Prince George's faces own debate on phonics County school board to vote tomorrow, one week after Baltimore


On cue, first-graders in Simone Jordan's class at Chillum Elementary School in Prince George's County rattle off a list of "ick" words: pick, sick, trick, kick, lick, chick.

"Remember, 'pick' is not the same as 'peck,' " Jordan tells them. "A mother chick would not give a 'pick,' but she would give a 'peck.' "

Her class is learning to read with what educators in this Washington suburb call a "balanced literacy" approach.

It mixes phonics -- sounding out words -- and whole language methods -- relying on literature and pictures to give a child clues to a word's meaning.

Tomorrow night, after much debate about heavy use of phonics in Prince George's County schools, the school board is to decide whether to spend $4 million on a Houghton Mifflin textbook series called Invitations to Literacy, which some board members worry does not provide enough phonics instruction for kindergartners and first- and second-graders.

The debate mirrors concerns of the Baltimore school board, which last week decided to use the Houghton Mifflin series in grades three through five but a separate phonics-based book for kindergarten through grade two.

"I hope that we will take a similar approach as Baltimore and review other series before we make a decision," said board member Marilynn Bland during a meeting last week. "I have no objection to the upper grades using it, but I am concerned that there is not a good systemic approach in K-2 so that the children can sound out all the words."

Like Baltimore students, those in Prince George's performed miserably on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program's reading tests last year.

Only 24.3 percent of third-graders and 25.6 percent of fifth-graders performed satisfactorily on the test, compared with statewide averages of 36.8 percent of third-graders and 35.6 of fifth-graders. The Houghton Mifflin series is strong in comprehension, experts found.

Last month, as the debate continued in Baltimore, The Sun asked a panel of experts to review four series of books, including Open Court's Collections for Young Scholars and the Houghton Mifflin series.

The experts found that the Houghton Mifflin books help students think critically about stories and build background knowledge and vocabulary. Phonics, they said, is taught implicitly in a method that starts with a story and pulls out clusters of words or letters, and then teaches children letter sounds.

The Open Court series, although strong in phonics, got mixed reviews for comprehension -- a crucial test-taking skill.

Pat Miller, the Prince George's County schools supervisor for reading and language arts who worked on the 33-member committee that chose the Houghton Mifflin series, said panelists were looking for more than phonics.

"Houghton Mifflin is stronger in reading for performing a task, and it has a more balanced approach to reading," she said. "It has spelling, grammar, comprehension and writing activities."

Ten schools in Prince George's, including Chillum Elementary, have been using the Houghton Mifflin series for about two years. Early reviews were not promising.

"We had a lot of problems with them in the beginning," said Martha Emmons, a reading specialist at Chillum. "There were words in the book that were too advanced for first-graders. It was more of a whole-language approach."

But adding a series of "little books" -- storybooks about family, friends and other juvenile themes, provided by Houghton Mifflin -- improved the picture.

Teacher Debora Litt criticized the Open Court books because writing was introduced too late.

Board member Suzanne M. Ploughman said she is not opposed to the Houghton Mifflin series or to what she calls a "balanced approach" to reading that the books seem to offer -- but more has to be done to teach reading during the crucial kindergarten-through-second-grade years.

"It's also a shame that we are so driven by the test scores," she said.

While the school board is also considering a proposal that would make phonics as well as grammatical structure and context the official components of reading instruction, some teachers wonder why such a proposal is necessary. They have always taught phonics to some degree.

Kathy McComms, using a combination of reading techniques, is turning her kindergartners at Patuxent Elementary in Upper Marlboro into book lovers.

She begins her morning lesson by reading "Five Little Ducks" to her 15 students. They pick out all the "d"-sounding words and all the "ut" words -- cut, hut and put -- for phonics practice. Then they make up sentences with those words in their journals.

"The duaks are going to Andre's hom," one little boy writes.

McComms draws a smiley face and writes "Wow" on his paper.

"That's the nice thing about whole language," said Mary Hend-ley, a reading specialist at the school. "They can write before they can spell it."

Students are cheated out of a crucial learning experience such as reading good books, teachers say, if phonics is the only method.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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