Phonics system gains support


Just thinking about her son not having access to the Saxon Phonics program in school makes Amy Vittori anxious. Her voice starts to shake, and her words speed up, spilling over one another.

"He's reading Harry Potter, and he's only in first grade," Vittori said. "It's an awesome program."

But next school year, her son will be sent from Ellicott City's Ilchester Elementary, which offers Saxon, to Columbia's Waterloo Elementary, which doesn't, because of boundary changes.

"I will pull my kid out of school if Saxon doesn't come" to Waterloo, Vittori promised.

Every year, more Howard County schools adopt the program, which they must pay for themselves and typically costs about $5,000. Most schools use the program in kindergarten through second or third grade.

Centennial Lane and West Friendship elementaries added it this year, raising the number of county elementary schools using it to about 15 out of 37.

Improvement noted

"I sent some of my teachers toward the end of last year over to Ilchester to investigate it," said West Friendship Principal Corita Oduyoye. "They came back ranting and raving about how wonderful it was and what they saw the children doing."

Oduyoye shelled out $5,300, had the company that publishes Saxon - which is based in Oklahoma - send trainers and crossed her fingers hoping she soon would see her school's reading and writing scores improve as they have at Gorman Crossing Elementary (in its second year of using Saxon) and Ilchester.

"We have seen a lot of success - very measurable success - from it," said Holly Smith, Ilchester assistant principal, who learned about the program from a West Virginia teacher. Smith checked out Saxon, loved it and introduced it to Howard four years ago.

Howard uses Saxon more than does any county in Maryland, but schools in other counties - including Allegany, Baltimore, Frederick, St. Mary's and Wicomico - use it as well, with private schools throughout the state.

Phonics teaches children to read through "decoding" words - giving them the means to understand individual- and combination-letter sounds - and Saxon's version is rigorous, with intensive repetition and a foolproof script making it easier for teachers to use.

'No-nonsense content'

"Ours is no-nonsense content. It's very black and white," said Frank Y.H. Wang, one of the founders of Saxon Publishing, which began as a math system in the early 1980s and added the phonics program in late 1996.

"We teach in increments," Wang said, "and believe in constant practice and review and continual cumulative testing."

But critics worry that the program's literature component is scant, that advanced readers will get bored with it and that implementing it at schools on a case-by-case basis makes for uneven quality of education across the county.

Debi Howell, a 20-year veteran kindergarten teacher at Centennial Lane Elementary, acknowledges she's a little leery of Saxon.

For one, she says, it has a whole-group approach, and Howard County schools recommend addressing pupil needs individually or in small groups. Another aspect that concerns her is the lack of creative flexibility.

"This is a script that I just basically read," Howell said. "I try to make learning as much fun as I can. I love to see children totally involved, and I find with this kind of instruction, it's not truly a student-teacher reaction."

Ann Mintz, language arts coordinator for Howard County schools, said Saxon might be the way some schools are going, but it is not the way of the school system.

"I firmly believe that phonics is an integral part of primary reading instruction, but I'm not sold on Saxon Phonics," Mintz said. "If we're at the point in Howard County where we need to have a systemic phonics program, then we will find a systemic phonics program that will meet the needs of our students."

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