A Chance to Improve Reading Instruction

February 19, 2007

A Chance to Improve Reading Instruction
Indiana Writers Group column for Feb. 21 and thereafter
745 words

By Andrea Neal

In the 2001-02 school year, Indianapolis Public Schools launched a reading initiative that used a lot more phonics in the early grades. The switch wasn’t easy on teachers. They had to change the way they did things: A different textbook, extra training, a more formulaic way of teaching.

Their new text, Open Court published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, wasn’t all that changed. Specialists came in and demonstrated strategies for urban children who have vocabulary deficits. The school day was altered to give pupils more language arts time.

Though test scores in the state’s largest school district still lag behind state average, there’s no denying they’ve jumped impressively since the reading program began. In the 2000-01 school year, 44 percent of third graders passed the language arts portion of ISTEP. In 2006-07, 61 percent did. In the 2000-01 school year, 21 percent of sixth graders passed the language arts test. In 06-07, 57 percent did. Those students were in first grade when the textbook change occurred.

Math scores went up, too. Third grade passage rates rose from 55 to 62 percent. Sixth grade scores increased from 30 percent passing to 70 percent. What’s math got to do with reading? ISTEP has a lot of story problems in it. “A significant percentage of the variance observed on math tests is determined by reading comprehension strategies,” one study notes.

The IPS experience is worth considering as school districts across Indiana go through the reading textbook adoption process. Every six years, the state invites publishers to submit books for a state-approved list from which local school districts must choose. This adoption cycle is critical because it’s the first to occur under No Child Left Behind, a federal law that requires reading instruction in our schools be supported by scientifically based reading research.

School districts are reviewing textbooks and have until July 1 to tell the Indiana Department of Ed which product they choose. Unfortunately, the department won’t single out the best so it’s up to school systems to figure out which are scientifically based.

All of the publishers have modified their textbooks and are touting changes, but some pay lip service to the elements of instruction that experts say are essential to a solid program of reading instruction. These are: phonological and phoneme awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. A few publishers remain predominantly whole language in approach.

If you thought the reading wars ended in 2000 with the release of  “Teaching Children to Read,” by the National Reading Panel, it’s not so. “Despite the scientific evidence, despite the flat-line reading scores… many teachers and school systems continue to embrace whole language” over phonics-based systems, according to Chester E. Finn Jr. and Martin A. Davis Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Whole language is the philosophy that children should learn to read by reading and figuring out words using context clues. Phonics advocates insist on step-by-step instruction in sound-symbol relationships.

The institute’s January report, “Whole-Language High Jinks,” notes that commercial products can make an impact if they are designed properly. “While no program is perfect, some do a reasonably good job, including SRA’s Open Court and Scott Foresman’s Reading Street,” it says. Both are on the Indiana adoption list and “are definitely in a category of their own,” says Tory Callahan, a reading specialist who has reviewed the textbooks and is advising a few Indiana school corporations. Six years ago, Open Court was the only textbook on the state list with an intensive phonetic component.

In an ideal world, textbook selection wouldn’t matter much because primary teachers would all be trained in the science of reading. They’re not. The National Center for Teacher Quality reports that only 15 percent of education schools teach the basics of scientific reading strategies.

IPS is poised to switch to the Scott Foresman text, a risky move because of the phenomenon known as implementation dip. When a school changes programs, even from one good one to another, test scores tend to fall temporarily as teachers adjust. “We’re still going to deal with the phonics,” says IPS Superintendent Eugene White. “We will continue to have good scores.”

IPS has proven this much: A good program and teachers trained to implement it can make a difference. On the other hand, as Finn and Davis warn, “the results of selecting the wrong program are profound.” With this textbook adoption, Indiana schools have the opportunity to make a profound change toward better reading instruction.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar and columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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