Calif. Plotting New Tack on Language Arts

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Dismal test scores and recent research that warns against a single approach to instruction have spurred California education officials to revamp the state's pioneering techniques for teaching young children to read.

A flurry of activity is under way to wed the literature-based instruction adopted in 1987 with a more structured phonics and basic-skills approach that had been largely abandoned in recent years.

In other words, whole language is in, but so too is phonics.

"There has been a crisis developing," said Dennis Parker, the manager of language arts and foreign languages for the state education department. "It's all coming to a head now."

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent, has created a task force on reading and put textbook publishers on notice that the instructional materials for the 1996 K-8 language-arts adoption must reflect the new approaches to reading instruction.

The education department is drafting guidelines to help schools enhance literacy by using a comprehensive approach to instruction. Mr. Parker said the document, aimed at teachers in the early elementary grades, would be ready for release in the fall, pending the task force's blessing.

"Our goal is not to go back to one or push for the other," Mr. Parker said of the differing approaches. "Our goal is to put together a comprehensive program that will work for every child."

In the Basement

Although some teachers have been frustrated with the literature-based instruction for some time, the scores of California students on state and national reading tests brought the issue to a head this spring.

On the now-defunct California Learning Assessment System for language arts, only 23 percent of 4th graders and 38 percent of 8th graders achieved at a level of 4 or higher on a scale of 1 to 6.

California's 4th graders dropped to the basement, among 39 states reporting, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, which ranks students as advanced, basic, or below proficiency. Only one-third of the state's students reached the basic or advanced levels.

In a report released last month, the California School Boards Association concluded that "many schools and school districts in California are in the midst of a reading crisis." Although it noted a host of underlying reasons for the predicament, the report ranked "the lack of a structured, sequential reading program" at the top of the list.

Middle of the Road

In 1987, California adopted a literature-based framework for teaching language arts, commonly known as the whole-language approach. The methodology relies on the use of appealing stories to interest students in reading and help them derive meaning from the literature.

Whole language was expected to replace the drill-and-skill routine that many teachers had been taught to use. The framework did not prohibit skills development, but gave it short shrift.

Textbook publishers were told to incorporate the new teaching style in materials submitted for adoption in 1988. In addition, a number of schools of education stopped teaching skills development.

While other states looked at California's method--and adopted some aspects of it--few, if any, embraced the literature-based approach as wholeheartedly.

Officials in some California elementary schools seized phonics books and spellers to insure that teachers were not ignoring the new instructional materials, said Diana M. Garchow, a veteran teacher and a member of the state reading task force.

In their place, "we got some beautiful pieces of literature that the children can't read," said Ms. Garchow.

She cited as an example the classic short story "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse." The state-approved version, she said, is in Old English, which few 6-year-olds can understand.

To Ms. Garchow, the term "whole language" means learning to read by osmosis.

"It's kind of like playing a tune and expecting [the novice] to play it back," she said. "Until you learn the scales and the mechanics, it is very difficult to do."

Ms. Garchow approves of the new direction that includes a return to such techniques as phonics, which emphasizes breaking down words into letter sounds.

She said she wants the state to keep the rich literature base. But, "I think it's really important that the state come out and say you have to teach phonics, you have to teach basics, you need a middle-of-the-road approach."

Textbook publishers also hailed the shift.

"We've been urging the state to go in this direction," said John B. Mockler, the California lobbyist for the Association of American Publishers.

Back in the 1980's, "everybody else was raving how wonderful [whole language] was, and we weren't saying that," he said.

New Reading Research

Bill Honig, who was the state superintendent when that approach was adopted, concedes that the whole-language framework was fuzzy.

"We made our mistakes because we weren't clear enough about this being a balanced approach," he said. Mr. Honig also noted that breakthrough research about how children learn to read was unavailable then.

In the past few years, studies have shown that while some youngsters succeed without skills instruction, many children need a more systematic approach to learn how to read and to understand what they have read.

Research also indicates that even children who have learned to read with relative ease can benefit from structured skills instruction, Mr. Honig said.

MaryEllen Vogt, a national board member of the International Reading Association and a past president of the I.R.A.'s California affiliate, said she worries the pendulum may swing too far away from the whole-language emphasis, for reasons that have little to do with best practice.

"The teaching of phonics is compatible with literature-based instruction," Ms. Vogt said. "Keeping that in balance is the trick."

Vol. 14, Issue 38

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