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Reading no longer undersung; Progress: A year after this page was launched, reading has taken its rightful place as the top priority in education in Maryland.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNA QUINDLEN has me under her spell -- again.

A dozen years ago, when she was a columnist for the New York Times, Quindlen wrote a piece about the meaning of the lightning bug. It was so exquisite that I memorized it, used it as an example in my college writing courses and, as editor of The Evening Sun's opposite-editorial page, republished it every summer until the light went out of that newspaper.

A Pulitzer Prize and three best-selling novels later, Quindlen is out with a tiny paperback -- a long essay, really -- titled "How Reading Changed My Life." It's quintessential Quindlen, each page a delight. One passage is particularly appropriate for this week, in which The Sun formally marks the first anniversary of Reading by 9:

"Of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort -- God, sex, food, family, friends -- reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly."

Reading in the same zone as sex and food?

I would never have thought so when we began discussing the Reading by 9 project almost two years ago. I had had at least a couple of fingers in education coverage for a long time, but I'd given little serious thought to reading. This'll put 'em to sleep, I thought when John Carroll, The Sun's editor, started talking about a reading project.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools superintendent, was thinking the same thing at about the same time. Reading had always been a priority in education, she said the other day, but it had never been front and center, where it belonged.

Educators and parents considered reading a kind of automatic thing -- like breathing -- and gave it equal billing with the other two R's. No one paid much attention to the small group of experts arguing that reading (unlike speaking) has to be taught and that there's a proper way to do it.

Reading was, as Quindlen puts it, undersung.

No longer. Nearly two years after we started talking about it, and a year after we launched this page and the other Reading by 9 components, reading is the top priority in education not only in Maryland, but across the nation.

Grasmick gives The Sun much of the credit. We deserve some of it, but a good deal of what has happened was in the works when Reading by 9 was born. In some cases we acted as a booster to a rocket already nearing orbit.

Things you can count:

Maryland increased the number of college-level reading instruction courses required of teachers in training. The city school board adopted a textbook series for beginning readers that is based on the best research into how children learn to read. Other school systems beefed up their reading programs. The Education Beat columns on this page prompted the donation of nearly 50,000 books and thousands of dollars to three bereft city school libraries.

You can count the pages, too. Since the campaign moved into full throttle a year ago, we've dedicated more than 200 pages of news space to reading topics -- children's book reviews, the publication of classic tales, the expert advice, the features on reading initiatives, the weekly columns on this page. All of this is before counting the dozens of news reports, opinion columns and editorials published in our daily news and opinion pages.

Reading by 9 has featured four major news series, beginning with an analysis of the local and national reading problem and what can be done about it. "Two Schools," a comparison of reading programs at a pair of Baltimore schools, was a yearlong project. So is "Cracking the Code," Howard Libit's tracking this year of a group of average Baltimore County first-graders as they learn to read. At the end of last year, we rendered a "report card" on how the state and each of the Baltimore area school systems were doing at trying to improve reading instruction.

I'm loath to do too much counting. People can quarrel over who caused what, and when. What's more important is what I -- and, by extension, we -- have learned in the first phase of Reading by 9.

I've learned that reading is not a routine skill easily mastered. Rather, it's an intricate set of learned skills deeply embedded in complex emotions. Hundreds of readers telephoned The Sun after our first news series in November 1997. Many thanked us for finally paying attention. Some wept.

When I set out to discover if people remember the time, the teacher, the place where they realized they could read, I found that reading is an epiphany for some. It can come as a lightning bolt: Interior and exterior worlds open at once. It's not at all like breathing. "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing," says Scout, the plucky little girl in the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I've learned a good deal about how people learn to read. Educators know much about the process, and there's research to distinguish the right way from the wrong way. Is phonics solely the right way? No, but neither is whole language without phonics. I've learned there are a few dozen self-styled experts who spend their days and nights firing missiles at one another in the Reading Wars.

I've learned that the reading sea in just one city, Baltimore, is unfathomable. There are uncountable literacy programs for people of all ages, so many volunteer efforts in schools and communities that they also can't be enumerated, numerous reading researchers at places like Johns Hopkins and Kennedy Krieger, vitally important organizations like Baltimore Reads and the International Dyslexia Association, and dozens, probably hundreds, of reading clubs. (They're all reading Alice McDermott's "Charming Billy" at the same time.)

Much of the reading fervor is ceremonial. Tuesday, on the birthday of Dr. Seuss -- Theodor Seuss Geisel -- we'll pause for the second annual "Read Across America" celebration, and "Green Eggs and Ham" again will be the dish du jour. All well and good, but reading, I've discovered, may not need all of the public relations some fear it needs.

Sure, we're surrendering to computers, and books and newspapers kill too many trees. But we were surrendering to television before that, and before that we were surrendering to radio and motion pictures. The doomsayers may be vindicated: The book as we know it may disappear. But not before the world's largest army is vanquished. As Quindlen points out, no mother wants to pass "Heidi" on disk down to her daughter on the occasion of her eighth birthday.

Not yet, anyway.

Moreover, as a wise person -- my wife -- points out, with all the technology out there, all the bells and whistles, the key to academic and intellectual success in this world remains the ability to read well.

The final lesson I've learned is really a lesson reinforced: Reading crosses all ages, genders, politics, financial circumstances and races. In this year of reading, I've taken to furtively watching people read. I've seen a cashier at the Giant grabbing a few paragraphs between customers. I've watched a man in a security guard's uniform reading a novel on a city bus.

The same people sit at the same tables in The Sun cafeteria day after day, plodding through novels, impervious to the chatter around them. In California, I watched a child of Cambodian ancestry as he sat cross-legged at the edge of a playground -- absorbed in a book while his classmates played soccer.

Quindlen asks: "How is it that, a full two centuries after Jane Austen finished her manuscript, we come to the world of 'Pride and Prejudice' and find ourselves transcending customs, strictures, time, mores, to arrive at a place that educates, amuses and enthralls us?

"It is a miracle."

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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