Schools stretch for reading goals Instruction: Teachers call for instruction, districts get new books, tutoring, new programs, all to improve student skills.


To appreciate the renewed emphasis on early reading instruction in Maryland's suburbs, look no further than the summer schedules of Baltimore County teachers.

Last summer, there wasn't enough teacher interest to justify holding even one seminar on the topic. But more than 150 teachers signed up this year -- enough for the school district to offer five classes.

"The day that the class was announced, we started getting faxes nonstop from teachers," says Jonna Hundley, the district's coordinator of elementary education and language arts. "Suddenly, a lot of teachers are very interested in getting more training."

Such interest is becoming more common as educators step up efforts to boost the proportion of third-graders reading at grade level on state exams -- a figure that hovers around 34 percent for the Baltimore area.

And though much of the attention has been aimed at city schools, which have the area's lowest test scores, suburban districts are pushing to improve reading instruction, too.

Among the other efforts by Baltimore-area suburbs during the 1997-1998 school year:

* Recruiting teachers with greater expertise in reading instruction.

* Seeking textbook programs proved by research to be successful, particularly for children from low-income households.

* Starting or expanding tutoring programs for struggling young readers and older students who were not taught properly in the primary grades.

* Developing a consistent approach among schools, as Baltimore County did with a "word identification" program.

"We have always been very concerned about reading," says Sandra R. Wallis, the Harford County school district's supervisor of English, language arts and reading. "We have pushed to improve our scores and move beyond that."

Changes over two years

Some of the most substantive changes have been begun over the past couple of years, with many districts revising their curricula to add more phonics -- sound-letter relationships that research shows are critical to beginning reading.

For example, when Anthony G. Marchione became Baltimore County superintendent almost three years ago, he quickly established the word identification program to bring a uniform, phonics-intensive approach to all schools.

Yet with 100 elementaries in the county -- and teachers having, at best, uneven training in basic skills instruction -- Marchione says that bringing consistency to classrooms is one of his biggest challenges. Educators in other areas echo those concerns.

At Powhatan Elementary in Woodlawn -- where 27 percent of third-graders scored satisfactory or better in reading on the 1997 exams and almost half the students come from low-income families -- the word identification program is taking hold consistently.

Matching sounds

Kindergarten teachers Amy Healy and Ilene Penn play a classroom game calling for students to select a picture and find letters that match the beginning and ending sounds.

"This is a bat," says kindergartner Troy Adams, pointing to a picture of a baseball bat. He then looks over a list of letters and picks up a "b" and a "t," winning hugs from the teachers.

Down the hall, Powhatan first-graders work on differentiating long and short "o" sounds while second-graders review the plural form of words ending in "y."

"You can see continuity in the program," says Principal Dara Williams. "That's what the word identification program has brought to our school. Every teacher has a consistent method to put them on the same page."

Across the Baltimore area, tutoring programs are helping boost reading skills before children reach fourth grade and are left behind. Research shows that those who are not fluent readers by age 9 are unlikely to ever achieve that.

Federal grant

In January, Carroll County school officials secured a $250,000 federal grant for a reading initiative. Reading teachers assessed all kindergartners and first-graders to identify those in the lowest 25 percent in reading skills.

Since March, Carroll's elementary schools have provided tutors to work individually for at least 15 minutes daily with the 1,076 students who were identified.

"When you work one on one, you can assess where this child's barriers to being a successful reader" are, says Dorothy Mangle, director of Carroll's elementary schools. "Do they need more language experience? Do they need more phonics skills?"

Baltimore County began a tutoring program this year for struggling young readers in low-performing elementary schools, too.

In Howard County, educators used $75,000 to start four reading programs for primary students, using technology for kindergartners, tutors for first-graders, more phonics-intensive materials throughout elementary school and additional teacher training.

Since then, Howard schools have introduced new reading materials that emphasize phonics, particularly through Open Court, a series that was added to the approved textbook list about four years ago. It has slowly gained popularity, says Ann Mintz, Howard's instructional facilitator of language arts.

Such efforts will continue in the fall. Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey pushed for an additional $540,000 in the 1998-1999 budget to help reading.

Howard County's efforts illustrate another increasingly common change in area school districts -- the recognition that many students in middle and high schools are poor readers.

Reading specialists

Hickey's initiatives for the fall include $132,000 to hire high school reading specialists and buy high school reading software. Within the next two years, all Howard middle school students will be required to take reading courses -- something now required only of sixth-graders.

Similarly, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have been expanding both their reading instruction to middle school students and their training of middle school teachers. Harford educators also are working to correct an acknowledged weakness in their language arts program: helping struggling middle school readers.

Not all efforts spawned by the increased interest in reading instruction have been successful.

In Columbia, more than 250 parents and educators attended a lecture in November by G. Reid Lyon, a National Institutes of Health neuropsychologist who is a leader in reading research.

Bound to help

After the meeting, Howard County parent leaders pledged to form a task force to examine how the district teaches reading. The first meeting drew 40 parents, but that dwindled to six.

"It wasn't that people were less interested in reading issues," says Melodi Smith, vice president of the county PTA Council and coordinator of the first meeting. "But the group never really jelled."

But educators say the increased attention to reading is bound to help both students and teachers.

"Everyone is working hard to keep improving," says Roberta Bukovsky, Baltimore County's director of elementary education. "We know we need to be better and more consistent, and I think we're getting there."

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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