Calif. hails new era in reading education; Literacy conference in the influential state backs phonics method


LOS ANGELES -- The nation's top reading experts gathered with more than 6,000 state teachers and parents here this weekend in what California's governor hailed as the onset of a new era in teaching children how to read.

The two-day conference marked the largest ever devoted exclusively to early-grade reading issues, and -- given the state's strong influence on education reform -- is bound to affect classrooms around the country.

"When this weekend is over, each one of you will be better prepared to make California a state of more confident readers," Gov. Gray Davis told the educators. "Future generations will look back on this weekend and commend you for your commitment to helping children read by 9."

The "Reading by 9" conference was organized by the Los Angeles Times, which a year ago began a campaign to try to fix Southern California's woeful record of children's literacy. Only one in five third-graders in the Los Angeles area reads on or above grade level.

The Los Angeles Times campaign -- called "Reading by 9" -- mirrors The Sun's 2-year-old literacy program of the same name. Both newspapers are owned by Times Mirror Co.

For a state that has served as ground-zero in America's reading wars, the receptiveness of so many educators to the latest research from the country's top experts suggests that a shift is under way in many California schools.

"We're ready to get better," said Richard Medina, a second-grade teacher at Will Rogers Elementary School in southern Los Angeles. "We know that it's time, and that's why so many teachers want to listen and learn what to do."

In the 1980s, California led the national shift to the whole-language method of reading instruction, which relies on immersing children in literature to teach them to read. During that period, many teachers and schools in California and the rest of the country abandoned phonics in early reading instruction -- the systematic teaching of sound-letter relationships.

But by the mid-1990s, the results of California's whole-language experiment started coming in, prompting widespread outrage among parents and politicians. The state's children ranked at the bottom of the country in reading skills, and a growing body of research indicated that phonics was a crucial part of initial reading instruction.

Now, the state has begun to swing back. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been set aside for schools to buy new textbooks and to retrain teachers -- provided they're relying on research-based methods -- and California has carried out the country's largest class-size reduction effort in kindergarten through third grade.

"The eyes of the country, the eyes of Congress, are on California, and for once, it's for some good things," said G. Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institutes of Health, which is conducting the largest reading instruction study in the world.

At the weekend conference, the governor announced several new initiatives to try to boost California's reading performance, including more funding for classroom libraries, textbook purchases and after-school tutoring sessions. Tying state funding to test scores, schools that improve at least 5 percentage points per year on nationally standardized exams will receive bonuses of $150 per student, and the 400 elementary schools whose pupils read the most in a statewide contest will receive $5,000 awards.

"This is going to make a big difference," Davis said. "California is once again tuned in to education."

California's schools are important to the rest of the country in large part because of their role in the purchasing of textbooks.

In Maryland and most states, local school districts choose what textbooks to buy. But California and Texas adopt textbooks at a statewide level. That means the major publishers -- hoping to be approved in the country's two largest markets -- change their textbooks to suit the standards of those two states, leaving school districts in other states to pick from what's been developed for California and Texas.

"Many publishers have made changes and are making changes to align their programs with our new standards," said Catherine J. Barkett, coordinator of gifted and talented education in California's Department of Education.

During the weekend convention, many Southern California teachers had their first opportunity to hear the results of the latest research on reading.

Marcy Stein, an education professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, warned teachers against publishers offering only a window-dressing of phonics in their programs.

"Every program is going to say phonics," Stein said. "It's what kind of phonics. Not all programs are equally effective."

Nevertheless, teachers flocked to the dozens of exhibit booths from just about every small and large book publisher in the country, buying armloads of discounted materials -- even as the top researchers speaking at the conference criticized much of what was on display and for sale.

"There is no research to support most of the textbooks out there," said Lyon, the NIH researcher. "There hasn't been any scientific investigation except for a small number of programs."

While teachers were interested in the research, the most popular figure of the weekend had little to do with reading instruction. Ruby Bridges, who as a first-grader in 1960 was chosen to integrate the New Orleans public school system, spoke at the convention about her struggles as a 6-year-old and spent more than five hours signing copies of her new memoir, "Through My Eyes."

Still, learning the best teaching methods was the focus for most of the weekend, including the continuation of training institutes that many teachers had participated in over the summer.

"I want to believe that this will become the turning point for Los Angeles and Southern California," said Dale Webster, a teacher at Penn Elementary School in San Diego. "The reading problem is really a crisis. I just hope that everyone here is listening."

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