'Henny Penny' becomes instructional aid Garrett County schools use mixture of methods in teaching of reading


OAKLAND -- With dramatic flair, kindergarten teacher Denise Helbig uses the story of "Henny Penny" to teach word rhyming, spelling and letter sounds.

"What letter does 'ducky' start with?" she asks her class at Garrett County's Dennett Road Elementary School, gathered on the floor around her "reading rocking chair." She writes "ducky lucky" on the chalkboard and asks, "Are these words alike?

Next up was a study of the "h" sound in "hen," and a reinforcement of rhyming and word similarities with "Henny Penny" -- the type of book Helbig likes because, she says, "It's a mix. Phonics is there, literature and fun with rhyming."

A mix also is what Garrett's school system has adopted in its encounter with the great debate over reading instruction methods: phonics vs. whole language.

Garrett school board member Patrick Riley, who is unabashedly pro-phonics, recalls feeling "a little bit like a Lone Ranger" when he proposed phonics-based reading instruction three years ago.

Phonics had not become a big issue around the state, and his proposal brought a sharp retort from the Garrett County Teachers Association -- which accused board members of imposing "their own narrow views" on residents and warning that it would "restrict the free flow of ideas and methods of instruction."

The compromise set of goals adopted by the board incorporated aspects of both sides in the debate by calling for "intensive reading instruction in which students learn decoding strategies, including phonetic analysis, while the students' reading comprehensive skills are developed."

Today, school administrators, teachers and Riley -- who became the board's president this year -- agree that phonics is being taught in Garrett, but to what extent remains questionable.

"We could debate whether it is rigorous, explicit, phonetic-based reading instruction," Riley says.

Since 1972, he notes, Garrett schools have used an instructional program called AlphaTime that emphasizes letter-sound relationships. And in 1991, the school system adopted a basal reader series -- books with simple stories and controlled vocabularies keyed to children's ages.

Riley attributes a more open attitude of late to public interest in improving reading instruction, and to new research.

At Dennett Road, one of 11 elementaries in Garrett, Principal Gary Galloway says, "In some schools, they've abandoned basal readers and used whole language; we haven't. We use a mixture of approaches. You can build enthusiasm if you blend things."

Among the approaches at his school, Galloway says, is a Johns Hopkins University-developed method called Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition that "really caught on" at a teachers workshop.

Students working in cooperative groups -- of four or in pairs in "partner reading" -- is part of the teaching strategy, Galloway says. "There's also a lot of writing. Students are asked to use new vocabulary words in sentences so that a reader can figure out the meaning of the words by the sentence alone."

His school is completing its second academic year using the method, but the impact on reading scores in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests has not been determined.

Last year, 31.5 percent of Dennett Road's third-graders and 45.7 percent of fifth-graders had satisfactory scores, compared with statewide averages of 36.8 percent and 35.6 percent, respectively.

"Saying whole language meant saying, indirectly, you left phonics out," says Brenda McCartney, Garrett's director of elementary education curriculum. "We've never left out phonics."

But if a teacher appears to stress phonics too much, there may be trouble.

Riley says the administration squelched quickly last fall two elementary teachers' intentions of adding a phonics-based program to their reading curriculum -- one that had been offered free to one school as a pilot by its publisher.

"We say we believe in site-based management, but do we?" asks Riley, who says the push for true school reform in public education has come from scientists and parents -- and not from professional educational leaders.

Riley says he is encouraged by the State Department of Education's desire to require reading courses for early childhood, elementary and special education teachers that would include phonetic-based reading instruction.

He's also hopeful that more educators -- especially in Garrett County -- will recognize that while balance between phonics and meaning is important, "systematic instruction with word-attack strategies and decodable texts" is essential.

This year, Riley forwarded to county school administrators a 23-page draft report from a group called Learning First Alliance suggesting that children who don't receive phonics instructions early in the first grade face lifelong problems.

"We hear how different school boards in the state are reimplementing phonics, and that's good," he says. "But when did state institutions of higher learning decide to cast aside years of practical reality of what works in teaching reading? That's when the real crime was committed."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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