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As Reading Scores Plummet, States Get Hooked on Phonics


WHEN Los Angeles primary-school teacher Patty Abarca began her career in 1975, "phonics was in." Teachers were expected to teach reading skills and then test students on those skills through drill-and-practice worksheets.

In the late '80s, the "whole-language" approach took over. This method encourages teachers to have students read "real literature" and write as much as possible without emphasizing basic skills or letter-sound associations.

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But now the pendulum appears to be swinging back again.

Parents are complaining that their second- and third-graders are unable to sound out words, spell basic words correctly, or make sense of simple sentences.

The trend is back to the basics - learning how to differentiate "bear" from "bare" is in, but "Little House on the Prairie" is going back on the bookshelf for awhile.

Last year, California's legislature voted to mandate "systemic, explicit" phonics instruction in the primary grades, after the state ranked 49th in reading scores. Many states - such as North Carolina and Ohio - are considering similar mandates. But some educators say that lawmakers are too quick to blame poor reading scores on whole-language techniques and balk at statehouse micromanagement of the classroom.

For Christopher Cross, the president of the Maryland State Board of Education, the move toward phonics is welcome.

"We have gone much too far on the whole-language side," he says. "In Maryland, we're looking at scores that have generally gone up in all areas except reading." While whole-language isn't entirely to blame for reading scores, Mr. Cross says, "Having a sound phonics base would help to provide some balance."

A more balanced approach is what some states are seeking to achieve. In Virginia, Nebraska, and Texas, the state school boards are encouraging districts to incorporate the rules of phonics while also emphasizing literature and writing as found in the whole-language method.

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In North Carolina, the legislature is holding a hearing this week on a bill requiring K-3 teachers to use phonics as the main method of instruction. "What it means is that they have to use phonics first, and then if the child fails to read, they may try some other methods," says state Rep. Michael Decker.

But whole-language advocates insist their approach is not to blame for students' poor reading skills. "It's a gross misunderstanding of the test data," says Kenneth Goodman, a language professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a supporter of whole language.

While there may be a need for change in reading instruction, Barbara Fox, a professor of education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, says laws mandating instructional techniques are bad public policy.

"The problem with state legislatures mandating certain types of teaching methods is that we're moving decisionmaking from the classroom level to the statehouse," she says. "Legislatures are beginning to micromanage day-to-day instruction, and teachers are not free to make decisions in the best interest of the individuals that they teach."

But in some states where whole language has taken hold, teacher-education programs dropped all courses on phonics and emphasized whole language as the only way to teach reading. Many newer teachers have no idea how to teach reading using phonics.

Now states are passing laws mandating phonics courses for teacher-education students. Under the North Carolina bill, certified teachers also would be required to pass a competency test in phonics within two years or lose their teaching licenses.

"A lot of the younger teachers have been asking for some help in how to teach phonics," Ms. Abarca confirms. "They need to be shown how to do it and have asked some of the more senior teachers to ... be models."

In recent years, the reading debate has moved beyond the education arena. Conservative political activists and the religious right are pushing state legislatures to mandate phonics and using the issue to illustrate the poor performance of public schools.

"Attacks on public schools are at the bottom of all this," Mr. Goodman says. "There are very powerful groups ... that want to reduce support for public education through vouchers and charter schools or any way they can. One of the things that they have to do since the notion of public schools is so strong in this country is to argue that schools have failed even in simple matters like teaching kids to read."

ABARCA cares little about the political dynamics of the issue. But she is convinced that the emphasis on whole-language instruction has turned many American students into mediocre readers. And this could hurt public education in the long run, she says.

"I have worried a lot that with what is happening parents are going to say: 'If we have to teach our children to read at home, if we have to hire tutors to pick up what the schools aren't doing, why don't we just vote for the voucher?' I don't want that to happen."

Research suggests that balancing phonics and whole-language is most successful. "Reading changes as you advance," says Jeanne Chall, a professor emeritus at Harvard University. "At the beginning, you have to learn the sounds and the spellings. And then you move on to understanding and more advanced things."

A balanced approach is what Abarca strives for in the midst of wildly fluctuating official opinions. "I've always had literature in my room and believe children should read books. But I don't believe that children can learn to read by osmosis," she says.

Although it sounds great to speak of balancing the two approaches, "balance is a tricky term," warns Professor Fox, "since it's determined by whoever is positioning the fulcrum."

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