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Ed. Schools Getting Heat on Reading

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Concern over what is widely seen as America's literacy crisis is turning a harsh spotlight on education schools, which critics say are failing to prepare elementary teachers for their primary task: teaching children to read.

Proponents of strengthening reading instruction contend that neither the amount nor the content of most reading courses is adequate to ensure that teachers can reach all students. They argue that states, which have been lax in their oversight, must revise their standards for teacher preparation and licensure to make sure that new graduates understand what works best in teaching reading.

Teacher education programs don't devote enough time for future teachers to learn "what is basically a very complex task that requires a rather extensive knowledge base to do well--especially to teach reading to kids who don't teach themselves," argued Louisa Cook Moats, a reading expert. She directs a research project in the District of Columbia schools in conjunction with the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

Prospective teachers typically take two or three courses in reading before being certified to teach elementary school, according to a survey conducted last spring by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington. In some states--such as Maryland--they are required to take only a single course. And some teachers who enter the classroom through alternative routes may receive no formal instruction at all in reading.

Teaching children to read is arguably elementary schools' most important job, providing the foundation for future learning in other subjects. But too often in teacher education, reading is treated as just another course, along with such staples as foundations of education and methods coursework in various subjects.

State Mandates

Noting that 40 percent of U.S. 9-year-olds scored below the "basic" level in reading on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a coalition of 12 leading education groups called last month for teachers to be prepared to "understand and apply the research base on effective reading instruction." ("Groups Outline Steps To Boost Reading, Math," Feb. 4, 1998.)

As matters now stand, says the paper released by the Learning First Alliance, "preservice education typically gives teachers too little instruction in reading methods and is often discrepant with research."

To try to fix the problem, a growing number of states are stepping in to mandate that education schools beef up their reading programs.

In Maryland, a state task force appointed by Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick recommended this month that elementary education majors take four classes in reading instruction and assessment instead of the current state requirement of one.

The task force, chaired by Patricia Richardson, the superintendent of the St. Mary's County district, believes that teachers need to know how children learn to read, what strategies to use in teaching reading, how to use and interpret assessments to diagnose problems, and how to select appropriate materials for teaching reading.

Teacher preparation varies dramatically, Ms. Richardson said, and has not kept pace with new knowledge about the reading process and how children learn to read. "To improve instruction, we need to be looking at more consistency," she said. "But 'consistent' doesn't mean the same. We're looking at best practices that all teachers should be familiar with."

California this June will begin administering its new Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, part of the state's broad overhaul of reading policies prompted by 4th graders' dismal showing on the 1994 NAEP. Candidates will be required to pass the test in order to get a teaching license.

As part of the California Reading Initiative, the state also is scrutinizing teacher training programs to ensure that they meet new standards for reading instruction.

"The attention to reading instruction as recently as two years ago was too relaxed," said David Wright, the director of professional services for the state's Commission on Teacher Credentialing. "There were colleges and universities giving too little attention to word recognition and other mechanical aspects of reading. We've paid the price."

In addition, lawmakers in Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin require teachers to study phonics instruction to earn a teaching license, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Policymakers in Washington state are debating whether to require specific pedagogy in teacher education and in-service programs.

While many educators resist such measures, they generally also acknowledge that the profession itself has failed to define clearly what reading teachers should know. That failure, in turn, is related to the persistent debate over how best to teach reading--by a phonics approach, through whole-language techniques, or a mixture of the two--and how to interpret research findings.

Whole-language teachers generally use children's literature to teach reading, working from the "whole" of a book back to the parts of speech as children need them. Phonics teachers, in contrast, start with letter-sound combinations to help children learn to tackle words.

Education schools "really must take a hard look at their programs and say, 'Are we giving these new teachers a knowledge base that includes strategies for decoding and comprehension and self-monitoring? Are we giving them skills to help kids read?'" said Allen Glenn, the dean of the college of education at the University of Washington in Seattle and the chairman of the Learning First Alliance.

'Rocket Science'

Teaching reading well--especially to students whose first language is not English and to those who don't get much support at home--is a complex and nuanced task, reading reformers argue. Ruth Wattenberg, the director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, sums it up this way: "Teaching reading is rocket science."

