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Md. focuses on reading Strategy: Realizing that reading is a priority, schools are now putting together a more consistent plan for teaching it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After years of random strategies that produced mixed results at best, Maryland's schools -- from kindergarten through college -- appear to be piecing together a sharper, more consistent focus on reading instruction.

Across the state, the greater stress on reading instruction is evident in myriad ways.

Beginning next summer, both new and experienced teachers will be required to take more courses in how to teach reading.

Reading specialists are back. Often the victim of budget cuts, these teachers are returning to most elementary and even middle schools to help pupils and other teachers.

State educators have formed a partnership with the Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Kreiger Institute to infuse classroom strategies with the latest research on reading.

Though Maryland still shies away from a statewide curriculum, a new state reading task force report now provides guidelines, encouraging teachers to focus explicitly on reading.

Many school systems around the state are paying more attention to teacher training in reading, providing more time for small-group instruction in early grades, launching programs to identify and tutor problem readers early, and trying to bolster middle-school reading skills.

Undergirding all this is a growing awareness that reading instruction has become a hot topic among parents, teachers and the public across the country.

"Reading is at the center of attention now in education," says Patricia Richardson, St. Mary's County schools superintendent and chairwoman of the state reading task force.

Adds state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick: "Everyone is very focused on reading. Any measure of reading performance tells us that this nation and this state must make reading a priority. Every [Maryland school] district has identified reading as a priority."

Scores on the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading tests are up in both third and fifth grades across the state, continuing a trend from 1995.

But still, only 41.6 percent of the state's third-graders are scoring satisfactorily in reading -- ranging from just 16.6 percent in Baltimore to 63.1 per- cent in Kent County.

And across the state, reading test scores for eighth-graders have remained flat since the MSPAP tests first counted in 1993, stuck at only about 25 percent of all eighth-graders reading satisfactorily.

So the push to improve reading programs retains urgency in all Maryland districts -- even as it is producing big changes in Baltimore area schools. For example:

In Baltimore, the school board has adopted a new, more phonics-oriented reading textbook series, lowered class sizes in early grades and instituted after-school programs for children who need help. City reading test scores, while still the lowest in the state, jumped this year for the first time in years.

In Baltimore County, a new early reading curriculum stressing both phonics and comprehension has brought higher reading test scores to almost three-quarters of the district's 100 elementaries. County educators are looking at restructuring the elementary school day to give some pupils more reading instruction.

In Anne Arundel County, the focus is on teacher training, with the goal of making every teacher able to teach reading. The county also is emphasizing improving reading instruction at middle schools. About half of Anne Arundel's pupils are testing satisfactorily in reading -- about the same as in Baltimore County.

In Howard County, educators say various schools are adjusting reading programs to give students more instruction in small groups and to address the drop-off in middle school performance. Howard's reading test scores are the highest in the Baltimore area, in line with the county's relatively high average income, but the county has not yet met the state's goal of having 70 percent of all pupils reading satisfactorily.

In Carroll County, schools have begun using a federal grant to test all kindergarten and first-grade pupils, identify those with potential reading problems and hire tutors to work with them individually or in small groups. The county's eighth-graders were tops on the state reading test, but only 37.6 percent scored at the satisfactory level.

In Harford County, schools also have adopted an intensive, one-on-one tutoring program for first- and second-grade pupils having problems with reading. As in Howard, Harford educators expect to be the among the first in the state to meet the 70 percent satisfactory level in reading.

More changes are coming. In his re-election campaign, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he planned to spend $120 million over the next four years to hire 1,100 more teachers -- 860 of them to teach reading and reduce class size in first and second grades across the state.

The first of these teachers could be in classrooms in September if the General Assembly approves the plan.

Montgomery County has launched an ambitious initiative to reduce first- and second-grade class sizes at 54 elementaries with relatively high numbers of low-income pupils. The intent is -- to have all youngsters reading independently by the end of second grade.

The program's hallmarks are a maximum of 15 pupils per reading class, a 90-minute block of reading each day, and lots of teacher training.

"We knew we had to do something to ensure that our kids would become readers. Research says group size makes a difference," says Judie Muntner, principal of Beall Elementary School in Rockville, where the strategies were tried last year.

Montgomery hired more than 100 reading teachers this year to reduce class size in the selected schools. Though the initiative just began, anecdotal evidence suggests it's working, Muntner says.

Most of Beall's 100 second-graders were in the program in first grade. Of the 100 this year, only 11 were not at grade level in reading, Muntner says, and nine of those children had just transferred into the school.

Next year, the program will be expanded to the county's other 64 elementaries, a year ahead of schedule. "It's too good to waste," says Patty Flynn, the county's director of academic programs.

