Opposed to Whole Language, Houston Schools Revert to Phonics

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Disenchanted with or opposed to whole-language approaches to teaching reading, educators at eight Houston elementary schools have persuaded local school officials to allow them to return to traditional, phonics based reading-instruction program this year.

Teachers and principals at the schools argued that their students, many of whom are from low-income families, were doing poorly under the whole-language method, at least in part because the students' parents were not providing the at-home support needed to make the whole-language approach work.

The debate over the kind of reading programs used in the Houston schools mirrors battles taking place nationwide between proponents of phonics, who stress the importance of teaching the relationships between letters and sounds, and whole-language advocates, who believe children should be taught to read using whole texts. (See Education Week, March 21, 1990.)

'Kids Were Suffering'

Officials of the Houston school district decided in the mid-1980's to step permitting schools to use federal Chapter 1 funds to pay for a phonics program known as Direct Instruction Teaching Arithmetic and Reading, or RESTAR. The program, which is heavily structured and paces children through repetition sound drills, was dropped because its results did not meet expectations, according to Suzanne Sutherland, director of the district's language art specialists.

Over the years, officials explained, schools have been encouraged to replace that kind of an approach with strategies focusing more on early use of literature and writing. Currently, most schools are using a blend of traditional phonics instruction and whole-language methodologies and continue to use basal readers.

The changes in reading programs have met with mixed success, however. While scores on standardized reading tests have risen in some schools in recent years, others, such as Douglas Elementary School in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, have experienced a decline.

"Our kids were suffering," said the school's principal, LaSalle Donnell. "We went to somewhat of a whole-language approach but the teachers were never as gung ho about it as they were about DISTAR."

"There are youngsters somewhere in this country whose mothers and fathers still have time to read to them and are able to help them figure out how to unlock words," said Principal Thaddeus F. Lott Sr. of Wesley Elementary School, who led the fight to reinstate DISTAR funds. "For us, whatever a child learns for the most part happens in school and we have to give them the skills to learn to read without someone standing over their shoulder."

Wesley was the only school in the district that continued to use DISTAR long after funding for the program ended. Students at the school, more than 90 percent of whom are poor and black, score in the top third or quarter of all schools in the district on standardized reading tests, according to district officials.

Wesley's success with DISTAR, which is used in conjunction with whole-language strategies, led other principals to take a second look at the program.

'Each School Is Different'

Responding to the eight schools' concerns, the school beard agreed this month to set aside $70,000 in district funds to purchase DISTAR program materials for use on a trial basis over the next two years. In addition, a teacher trained in the program will monitor it at all of the schools involved in the pilot, said Susan Sclafani, the district's assistant superintendent for program planning.

Ms. Sclafani said the change was not an indictment of whole language, but reflects a shift in the district's management philosophy.

Under the district's newly appointed superintendent, Frank R. Petruzielo, the district is moving toward a site-based-management approach in which more of the responsibility for curricular programs is placed in the hands of local schools.

"Each school is different and they can best make the decision about how to meet their students' needs," ' she said.

The district's 162 other elementary schools plan to continue to use whole language or a combination of approaches, officials said.

Fearful of a possible whole-language backlash, however, some schools have advised teachers to avoid those terms, said Principal Steven Amstutz of Mark Twain Elementary School.

Mr. Amstutz' school, a language-arts magnet, has been slowly moving towards whole-language approaches for several years.

"Our kids have shown tremendous improvement in creative writing," he said, "and I'll take that to the bank any day."

Vol. 11, Issue 12, Page 5

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