"To be an effective teacher in this day and age," said P. David Pearson, a professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing and a co-director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, "you need a full toolbox of strategies and a head chock-full of all the knowledge you can get."

Specifically, most reading reformers are calling for preservice teachers to receive a thorough grounding in the structure of the English language and in literacy development. Recent research has underscored the close link between spoken language and reading in young children and shown that many need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness--or the understanding that sounds in spoken words correspond to letters seen in print--and phonics, the process of linking letters and sounds.

In addition to this knowledge, reading educators say, teachers need to know how to assess individual pupils' reading progress, put together well-crafted lessons, and diagnose and correct problems. Novice teachers also should spend time in real classrooms, under the tutelage of experts, honing their skills. Tutoring youngsters or working in summer and after-school programs would provide still more practice.

"There's a lot of talk about the importance of phonological processing and understanding early reading," Ms. Moats said. "But very few people actually understand what that means in practice. Misinterpretations are rampant, superficial treatment is rampant, and poor application is rampant."

The Learning First Alliance--which includes the two national teachers' unions and the leading groups representing superintendents, principals, and school boards--is also calling for policy changes to enhance teachers' knowledge, including revised course-content and graduation requirements for teacher education programs, tougher accreditation standards for institutions, and stiffer licensing rules for elementary teachers.

The executive council of the AFT last week approved a lengthy resolution on beginning-reading instruction that will go before union delegates this summer. It calls for raising the preparation and licensing standards for elementary teachers "to include a core curriculum in reading instruction that reflects the best research evidence."

The teachers' union is discussing working with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education to create such a model curriculum.

Resources Lacking?

But some reading educators say the problems in preparing elementary teachers stem more from a lack of money, inadequate supervision of student teaching, and a scarcity of true partnerships with school districts. Teacher education programs also have been whipsawed over the years by states--California and Texas among them--that have tried to limit the amount of pedagogy they could teach their students, says Richard L. Allington, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany, and a prominent reading researcher.

Mr. Allington ticks off a list of things he'd love to see: time for his students to watch him give demonstration lessons, certification rules requiring students to be exposed to several different types of schools, and closer supervision of student-teachers by faculty members.

"None of that is going to happen," he said. "The amount of funding for teacher education in my 25 years [in the field] keeps declining."

And in making a case for fortifying reading preparation, Mr. Pearson of Michigan State added, reading educators have to compete with mathematicians and scientists who are also clamoring for teachers to learn more about their subjects.

Practical Approaches

In addition to ensuring that new teachers are better prepared, reading reformers are calling for well-designed professional development experiences for classroom veterans.

In Texas--where elementary teachers are required to take six hours, or two courses, in reading for licensure--the Houston district is spending millions to train its teachers in a "balanced approach" to teaching reading.

"We weren't finding that our teachers had been exposed to the research-based reading strategies we feel are necessary for children to be successful," said Phyllis Hunter, the district's manager of reading.

Two years ago, some teachers were teaching phonics, some were using whole-language approaches, and schools were using many different kinds of materials, Ms. Hunter said.

Now, educators are trying to blend the best of both methods. Last year, all K-3 teachers in the 211,000-student district received 30 hours of training and the materials they need to teach phonemic awareness and phonics. But they are to do so in classrooms that are rich in spoken language and good literature, rather than by using the worksheets that gave phonics instruction a bad name.

"We know how to teach kids to read," Ms. Hunter said, "we just don't do it every day and in every classroom for every child."

Educators may receive some guidance from a long-awaited National Academy of Sciences report on preventing reading difficulties, which is due out next month.

Dottie Fowler, a 15-year veteran who teaches 1st grade at Bailey's Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va., is the only K-12 teacher on the NAS panel. Reading is a "minuscule part" of most teacher preparation programs, she complained, despite its central importance to children's futures.

Ms. Fowler, who describes herself as "middle of the road," rather than wedded to a particular reading program, said she believes the "reading wars" between supporters of phonics and whole-language teaching have gotten in the way of professional consensus on reading instruction.

"It's easier to be ideological if you don't have children sitting in front of you day after day," she said. "When you're trying an approach and it's not working, you have to back up and say, 'I have to try something else.' You can't say [students] don't fit the program."

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