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Panel: Use of 'Best' Proven Techniques Would Raise Reading Levels

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Washington--Literacy among Americans can be improved through the establishment of "literate environments," more systematic use of proven teaching techniques, and comprehensive assessments of reading and writing skills, argues a study panel sponsored by the National Institute of Education.

Further, the panel says, teacher-education programs should be lengthened and improved in quality, and textbooks should be upgraded to elucidate important concepts.

The panel's conclusions are contained in a report, "Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading," released here last week under the auspices of the National Academy of Education's Commission on Education and Public Policy. The study, underwritten by a $175,000 grant from nie, was intended to "seek out the existing scientific knowledge and the knowledge still needed to achieve universal literacy."

"America will become a nation of readers when verified practices of the best teachers in the best schools can be introduced throughout the country," concluded the commission, which was made up of scholars and practitioners appointed by the academy.

"This report will not be a surprise to professional educators and reading researchers," acknowledged Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois, who served as chairman of the commission. But Mr. Anderson pointed out that the report is nonetheless valuable because it represents the first attempt to assimilate all existing research on reading and present it to the general public.

"The knowledge is now available to make worthwhile improvements in reading throughout the United States," Mr. Anderson said in presenting the report to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. "If the practices seen in the classrooms of the best teachers in the best schools could be introduced everywhere, improvements in reading would be dramatic."

Noting that "reading is the first and the most fundamental of the basic skills," Secretary Bennett characterized the commission's report as "confirming long-standing beliefs and common sense."

"The results of this research are intended for direct use in the classroom," he said. "There is no excuse for educators to hide behind ignorance. If we now fail to teach reading to every child, it is not because we don't know how."

Conditions for Literacy

Conducted over a two-year period by a panel of nine experts in the field of reading, the study is based on research on cognition in the psychology of language, linguistics, child development, and behavioral science; research on environmental influ6ences; and investigations of classroom practices, especially those stemming from studies of teaching and of test use.

Although the commission acknowledges that "it is incorrect to suppose that there is a simple or single step which, if taken correctly, will immediately allow a child to read," it sets forth a list of recommendations designed to advise parents, educators, and publishers how to produce conditions "likely to produce citizens who read with high levels of skill and do so frequently with evident satisfaction."

Among the recommendations:

Parents should read to preschool children, informally teach them about reading and writing, and support school-age children's continued growth as readers.

According to the report, the more knowledge children are able to acquire at home, the greater their chance for success in reading. And the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for reading in the home, the report concludes, is reading aloud to children, especially during the preschool years.

Preschool and kindergarten reading-readiness programs should focus on reading, writing, and oral language. The report suggests, on the basis of the best evidence available, that a balanced kindergarten program in reading and language that includes both formal and informal approaches is most effective.

It is of paramount importance, ac-cording to the report, that such instruction be systematic but free from undue pressure. "We advise caution in being so impatient for our children that we turn kindergartens, and even nursery schools and day-care centers, into academic bootcamps," the panel wrote.

A child's environment should also be rich in experiences with written language, the commission recommends.

Reading primers should be interesting, comprehensible, and enriched with opportunities to apply phonics, and teachers of beginning reading should present well-designed phonics instruction.

Instruction in phonics demonstrably improves pupils' ability to identify words, the commission suggests. "Thus, the issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics. The issues now are specific ones of just how it should be done."

Textbooks should contain adequate explanations of important concepts, considering the skill level, knowledge, and reasoning power of the developing reader. And they should be rich with those concepts and information.

The publishing industry's overreliance on readability formulas has contributed to poor writing in schoolbooks, the commission notes. Those who buy books and those who write and edit them, it urges, should supplement analyses using readability formulas with analyses of the "deeper factors that are essential for quality," such as clarity, coherence, organization, literary quality, interest, and appropriateness to the subject matter.

Children should spend less time completing workbooks and skill sheets and more time in independent reading and writing. In the typical classroom, "too much of the precious time available for reading instruction is given over to workbook and skill-sheet tasks, and students invest only the most perfunctory level of attention in the tasks," the report notes.

Teachers and administrators, it advises, should increase the amount of time in which children receive instruction, and publishers should include in workbooks activities that are better designed and integrated.

Schools should cultivate an "ethos" that supports reading and should maintain well-stocked libraries. To create "literate environments," teachers should maintain classrooms that are both stimulating and disciplined and should devote more time to comprehensive instruction.

According to the report, schools that are especially effective in teaching children to read are characterized by vigorous instructional leadership; have high but realistic expectations about the progress that students will make; exhibit school pride, collegiality, a sense of community, and order and discipline; and maximize the amount of uninterrupted time available for learning.

Further, successful teachers should exercise caution in grouping students by reviewing grouping assignments, providing challenging lessons to every group level, and exploring other options for reading instruction, such as peer tutoring.

Schools should introduce more comprehensive assessments of reading and writing. Since standardized tests do not provide more than a superficial assessment of reading comprehension, they should be supplemented with observations of reading fluency, critical analysis of lengthy reading selections, and measures of the amount of independent reading and writing done by students.

In addition, student tests should reflect the ultimate goals of reading instruction. And tests' significance should not be exaggerated, the commission recommends.

Teacher-education programs should be lengthened and improved in quality. Pointing out that the current reform movement has "oppressed the spirit of teachers and would-be teachers," the report recommends raising admissions standards for teacher-education programs and stiffening teacher-certification requirements. Further, better salaries and working conditions should be instituted for teachers, it suggests.

Prospective elementary-school teachers should receive more extensive preparation in reading, and perhaps in other fields as well, the commission argues. Because these proposed requirements call for added schooling time, the commission notes, "the conclusion seems inescapable that teacher-education programs should be expanded to five years."

Such extensions, it adds, should be accompanied by increased scholarship aid, forgivable loans, and higher salaries for graduates.

Schools should attract and hold more able teachers and provide for their continued professional development.

Schools that attempt to ease the transition from teacher-education programs to teaching should appoint experienced teachers to help novices, reduce the teaching load of beginners, or engage consultants to lead continuing seminars for them. "Career-long opportunities for growth, renewal, and access to new information are essential," the report concludes.

The members of the National Academy of Education's Commission on Reading are:

Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill.; Isabel Beck, professor of education, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh; Jere Brophy, professor and director, Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.; Jeanne S. Chall, professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Robert Glaser, professor and director, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh; Lenore H. Ringler, professor of educational psychology, School of Education, New York University; David Rumelhart, professor of psychology, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, Calif.; Dorothy Strickland, professor of education, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City; and Sue H. Talbot, 1st-grade teacher, University Elementary School, Bloomington, Ill.

The report was prepared by:

Mr. Anderson; Elfrieda H. Hiebert, associate professor, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky.; and Judith A. Scott and Ian A. G. Wilkinson, research assistants at the Center for the Study of Reading.

Copies of the report are available at $4.50 from P.O. Box 2774, Station A, Champaign, Ill. 61820-8774.

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