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New Report on Reading To Recommend Phonics, Literature

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San Francisco--A forthcoming report on reading instruction that was mandated by the U.S. Congress is expected to conclude that work in phonics should be an essential component.

But the report's author, speaking here last week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, said that the document was also likely to adopt a position taken by critics of phonics: that children should be taught to read in the context of real literature.

"The goal is not to teach kids to sound words out," said Marilyn J. Adams, a researcher with Bolt, Beranek and Newman Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., think tank. "Fluency makes comprehension possible."

The 700-page report is due to be released next fall by the federal Reading Research and Education Center at the University of Illinois. It will be accompanied by a smaller report aimed at teachers, according to Jean Osborn, associate director of the university's center for the study of reading.

The reports are likely to reignite one of the most hotly debated issues in education. The fact that the Congress mandated the study, Ms. Adams said, "is one symptom of exactly how political this issue is."

Advocates of phonics argue that reading instruction should stress the way syllables and words sound. Advocates of the "whole language" method, on the other hand, say that children learn to read by reading whole stories.

Ms. Adams said the preponderance of evidence supports the efficacy of phonics.

Studies, she said, "have indicated, though not unanimously, that an instructional regimen that includes systematic instruction in phonics results in significant advances in student achievement."

"They do not prove the point," she added, "but they make it difficult to dismiss."

In addition to the findings on achievement, Ms. Adams said, research has indicated that all children need to learn phonics in order to develop the ability to learn new words as they read.

Although studies have shown that relatively few words appear frequently in texts, she said, most of those words are "process" words, such as articles and conjunctions, that convey little meaning.

"The less-frequent words convey meaning," she said. "They are useful to be able to recognize. It is unlikely children would be able to recognize enough of them by sight in order to get meaning from the text."

But Ms. Adams added that teachers must introduce such strategies in the context of the text. Such instruction, she added, is essential for children from disadvantaged families.

"To help those kids," she said, "teachers must understand thoroughly what must be learned in order to read."--rr

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