California today is expected to complete its return to phonics as the foundation of reading instruction when the State Board of Education adopts new guidelines calling for students to learn basic word skills before tackling literature and other material.
The blueprint for classroom lessons will cap four years of reading reform in California and drive fundamental changes in curricula, textbooks and teacher training.
The reading and language arts "framework" will replace 1987 guidelines that called for students to learn to read by being immersed in literature. That approach was based on a method of instruction known as "whole language," and is now widely blamed for the dismal performance of California's elementary school students on national tests.
"The idea of starting with literature certainly didn't work for large numbers of California children," said Marion Joseph, a member of the state board. "You can only attend to the great ideas if you can get through the mechanics automatically and fluently."
Besides shifting philosophies, the new framework urges schools to devote more time to reading.
Pupils in kindergarten through third grade should spend a minimum of 2 1/2 hours on the subject each day. Those in grades four through eight should spend two hours. And high school students should take at least one language arts course per semester.
Now, school districts decide how much time elementary and middle school students spend on language arts and other subjects. High school students are required to take three years of English.
Language arts isn't the only subject undergoing revision. The board also is scheduled today to approve a separate framework for mathematics.
Both of the instructional road maps will affect schools nationwide because of the influence California exerts as the country's largest textbook market, analysts say.
"The textbooks that publishers will develop and submit in California will be the front-list offerings they will try to sell in other states," said Rick Blake, vice president of the school division for the Assn. of American Publishers.
Few issues have polarized teachers the way reading has divided advocates of phonics and whole language. From colleges of education to elementary school classrooms, instructors have waged sometimes bitter campaigns over how best to teach reading.
The new framework embraces elements of both approaches, reflecting the prevailing view of researchers that effective reading programs need to combine foundational skills and real books. The critical factor, officials say, lies in the sequence of instruction.
The new guidelines make clear that early reading lessons need to explicitly teach fundamental skills.
Starting in kindergarten, pupils need to learn that words are composed of bits of sound, and that those sounds are represented by letters.
As children move through the primary grades, they learn to blend sounds into more complex words.
At the same time, students must be exposed to literature, expository texts and other materials so they can build their vocabularies and develop a love of reading, according to the framework. Vocabulary and reading comprehension should be taught explicitly as part of the process.
The guidelines emphasize that students must become fluent readers by the end of third grade or risk falling behind as their course work grows increasingly complex.
"The kind of pressure we put on kids after grade three increases dramatically," said Edward Kame'enui, an education professor at the University of Oregon and coauthor of the framework. "If you can't read, you can't get access to the information. You won't be able to participate, period."
Officials have held public hearings and revised the framework during the last year. The state board is scheduled to vote on the final draft today.
The vote will culminate a sequence of reforms that began in 1995 after California's fourth-graders posted the lowest reading test scores among 39 states.
Nearly 60% of the state's fourth-graders were found to have less than basic skills, preventing them from gaining even a superficial understanding of most texts, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found.
The scores alarmed educators and lawmakers.
The state's superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, convened a task force to fix a "crisis that demands our immediate attention."
The Legislature passed laws requiring phonics lessons in new textbooks, smaller class sizes in the primary grades and phonics training for new teachers.
Then last November, the State Board of Education adopted new standards for what students need to know at the end of each year.
The framework is based on those standards that, among other things, call for kindergartners to learn sound-letter relationships, develop reading comprehension and write simple words.
Many experts praise the state for taking a comprehensive approach to early reading and for aligning its curriculum, instruction and assessment.