Reading & Literacy

Majority of States Told To Revise Reading Plans

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 02, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: This story about states’ applications for federal Reading First grants incorrectly states Texas’ status. The state has not yet submitted its proposal.

Making good on its promise to scrutinize applications for the federal Reading First program, the U.S. Department of Education has returned many state proposals to their authors for revision.

As of late last week, 11 of the 40 states that had applied for the $900 million in grants had been approved, while the others were asked to make changes large and small to ensure their proposals meet all the specifications.

“They apparently had not gotten the word about how rigorous the review process was going to be,” Susan B. Neuman, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said last week. “Some have reapplied; a couple have re-reapplied,” after fixing their submissions, she added.

Susan B. Neuman

Ms. Neuman warned states this summer that the experts reviewing their applications would need clear evidence that grant recipients will use the money only for “scientifically based” materials, professional development, and instruction. Recipients also will have to show evidence that their approaches are yielding improvements in student achievement.

Federal education officials have expressed disappointment and frustration over the implementation of the Reading Excellence Act, the program approved by Congress during the Clinton administration that allocated $260 million a year in state grants. While that pot of money was intended for scientifically based professional development, as well as tutoring programs and family-literacy efforts, many states did not hold local grant recipients to the guidelines—a situation the current administration does not want to see repeated.

“Recently, I went into REA schools where we saw absolutely no [reading] program, and there were new teachers who had no training,” Ms. Neuman told representatives of the publishing industry at a conference here last week. “They’re doing a lot of this and a lot of that and a lot of nothing. ... Well, not while I’m around.”

Florida was among the first states to win approval under Reading First, in August. The state will use nearly $46 million in Reading First money to launch the Just Read, Florida initiative. Gov. Jeb Bush’s program, which was inaugurated by an executive order last fall, is designed to make reading instruction more consistent, systematic, and comprehensive statewide. Instructional methods and reading materials currently vary from district to district and, in many places, classroom to classroom. (“Following National Lead, Florida Pushes Phonics Instruction,” March 20, 2002.)

California, which has adopted several measures in recent years to compel districts throughout the state to use phonics-based instruction, is set to receive nearly $133 million from Reading First this year. The other nine states that have gotten the Education Department’s blessing—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Utah—have received the poverty-based grants, ranging from nearly $10 million to $32 million each, for the current fiscal year.

Conversely, Texas, where President Bush championed a statewide reading program while governor that was a model for his federal initiative, is still awaiting word on its proposal. The state could receive more than $79 million a year under the six-year grant program. New Jersey is making some minor changes to its proposal and will resubmit the application in the coming weeks, a consultant to the state education department said.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Meanwhile, at a reading symposium held here last week by the Association of American Publishers, Ms. Neuman and other reading researchers urged publishers to simplify their products and give more explicit instructions for teachers. Most textbooks and reading programs have a confusing hodgepodge of options, several experts said, and they do not spell out clearly what teachers should teach, how they should teach it, how many times they should repeat it, and when they should recycle or restate the lessons.

“It would be good to tell teachers whether a lesson is a must or an option,” said Dorothy Strickland, a professor of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. The materials, she added, are far too complicated.

Other experts said that publishers have gotten better at incorporating basic lessons on phonics-understanding that letters have sounds— and phonemic awareness—the recognition that letters and sounds are manipulated to make up words. They have not included enough guidance, they said, for teaching the other three essential elements of effective reading instruction outlined in Reading First: fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Catherine Snow, a Harvard University researcher, said that teachers need better materials for building vocabulary skills in young children, an essential skill for future reading success.

Jerry Zimmerman, the president of Breakthrough to Literacy, a reading program published by the Coralville, Iowa-based division of the McGraw-Hill Cos., has also been trying to spread the word that a good reading program has more going for it than explicit phonics. His program, he said, is more comprehensive.

Other reading experts have pushed a phonics-first instructional approach without stressing the other elements, Mr. Zimmerman added. “Publishers have done exactly what they’ve been asked to do,” he said.

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