Reading & Literacy

Calif. Text Adoption Puts Emphasis on Phonics

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 15, 1997 5 min read
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After years of contentious debate in California about teaching children how to read, the state school board has capped off its effort to improve achievement with a renewed emphasis on phonics in the nation’s largest textbook adoption for English-language arts.

But the adoption has done little to satisfy whole-language advocates, who charge that it is an unfair retreat from literature-based methods, and some teachers, who say that the rejection of some widely used books and products could leave them without valuable instructional materials.

Placing much of the blame for dismal scores on national and state reading tests on the whole-language movement, the state board last month rejected all materials that it felt lacked sufficient emphasis on basic reading skills.

By a unanimous vote, it adopted 16 of 18 sets of materials for students through 8th grade that the state curriculum committee had recommended.

“The legislature has been quite vocal in speaking to the need to restore strong basic skills,” Yvonne W. Larsen, the chairwoman of the board, said in an interview. “What we are looking for is a balanced approach. ... We want voracious readers, but our feeling is they’ve got to have the basic skills first.”

Concession on Math

In 1988, California adopted a curriculum framework that emphasized the whole-language method, which promotes reading instruction through literature with less emphasis on sounding out words and spelling accuracy.

But when California, which had long prided itself on offering students a sound public education, found itself sharing the bottom rankings with Mississippi and Louisiana on national reading assessments, policymakers frantically searched for a cause, and many pointed the finger at whole language. The result was a renewed focus on phonics, which teaches reading by sounding out letters and letter combinations.

The push for phonics has progressed in states throughout the country, including North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

A back-to-basics approach has also occurred in mathematics instruction. But in that subject, the California state board last month acquiesced to petitions signed by more than 3,000 teachers and appointed three reform advocates to the panel that is rewriting the state math framework. Last fall, the board bypassed most of the nominees that the curriculum commission had recommended, leading to charges that the framework committee was stacked with traditionalists.

Skills Take Precedence

As for reading, California education leaders pledged that they would work toward promoting a balanced approach by having teachers blend basic-skills instruction with exposure to rich literature and writing.

Gov. Pete Wilson and state lawmakers have since pushed for a more skills-based approach to reading instruction. The ABC laws, passed by the legislature in 1995, require state education officials to adopt scientifically proven and phonics- and skills-based materials. Lawmakers provided an extra $152 million in the 1996-97 budget for the purchase of new textbooks and teacher training.

Moreover, in the governor’s communications to the state board, the subject of balance is never raised.

“For too long, teachers have had to secretly sneak phonics-based textbooks into the classroom,” the Republican governor said in a statement praising the board’s vote. “Thanks to the board’s vision, those shameful days are over.”

Before the vote, Mr. Wilson urged board members to reject two of the products originally approved by the curriculum commission. Citing the opinion of Marian Bergeson, his education adviser, he said the textbook series by Rigby Education Inc. of Crystal Lake, Ill., and the Wright Group of Bothell, Wash., did not meet the criteria outlined in the state laws.

The board followed his advice and rejected the products, despite pleas from educators around the state. Several hundred teachers wrote to the board, saying that they use the Rigby and Wright materials in their classrooms.

“We are very, very disappointed, and frankly I’m astonished,” said Colleen Driscoll Solomon, a literacy teacher at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School in Tujunga. She said she has had tremendous success teaching reading with the Rigby and Wright products. One of 115 teachers to evaluated the materials for the curriculum commission, Ms. Solomon said that they exceeded the board’s requirements.

But Carol Jago, a member of the state’s English-language-arts framework committee and the director of the California reading and literacy project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the rejected materials were not comprehensive or balanced enough to make the cut.

“Rigby and the Wright Group materials are fabulous, but they are not teacher-proof,” Ms. Jago said. “You need teacher training to implement them. They work best with experienced teachers,” she said.

National Influence

The move leaves the two publishers all but out of the scramble for millions of dollars in textbook money in a state that commands roughly 10 percent of the national market. While California schools can spend the entire balance of their state textbook aid on approved materials, only 30 percent may be used to buy products not on the state-approved list.

And because California and Texas are the most influential textbook-adoption states, publishers often prepare their materials for the national market based on the the two states’ specifications.

The Rigby products were written expressly to meet California’s new skills’ mandate, said Steven Korte, the president of the company. “We have never labeled ourselves as a whole-language provider,” Mr. Korte said. “For some years now, we have been using the balanced-literacy approach.”

The California text adoption has angered whole-language advocates, who said that blame for students’ poor performance should go to the state’s large class sizes, which officials are now working to cut, and to financial constraints.

“This is an example of the hysteria that is affecting decisionmaking in education,” said Kenneth Goodman, a founder of the whole-language movement and a language professor at the University of Arizona. Mr. Goodman said he was disturbed by reports that his research and that of others who espouse whole language were “blacklisted” by the board, a charge that board members deny.

“California goes through a very careful process of approving materials for adoption,” Mr. Goodman said. “Then to have the board shoot down [that decision] and have the governor intervene ... it’s unconstitutional,” he charged.

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