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English Classes Use Novel (and Story) Approach

September 14, 1989|SHANNA GOWENLOCK | Times Staff Writer

With a new school year just under way, Ventura County educators are bidding adieu to Dick and Jane.

And to fill-in-the-blank workbooks, spelling drills, grammar tests and vocabulary lists.

And to slow, average and fast reading groups.

And, perhaps, to report cards that gauge language skills along the traditional lines of composition, comprehension and mechanics.

The dramatic changes in English instruction stem from a state Department of Education study recommending greater reliance on literature than on memorization. The study came out in 1987, but is being implemented just this year in Ventura County.

Teachers' Praise

Statewide, the program will be re-evaluated in 1994, but George Nemetz, a consultant for the Department of Education, already is convinced that it will serve as a model for other states. The approach was commended in November by the National Council of Teachers of English, and Nemetz says it is very popular elsewhere.

The idea is to focus greater attention on stories, ranging from fairy tales for kindergartners to "Pride and Prejudice" for high school students, educators say. Literature would be at the core of language arts, winning back student interest in reading, they added.

"A lot of us learned just fine under the old system, but look at us now. We would rather turn on the tube than read. One reason for that is that we weren't brought up on good books," said Chuck Weis, assistant superintendent for educational services in the Fillmore Unified School District.

"So what we're saying now is that sure, children can memorize verbs and nouns and words, but that kind of learning is really limited and isn't very exciting for the student," he said.

Whether the new program can turn Jane Austen into Madonna remains to be seen, but administrators are enthusiastic.

Said John Bay, Ventura Unified School District's director of curriculum and instruction: "Under the old system, for example, you just got handed a list of words to memorize. Now there's a tendency to say, 'Hey, let's look for those vocabulary words in the literature we're reading.' "

But, Bay said, the new system will prove challenging for many teachers. "In many respects, it's a more difficult way to teach because you can't turn to a formula."

One of the most visible differences in the classroom is that students no longer are grouped by ability. Instead, they all work at the same tasks at the same time.

Sue Miller, a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Sespe Elementary School in Fillmore, said: "Traditionally, children who were in the advanced reading groups were the ones who were given the chance to really read a book and discuss it in terms of ideas. Now we're giving all the students a chance to do that."

She said that because the curriculum calls for studying a book by using a variety of approaches, such as class discussions, reading aloud and placing students in cooperative groups for activities such as problem-solving and essay writing, slower learners have an easier time following, yet gifted students are not held back.

Retaining Interest

"We have so much different stuff going on in terms of how we're studying a book that we're not going to lose either the slow student or the gifted student, I don't think," she said.

Now that the program is under way countywide, one issue facing many schools is how to update report cards to better reflect this style of teaching. Many districts will probably modify their report cards this year, said Diana Rigby, coordinator of curriculum and staff development for the Ventura County superintendent of schools.

"Our report cards haven't yet caught up with this program, so while we're teaching in a way that combines all these skills into one activity, the report cards still have categories that say reading and spelling, etc.," said Georgene Fletcher, a second- and third-grade teacher at Mound Elementary School in Ventura.

Closer Observation

Fletcher said there will be fewer tests, requiring teachers to more closely observe students' problems and progress.

However, such standardized statewide tests as those offered by the California Assessment Program will still be given.

Mound, a year-round school, adopted the approach when classes resumed in July. So far, some teachers give it high grades.

"The children are much more motivated by this type of reading," said Kathy Crowder, a Mound fifth-grade teacher. "Traditionally, language is broken up into little parts. That is not the most effective way to teach reading. The most effective way is to let children be involved. It puts it into a context."

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