Despite a three-year rise in reading test scores, Baltimore school administrators say they are considering a change in the way reading is taught and will begin selecting new reading textbooks in the fall.
Administrators say the heavy emphasis on phonics that teachers have used throughout the city since 1998 needs to be balanced with approaches that help children better understand what they read.
A shift in teaching that reduces the number of minutes spent on phonics each day has begun at many elementary schools around the district, but it may become a systemwide goal of the school board this spring.
School officials list the goal, without elaboration, in the draft of a five-year plan for improving schools that says the system will "implement a comprehensive, balanced literacy program."
The term "balanced literacy" recently has become a catch phrase for whole language, an approach to the teaching of reading that exposes children to literature. Balanced literacy includes phonics, but places less emphasis on it in the classroom.
If the school system adopted a whole language approach, it would be a major shift in policy and would prompt scrutiny by state education officials who believe strongly in phonics.
But C. Thomas Bowmann, the school system's director of reading, insists that the system is not moving away from phonics-based instruction. "We accept that the explicit teaching of phonics is crucial," Bowmann said. "I cannot sit in this office and ignore what research has shown us."
He says that the term "balanced literacy" may be misleading and that the system simply wants to make sure young children are introduced to good books early and that they comprehend what they read.
The system, Bowmann said, would be "incorporating multiple approaches to improving reading" and teachers would not rely on one strategy of teaching. "If a child isn't going to progress with a phonics approach, we may introduce sight words as the stronger strategy."
Sight words are those that children memorize as a whole rather than sounding out the parts.
Bowmann said that as well as proposing a balanced literacy approach, the system will be choosing a new reading textbook for the elementary grades in the next year.
In 1998, Baltimore chose a phonics textbook series from Open Court Publishing for kindergarten through second grade. Educators credit the emphasis on phonics in the primary grades with the leap in test scores. Last year, 56 percent of first-graders scored above the national average in reading, compared with 29 percent in 1998.
State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said if the city school board includes balanced literacy as a goal in the plan, "We would ask for an explanation of what is happening and why."
Although the state does not set the number of minutes that should be spent each day on phonics, Grasmick said, the state "is very clear the phonics and phonemic awareness have to be a major part of the reading program."
"I think the improvements in reading are attributable very much to Open Court and the strong centerpiece of phonics," she said.
For decades, a national debate over the teaching of reading has raged, with some educators favoring a whole-language approach and others arguing for phonics.
More recently, phonics has become dominant, with many large urban areas, including Baltimore, finding that reading test scores jumped when they introduced phonics.
President Bush appeared to give phonics another boost when he increased federal spending by $900 million a year for five years for schools that use "scientific, research-based" reading programs. That term has been interpreted by educators in California and other states to mean reading programs that are based on the systematic teaching of phonics.
Many cities have moved to a strong phonics textbook, such as Open Court's, or school reform curriculums based on phonics, such as Success for All and Direct Instruction. All are used in Baltimore, although most city schools use Open Court.
On the spectrum of reading programs, with pure whole language on one end and intensive phonics on the other end, Baltimore's three programs fall at the phonics end.
In schools such as Franklin Square Elementary in West Baltimore, where Open Court textbooks are used without additional programs, children spend 45 minutes a day on phonics. They are taught the sounds letters make and how to blend those sounds into words. Teachers also read aloud to them and require students to spend time writing.
Peggy Brown, the principal, said she believes Open Court has been good for children who learn phonetically. "It gives them a crutch to hold on to. It gives you a key to unlock words," she said. But in every grade, she said, one or two children "can't hear the sounds, so they can't reproduce them."
In those cases, she said, the school has to use a whole-language approach.
Although phonics predominates in the city, 40 elementary schools have begun using balanced literacy under the aegis of Achievement First, a program started by the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence in Baltimore.
Introduced in a few schools in 1997 primarily as a way to get better training for teachers and principals, Achievement First quietly brought balanced literacy to its schools. Last year, school system Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo chose to have Achievement First in her newly created CEO's district, a cluster of 10 of the lowest-performing elementary and middle schools in the city.
Although the schools still have Open Court textbooks as prescribed by the school board, they are used far less than in other city elementaries. Phonics is taught for 20 of the 180 minutes spent on language arts each day. That compares to 45 minutes at the other 80 elementary schools.
"What we are trying to do is to use the text more as a resource," said Bernice Pinkney Alston, director of Achievement First.
Alston said balanced literacy, as it is used in the 40 schools, requires students to read more books as opposed to anthologies in textbooks. Each morning, teachers read to students for 20 minutes. For another 30 minutes, everyone in the class holds a book and reads along silently as the teacher reads it aloud.
At the end of each language arts period, Alston said, students spend another 20 minutes reading a book of their choice.
But Alston doesn't call the strategies she uses in Achievement First "whole language."
"I stay away from that because it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths," she said, referring to the criticism of whole language by phonics advocates. "I am saying that balanced literacy takes the best of both worlds.
"I think [it] is very good for children."
Muriel Berkeley with the Baltimore Curriculum Project, which works with city schools, said the system must be careful as it considers reading changes.
"We want to make sure in our classrooms that teachers are being given research-based tools. The danger would be that teachers are told to teach phonics, but that the method used is not as effective."
Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.