Youngest readers score big gains in Baltimore County Phonics credited for advances in grades one and two


Baltimore County first- and second-graders posted sharp improvements during the 1997-1998 school year -- gains that county educators attribute to the district's phonics-intensive reading program.

Eighty-five percent of first- and second-graders were reading at or above grade level by spring -- an increase of more than 20 percentage points from the start of the school year. The improvements occurred at every one of the county's 100 elementary schools.

"We are getting closer to our goal of having every child reading on grade level by the end of second grade," said Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who has been working to restore phonics to early reading instruction since taking over the system in 1995. "I am very pleased with the progress that we are making."

The percentage of first- and second-graders reading at or above grade level also increased from spring 1997 to spring 1998, showing that more children were reading on grade level at the end of each school year.

"Teachers are becoming more comfortable and more confident with the word-identification program," said Roberta Bukovsky, the county's director of elementary education, referring to the county's program that emphasizes phonics for early readers.

"I think we're going to keep seeing those numbers increase until we reach 100 percent."

The assessment of students' reading skills comes from their performance on national basic skills exams given to all Baltimore County first- and second-graders in the fall and spring.

The tests -- Gates-MacGinitie for first grade and the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills for second grade -- are more difficult in the spring than in the fall, reflecting the higher level of skills expected of students at the end of a year of instruction.

County educators say the increases during the school year provide evidence that solid reading instruction can overcome even poverty. More than 26 percent of Baltimore County school children come from families considered to be low-income.

While only 66 percent of second-graders were reading on or above grade-level in the fall of 1997 -- compared to the national test average of 77 percent -- 86 percent had reached that level by the spring of 1998.

"It shows that all children can do well and learn to read with the right instruction," said Ronald S. Thomas, assistant to the

superintendent for educational accountability.

Shift to phonics

Baltimore County educators developed and began the word-identification program in the 1996-1997 school year, marking a shift from the whole language approach that had dominated the district's curriculum. The whole-language system sought to teach reading by exposing children to literature.

The word-identification program continues to use some literature but relies much more heavily on a prescribed sequence of instruction in the letter-sound relationships known as phonics -- particularly for the teaching of beginning readers.

"Lots of teachers were teaching some of the things, and a few were doing a lot of it because they never gave up the phonics, but it was scattershot," said David Shauch, a first-grade teacher at Pleasant Plains Elementary School. "Word identification allowed us to standardize our instruction and know what it is that we were were supposed to be teaching."

In 75 of the 100 county elementary schools open last year, the percentage of second-graders reading at or above grade level increased from spring 1997 to spring 1998.

Marchione acknowledged that not all schools are making the substantial gains that he would like to see, and he said that his top administrative staff will work to help those schools do better.

"If we decide that an administrative staff isn't going to be able to improve the school, then there will be changes," he said.

'Top priority' for principals

Marchione said that whenever he considers someone for a promotion to elementary school assistant principal or principal, his first question is always whether they're qualified to help teachers improve reading instruction.

"That has to be their top priority," Marchione said.

Singled out for praise at yesterday's briefing on the reading scores were both Pleasant Plains and Martin Boulevard elementary schools.

For example, at Martin Boulevard, the percentage of first-graders reading on grade level increased from 46 percent last fall to 93 percent in the spring.

"Our teachers have welcomed the consistent word-identification program," said Martin Boulevard principal Carolan Stewart. She also attributed some of her school's gains to a new one-on-one tutoring program begun last fall to give struggling readers extra attention.

Reading starts early

Even Baltimore County's kindergartners improved their beginning reading skills, based on assessments done by teachers. In fall 1997, 28 percent were judged as independent or progressing on age-appropriate skills, compared to 90 percent by the end of the school year.

"Three or four years ago the message from the central office to teachers was that they were not supposed to teach reading at all in kindergarten," Marchione said. "Now, we know that is the worst thing you can do. We've come a long way."

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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