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As noted recently in your In the Press column (Education Week, Sept. 25, 1985), Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond argue in "Rumors of Inferiority: The Hidden Obstacles to Black Success" (The New Republic, Sept. 9, 1985) that genetic explanations for black intellectual performance are "absolutely incorrect." Research data accumulated by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights would seem to underscore this conclusion.

The Catholic League in 1978-79 randomly selected and studied 54 inner-city, private elementary schools in eight cities. One of these schools, St. Leo in Milwaukee, gave researchers an uncommon opportunity to observe the educational progress that black students can make when they are given access to a high-quality education.

St. Leo opened as a Catholic school in 1977, after it had been closed as a community school. Thus, St. Leo's students, except for the 1st graders, were transferring from the local public-school system; 96 percent of them were black. On average, these transfer students began their studies at St. Leo with basic skills decidedly below the national norms. By the end of their first year in the new school, however, their performance had improved markedly.

On the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, 27 of the 30 1st graders were reading at level 6--or 2nd-grade level--at the end of the first year. Two of the remaining 1st graders were performing at level 5 (that is, at grade level); only one was performing below grade level, and that child was reading at level 4.

The 4th graders, who had averaged two years below grade level in the fall, finished the year within three months of their expected level of reading and within four months of their expected levels in mathematics and study skills. The 6th graders, who on average came to St. Leo more than two years behind, were only nine months behind after their first year. The 7th graders, who had lagged two and a half to three years below grade level in the fall, were performing just one year below their expected achievement level when the school year ended.

Students at St. Leo continued to make academic progress in subsequent years. Standardized test scores in 1980 showed the 7th graders functioning above the national norms in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation; they were within six months of the norm in vocabulary, word usage, mathematical concepts, and problem-solving. The school's principal, George Raymond, attributes the improved performance of St. Leo students to dedicated, caring teachers, consistent classroom discipline backed by religious and moral values, and parental involvement in the school.

The Catholic League's study of inner-city private schools revealed that a school's effectiveness is attributable to several factors: strong instructional leadership by the principal; a school climate that by virtue of being orderly and safe is especially conducive to learning; staff agreement on and emphasis of basic-skills instruction; high teacher expectation of pupil performance; and a system that links pupil performance to instructional objectives.

Virgil C. Blum, S.J. President Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Milwaukee, Wis.

Now we know the cause of learning disabilities and dyslexia: It is the whole-word, or "look and say," method of teaching children to read. This is Rudolf Flesch's opinion as stated in his Commentary ("Why Can't Johnny Read? We Taught Him Incorrectly," Education Week, June 12, 1985) and reiterated in his subsequent letter to the editor ("Educators Should Try Using Phonics Method, Then Compare Results," Education Week, Sept. 25, 1985).

Let me propose another title: "Why Flesch Can't Tell Cause From Effect."

Frederick A. Grant Jamestown, N.D.

In a recent Commentary, Peter Rynders missed the point in his attempt to downgrade the work of Rudolph Flesch and the significance of phonics as the best way to solve reading problems ("Systematic Phonics Alone Won't Help Johnny's Reading Problem," Education Week, Sept. 4, 1985). In reality, Mr. Rynders's difficulty is not with phonics, which he fully supports, but with what he refers to as "function" words--high-frequency words such as was, were, which, the, who, and so on. He complains that even children who have had phonics instruction break down and fail because they can't learn these difficult abstract words.

Of course they do. All children have difficulty learning to deal with these words, which have no concrete meaning whatsoever, except as grammatic-syntactic signalers of tense, person, number, gender, time, position in space, and the like. It is this very combination of abstractness and structural irregularity that makes them the demon words for us all. The problem has been, and continues to be, the gross misunderstanding that exists concerning the supposed ability of a developing child to perceive these words accurately and consistently so that meanings can be associated with them.

The truth is that children should not be asked to deal with the printed forms of these words until they have demonstrated that they possess at least two skills that are needed for dealing with complex visual sequences of geometric forms.

First, they must demonstrate that they have developed the ability to visually perceive individual letters in space and consistently represent them in printed form. Second, they must demonstrate that they have developed the far more complex ability required for observing a specific series of letters in space and consistently representing them in printed form.

The cause of the error in the position taken by Mr. Rynders--and by other proponents of the notion that all children come to school prepared to learn function words from the outset--is the research he cites indicating that "skilled readers are most clearly differentiated from unskilled readers by their ability to comprehend words as wholes." Mr. Rynders's assumption is that since children arrive at school able to use function words fluently at the spoken level, they arrive equally well prepared to use them in an equivalent way on the visual or writing level.

In this, Mr. Rynders and others who hold such a belief are unequivocally wrong. The "whole," for the 4-, 5-, or 6-year-old, initially is not the completed word itself, but rather the individual letter. The basic unit of print is the letter. Each of us must learn how to see each of these complex geometric forms. This is a task that may require years for some developmentally immature individuals, yet only minutes for some few perceptually gifted ones.

The reason phonics instruction is better as an initial approach to reading is its susceptibility to being organized into logical and sequential units. Such units allow teachers and parents to discern immediately the errors made by maturing children.

Phonics methods are integrally related to the system used to produce first speech and then print. Any method that stresses function words from the outset has the potential for disastrous effect, since it lacks any essential underlying structural principle, other than frequency of use.

My 30-year experience with thousands of disabled and normally developing children and adults suggests that it is during the crucial first days and weeks of exposure to print that damage, in the shape of illiteracy, is done. The anxiety that results from persistent failure at this developmental juncture has the potential, in and of itself, for disrupting all future experiences with printed matter.

Raymond E. Laurita The Learning Center Yorktown Heights, N.Y

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