literal, lacking figurative language. "We know that reading is more than just blending sounds and words and what color the goat was," said reviewer Kathleen Brown. "We want kids to deeply dig into the text and to be able to read interpretively."

Textbook -- Teacher's Book

Publisher -- Houghton Mifflin

Title -- Invitations to Literacy

Market -- The largest-selling reading series in the nation, with 21 percent of sales last year, according to Education Market Research. Used in hundreds of districts, including Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Frederick and Howard, and the District of Columbia.

Summary -- Popular reading series that's rich in literature, strong in teaching children to gain meaning from stories - but gives less emphasis to direct teaching of sounds and letters and how they blend to form words. Mostly informal and anecdotal evidence of program's effectiveness. Publisher reports good preliminary results from five-year, in-house evaluation and from independent studies of "Early Success" program for struggling readers.

Strengths -- * Award-winning children's literature designed to engage students in reading.

* Balance of fiction and nonfiction; the latter is especially important for disadvantaged children who need to develop background knowledge.

* Early and continuous focus on strategies to help children think critically about stories, and build background knowledge and oral vocabulary by asking them to discuss, summarize and predict. "There are abundant examples of setting the context for the story and relating the story to children's lives," said reviewer David Chard.


To develop critical thinking about the story "One Red Rooster," children are asked to discuss how the pages they just read are like the pages in the beginning of the book, what new farm animals appear, what sounds they make and so on. Later, students are urged to check their comprehension, asking themselves, "Did anything confuse me? What did I do to #F understand what I read?"

Weaknesses -- * Phonics is implicit with a less direct approach that teaches letter sounds as part of letter clusters or words. Researchers say that method is less effective than explicit instruction.

* Program urges use of context - the rest of the sentence - and picture clues to help children figure out unfamiliar words. "The research says poor readers rely on context and good readers don't," said reviewer Barbara Fox.

* The program inadequately links phonics instruction and literature, and does not provide enough stories with words that children can sound out, reviewers said. "Children entering first grade who are not already reading and do not have excellent memory skills will have serious difficulty," said reviewer Patricia Mathes.

Textbook -- Read All About It!

Publisher -- Macmillan/McGraw-Hill

Title -- Spotlight on Literacy

Market -- Third most popular reading series nationally last year, with 11 percent of sales. Used in many districts, including Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and 10 Baltimore city schools.

Summary -- This colorful reading series is rich in literature and effective at developing comprehension strategies and vocabulary. Criticized by reviewers for failure to emphasize direct, systematic phonics. Offers "Spotlight Books" with simpler text designed for "intervention" with poor readers. Publisher did not provide data about effectiveness.

Strengths -- * Strong on interesting stories by respected children's authors. "The stories are about things kids can relate to," with a plot, a setting, a problem and a resolution, said reviewer Barbara Livermon. "In the beginning of first grade, comprehension is secondary to decoding, but it's important to get them ready for comprehension with quality literature."

* Good humor, exemplified by inclusion of story titled "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

* Imaginative approaches; Children read the Cinderella plot in an ancient Chinese tale and one with the same plot from Africa.

* Workbooks reinforce thinking skills needed for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.


Children read a story about tigers, then are asked: "Look at the picture of the tiger on page 5. Why is it hard for other animals to see the tiger clearly?" Such emphasis on reasoning is considered essential for MSPAP success.

Weaknesses -- * Though publisher calls the phonics instruction "explicit and systematic," most experts disagreed. They said the instruction is often implicit.

* ittle relationship between the phonics instruction and stories, so children aren't practicing decoding enough and aren't well equipped to read the literature they're given. "It appears as if the program encourages memorization of the text by having the teachers re-read the selections with students until they can read text independently," said reviewer Marcy Stein.

* Children can avoid attacking words phonetically because they are encouraged to use context and picture clues.

The experts

Twelve reading experts, at The Sun's request, evaluated first-grade reading materials for the reading series being considered for Baltimore schools.

The reviewers were recommended by peers and were familiar with current research. In some cases, time constraints and limited access to the books kept reviewers from analyzing all four programs.

While there were disagreements, the comments included above reflect the consensus on key points.

The reviewers were:

Linda Baker, professor of psychology and reading researcher, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Kathleen J. Brown, assistant professor, reading researcher, University of Utah.

David Chard, assistant professor and reading researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

Barbara J. Fox, professor, author and reading researcher at North Carolina State University.

Barbara Johnson, program specialist, Monterey County (Calif.) Special Education Local Plan Area.

Ora Sterling King, reading researcher and professor of education at Coppin State College.

Barbara Livermon, professor at College of Notre Dame and co-author of the Success for All program at the Johns Hopkins University.

Patricia Mathes, assistant professor, reading researcher at Florida State University; member of federal network of researchers who advise school districts.

Louisa Moats, reading researcher, project director of a federally funded study comparing four reading programs, including Open Court, SRA Reading Mastery and Houghton Mifflin.

Pamela Myette, associate professor, College of Notre Dame.

Sara Porter, retired reading specialist, Baltimore County public schools.

Marcy Stein, assistant professor and researcher, University of Washington, Tacoma. (Stein has been a consultant for SRA and has trained teachers in the use of Reading Mastery.)

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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