Teacher Training Seen Key to Improving Reading in Early Grades

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Experts say that expanding tutoring efforts in grades K-3, as President Clinton proposes, may be of little benefit unless efforts are also focused on improving teacher preparation and classroom instruction.

"It makes no sense to have kids sit six hours in school and not be taught effectively, then to think that reading after school with a tutor is going to make everything right," said Robert E. Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the creator of Success for All, a national early-intervention program to assist elementary students in reading. "You just can't solve the problem of reading while leaving alone the instruction taking place inside the classroom."

Republicans have taken aim at President Clinton's plan--the America Reads Challenge--arguing that the focus should be on improving the skills of teachers instead of volunteers.

"With the federal government already spending $7 billion on remedial education and $4 billion on Head Start, why doesn't the literacy proposal re-evaluate ineffective classroom-based reading initiatives in these existing programs?" Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, wrote in a letter to Mr. Clinton this month.

Although many educators are enthusiastic about the president's idea of creating a corps of 1 million tutors and 30,000 reading specialists to help all students learn to read by the end of 3rd grade, they say that the initiative fails to address the inadequate training of classroom teachers in performing this most critical of tasks.

"Teaching reading is complicated. Teachers need to understand multiple layers of language ... where the gaps are with a student and how to plan lessons to reflect those gaps," said Judith R. Birsh, a master-teacher trainer at Teachers College, Columbia University, who last week hosted a forum on the inadequacy of teacher training in reading areas. "I really think that we have to retread the training of teachers with a greater emphasis on reading," she said.

Part of the deficiency is blamed on the ongoing tug-of-war over how best to teach reading. The drastic shift in many states several years ago toward what is known as the whole-language approach to reading was reflected in teacher education programs. That approach downplays the teaching of "decoding" skills--the essence of the phonics method--and aims to engage students in reading through the use of high-quality children's literature. The recent momentum toward balancing the use of literature with skills-based teaching methods, however, has left many young teachers without the appropriate experience.

Many teachers have no background in the balanced approach, Mr. Slavin said. "In a sense, there is an enormous retooling job to be done to bring teachers of beginning reading up to the current conception" of how to teach reading.

Minimal State Requirements

Requirements for earning teaching credentials vary from state to state, but most mandate that early-education majors take only one or two courses in reading foundations or instruction, according to Penelope M. Earley, the senior director of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

In many districts, reading specialists have helped fill in the gaps in the expertise of teachers. Specialists are generally required to have taken advanced courses in reading instruction, evaluation, and research. But, partly due to budget cuts, those positions have steadily declined nationwide over the past decade, according to Richard M. Long, the International Reading Association's Washington representative.

The IRA, a professional organization of language arts educators based in Newark, Del., is supporting the Clinton plan because of the thousands of new positions it would create for reading specialists. But extra money is still needed to improve professional development for elementary school teachers, the group's leaders say.

"Teachers need extensive training in the reading process," said Alan E. Farstrup, the group's executive director. "We are very concerned that the basic state-licensing programs may not be requiring enough experience and coursework in the area of reading."

But teachers' union officials say that finding qualified specialists to fill the part-time positions envisioned by the Clinton plan may be a challenge in many communities. "By even a loose definition of a reading specialist, the supply is lacking," said Bella Rosenberg, the assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

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