Baltimore County elementary school pupils will get two new reading series in the next academic year -- one that will concentrate on phonics, or the sounds letters form to create words, and another to teach reading comprehension.
Administrators will spend $2.7 million to purchase a "balanced and comprehensive" collection of readers by publishers Open Court and Houghton Mifflin Co. for use in all elementary schools.
In the past, principals picked their reading series, or teachers patched together reading materials from home and school libraries.
As a result, reading abilities of children can vary greatly from school to school or class to class.
Educators hope that the reading series will help to improve reading scores on standardized tests.
Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has said he wants all pupils to read at grade level by 2005.
Last year, 89 percent of second-graders were reading at grade level according to test results, about 11 percentage points shy of Hairston's goal.
"This will give us consistency and structure," said Kathleen M. McMahon, director of elementary curriculum and instruction, who gave a report to the Board of Education at a meeting last night.
McMahon said the new reading series will help inexperienced teachers, too.
"Teachers my age, the baby-boomers, are getting ready to retire, and so we're hiring more and more new teachers every year," she said. "We don't want to have any gap in the ability of teachers to teach reading."
But while board members, who played virtually no role in the selection of the reading series, seemed pleased with the selections, parents objected, saying the use of the Open Court and Houghton Mifflin series in first, second and third grades could confuse teachers.
Fourth and fifth grades will use the Houghton Mifflin reading series, which exclusively focuses on word study, including suffixes and root words.
"It's going to be confusing and it's going to be difficult, especially for new teachers who aren't getting adequate training in colleges about teaching reading," said parent Meg O'Hare, one of several at the meeting who sat on the selection committee, which also included teachers and administrators.
"Plus, it's going to give teachers an option to teaching phonics," said O'Hare, who said she worries that teachers won't use both series equally. Recent trends in reading instruction favor a phonics-based curriculum.
McMahon said the Teachers Association of Baltimore County had asked for more structure in reading lessons, and that the Open Court and Houghton Mifflin reading series would do that.
Each reading series offers teachers guidelines for pupil assessment and ways to pull out groups of pupils who need extra help to master reading skills such as phonemic awareness and reading for information.
The reading series provide separate stories for pupils who are above, at or below grade level in reading.
As part of the selection process, teachers at 28 elementary schools tested three reading series in their classes and submitted critiques. The committee also met with publishers to learn about the reading series, which represent a collection of children's stories and key vocabulary.
Teachers are expected to get instruction guides before school recesses June 15, said Phyllis Bailey, associate superintendent for educational support services.