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Published in Print: January 20, 1999, as Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine


Reading Reform: Lessons From Maine

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Maine's state motto is "Dirigo"--Latin for "I lead." Though Mainers don't always fulfill the motto's call, we do lead the nation in reading achievement. In the latest battery of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Maine's 4th graders ranked No. 1 in reading proficiency. Yet virtually all the national press attention recently in reading reform has been focused on California. It's ironic to me that we give so much attention to reading legislation in a state that ranked dead last on the same national test.

Bills that mimic some of the current reforms in California, emphasizing direct phonics instruction, are making their way through state legislatures across the country. As other states are in the midst of hastily adopting a reformed model of reading instruction that is unproven in its home state, it makes sense to look at successful reading reform.

In the past 15 years, Maine schools have made steady and significant progress in changing their reading programs and raising their standardized-test scores in reading through three statewide initiatives:

  • A change from using reading textbooks to literature-based instruction. In a survey conducted by the University of Southern Maine examining changes in reading instruction from 1983 to 1993, researchers documented a major shift among Maine elementary teachers from relying on textbooks to using children's literature to teach reading. In the 1983 survey, over 90 percent of primary-grade teachers in the state relied solely on reading textbooks ("basal" readers). By 1993, fewer than half of Maine teachers used basal readers as their primary texts for reading instruction.
  • A movement toward daily instruction in writing. Maine is the home of Nancie Atwell, a teacher and the author of the acclaimed book In the Middle. Ms. Atwell is widely credited with fostering the development of writers' workshops throughout the country. Writers' workshops build upon research that demonstrates reading achievement is directly linked to strong writing programs.
  • The implementation of Reading Recovery throughout most of the state since 1990. Research shows that children who struggle to learn to read are more different than they are alike in their needs, and they need consistent, individualized support. Targeting these nonreaders early, and using highly trained teachers versed in a variety of instructional techniques to help them, is a goal of Reading Recovery. Even Maine school districts that haven't adopted Reading Recovery programs have increased their commitment to early intervention with struggling young readers.

None of these Maine reading reforms was mandated at the state level. Maine has a long and rich history of local control. Changes were made as teachers, administrators, professors, and state officials carefully considered reading research and balanced these findings with local resources and student needs. But many of the reforms were supported at the state level. Reading Recovery has received new and significant state funding, starting in the mid-1990s, even as most state-funded programs in all areas were being cut. The state department of education has also funded incentive and teacher-development programs that assist teachers and school districts in implementing research-based reforms in literacy. This has been the consistent style of Maine literacy reform: few firm mandates, but financial support that encourages innovation, teacher retraining, and proven best practice.

It's doubly ironic and potentially tragic that most of the reform efforts in California are in direct opposition to changes in Maine. For example, California's legislation outlaws "developmental" (or "invented") spelling in the early grades, even though much research demonstrates how essential this component of early writing instruction is for development of reading skills. And California approves the use of only those textbooks that have the most lock-step and prescribed instruction in phonics.

It's not that Maine teachers don't value phonics instruction--far from it. But the Maine reforms point to an awareness that many useful lessons in phonics come when teachers have a strong, research-based reading program in place, and tailor their phonics lessons to the needs of students as these needs emerge in the classroom. This "embedded" instruction of phonics is specifically prohibited in the California legislation.

Some would say the differences between Maine and California students make comparisons irrelevant. Maine's population is 98 percent white, with English the first language of almost all students. California's population is very diverse. But that's also an important consideration in comparing the states--Maine's reading reforms over the past 15 years reflect a growing respect for student diversity. The implementation of writers' workshops, Reading Recovery, and literature-based reading programs allows teachers more flexibility in designing reading programs to meet every child's needs. In contrast, California is prescribing a one-size-fits-all model for reading instruction.

Learning to read doesn't guarantee mobility in society. Perhaps that's the hardest lesson of all from reading reforms in Maine. Many of our students can read, and we are working hard to ensure that those who can't read acquire the skills they need. But there is still a lot of poverty in our state. While high school graduation rates are high, college-attendance rates are low. And even college graduates struggle to find careers in the state to match their skills. Learning to read doesn't allow future citizens free access to high-paying jobs. Literate citizens are needed for social and economic reform, but literacy is only a first step. We know in Maine we have a long way to go in creating a society that's worthy of the students in our care.

Mainers view the reading wars outside the state the same way we view a horrible accident on the highway: We can't avert our eyes, and we feel a mixture of horror and gratitude. It's horrible to think of California teachers trying to implement Draconian reading reforms that will probably do little to increase student reading skills. And it's gratifying to realize we still have freedom in Maine to design reading programs based on the needs of our students and our knowledge of best practice. The California debates give Mainers a new awareness of this privilege, and our need to protect it.

Brenda Power is an associate professor in the college of education and human development at the University of Maine in Orono.

Vol. 18, Issue 19, Pages 33,52

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