A renewed focus on reading also is apparent in St. Mary's County, where countywide third- and fifth-grade reading scores are rising and are higher than the state average. Educators around the state point to the Banneker/Loveville Elementary School in Loveville as a school that has gotten results.

"We were kind of at a random-acts-of-improvement stage," says principal Linda Dudderar. But "last year our focus really narrowed to reading," she says, with the onset of incentive programs for students, early identification of children reading below grade level and yearlong staff development.

The school instituted an integrated approach with language arts and social studies taught by one third-grade teacher and math and science by another. Teacher Leslie La Croix, for example, uses stories from a reading anthology as well as selections from social studies materials to mesh her subjects.

She also teaches word study, spelling and writing in the same two-hour daily period, using a detailed grid to be sure she's covering all the areas she needs to.

In addition, pupils every week do "buddy reading" with a classmate for at least two 20-minute sessions; during this time, La Croix moves around the room to listen and take notes on progress.

Although many of the changes in reading instruction statewide have been in early grades, there likely will be growing emphasis on reading in middle school.

For the second year in a row, eighth-grade reading scores on MSPAP tests declined across the state. Educators attribute this to several factors: inadequate reading instruction at the middle-school level, the complexity of material pupils are expected to read, and teachers who are not prepared to help pupils with reading difficulties.

"Reading is a different ballgame today. Kids have to have deeper understanding; they need more than just narrative stories," usually the stuff of elementary-school reading classes, says Eileen Oickle, a supervisor for the state education department, who is heading the state's middle school task force.

Middle school teachers of all subjects will have to help their pupils tackle complex social studies or science texts by working through vocabulary, talking about key concepts and establishing context, she says.

All teachers need to consider themselves reading instructors, as well as math, science or literature teachers. "We are faced with making teachers understand that," says Oickle, noting that is the intent of the state's new reading-course requirements for teachers.

Grasmick, who promoted the additional coursework for middle and high school teachers, says the new requirements of all teachers distinguish Maryland from other states: "It means every child in every classroom will have a teacher with specific knowledge of reading."

Tomorrow: Reading in Baltimore schools.

Maryland third-grade reading scores

This table shows the percentage of third-graders in each jurisdiction who scored at satisfactory levels on reading tests administered as part of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The last column shows each jurisdiction's overall improvement since the tests were first administered.

1998... 1997... 1996... 1995... 1994... Chg.

Maryland......... 41.6... 36.8... 35.3... 34.0... 30.6... 11.0

Allegany......... 45.3... 35.9... 31.8... 30.0... 23.3... 22.0

Anne Arundel..... 46.7... 43.9... 44.3... 40.4... 37.8.... 8.9

Baltimore City... 16.6... 11.8... 11.2... 11.4.... 9.2.... 7.4

Baltimore Co..... 47.0... 39.2... 36.5... 37.6... 33.2... 13.8

Calvert.......... 45.3... 49.6... 40.0... 43.8... 32.8... 12.5

Caroline......... 41.6... 35.9... 37.6... 35.2... 25.4... 16.2

Carroll.......... 52.0... 49.7... 46.7... 41.4... 42.2.... 9.8

Cecil............ 44.6... 44.5... 37.3... 37.3... 29.7... 14.9

Charles.......... 36.9... 32.8... 31.2... 28.6... 27.3.... 9.6

Dorchester....... 47.0... 36.0... 40.4... 38.7... 23.3... 23.7

Frederick........ 50.1... 46.9... 48.7... 50.8... 40.5.... 9.6

Garrett.......... 37.3... 36.9... 31.8... 39.1... 28.0.... 9.3

Harford.......... 57.8... 51.1... 46.7... 43.2... 39.9... 17.9

Howard........... 59.3... 57.7... 53.3... 51.1... 45.0... 14.3

Kent............. 63.1... 46.3... 48.4... 39.8... 45.7... 17.4

Montgomery....... 51.5... 46.0... 44.5... 43.8... 42.4.... 9.1

Prince George's.. 29.0... 24.3... 25.8... 24.3... 21.3.... 7.7

Queen Anne's..... 45.3... 40.8... 40.3... 41.7... 37.0.... 8.3

Mary's....... 47.9... 42.8... 41.3... 41.1... 31.3... 16.6

Somerset......... 32.5... 28.5... 23.9... 15.9... 18.2... 14.3

Talbot........... 42.3... 37.2... 47.0... 33.5... 29.0... 13.3

Washington....... 47.6... 41.0... 36.4... 30.9... 29.5... 18.1

Wicomico......... 38.6... 31.9... 31.2... 26.4... 24.4... 14.2

Worcester........ 49.5... 41.1... 33.0... 31.2... 32.4... 17.1

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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