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Calif. Teachers Told They Can Use Phonics, Grouping

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Responding to confusion surrounding their statewide framework for teaching reading through literature, California education officials have advised elementary teachers that they may also use phonics and other basic-skills strategies and group students flexibly.

But officials cautioned that their new directive represents only a clarification of the innovative literature-based approach approved by the state in 1987.

The alternative methods should be used sparingly and expeditiously, officials said, and any grouping should be short lived.

"The goal here is to add detail and more practical everyday guidance,'' said Dennis R. Parker, the manager of language arts and foreign languages in the state education department.

The department is developing a series of monographs for teachers, and this week the state board of education is scheduled to adopt the criteria for textbook selection in 1996, which are intended to provide further help to teachers in implementing the literature-based approach.

Among the state's likely requirements will be the addition of several hundred "little book'' titles that teachers will be able to use to help children who are not yet able to read and fully comprehend the core books in the framework.

No One Way To Teach Reading

California was one of the first states to approve a curriculum framework for language arts that called for "real literature'' in beginning-reading programs as a way to make learning meaningful and promote children's love of reading.

But the state subsequently has been criticized for failing to provide young children with the basic skills they need to be successful in all academic areas.

Some critics have cited the reading results of the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed California 4th graders' scores near the bottom among states in reading proficiency. (See Education Week, Sept. 22, 1993.)

According to Mr. Parker, though, the framework was never intended to prohibit teachers from using phonics and other techniques for fostering some children's reading ability.

But in the radical shift from traditional methods of teaching reading to a literature-based one, several misunderstandings arose.

Some teachers, Mr. Parker said, were under the impression that all students in a class had to be on the same page of the same story at the same time.

Another misunderstanding was that teachers could not under any circumstances pull students from the class as a whole.

"You were led to believe if you had all your children together in one classroom with one teacher, they were all going to learn to read,'' said Cindy Zettel, a reading specialist for the Robla school district. "That just doesn't happen.''

"The message that is now heard loud and clear is there isn't just one way to teach reading,'' said Ms. Zettel, who added that she supports the framework. "These documents now are clarifying that.''

A reliance on more than one strategy, education officials said, is necessary because children begin their formal schooling with a wide variety of cultural and familial experiences.

Some children come from homes where reading and books are commonplace, while others come from homes bereft of reading materials. And a significant number start school with little or no familiarity with English.

Within Ms. Zettel's district, she said, are children who came to school never having had a story read to them, never having been to a library, and not knowing the differences among colors, numbers, and letters.

Getting Used to Literature

Kenneth G. Goodman, a professor of education at the University of Arizona who has been a leading critic of basal readers, acknowledged the difficulties facing teachers in California and elsewhere who are shifting to a literature-based curriculum. But, he said, schools should respond by giving teachers more time and professional development, rather than by allowing them to resort to traditional reading strategies.

"One of the things that always happens when you have this kind of major shift in focus, away from skills and teachers as technicians administering highly sequenced programs to more meaningful kinds of things, is it takes time for people to get used to it,'' he said.

Highly qualified teachers are "kid watchers,'' he said. "They're very good at seeing development in kids.''

"If they find kids who aren't reading or writing, they are finding a wide range of ways of helping those kids,'' Mr. Goodman continued. "It's not a question of, O.K., the literature didn't work, so let's bring on 'Hooked on Phonics.'''

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