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Los Angeles Times Interview

Duane Alexander

Catching Kids Who Can't Read, a Guardian Extends His Reach

October 11, 1998|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is author of "Something Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start."

BETHESDA, MD. — For years, America's reading teachers were caught in a battle between two approaches: whole language, which emphasizes reading to children and presenting words in context to help their understanding; and phonics, which emphasizes the sounds and letters that make up words. Now, research supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is altering the field and offering teachers a scientific basis for teaching reading.

"The basic discovery from the program has probably been the concept of phonemic awareness, the concept that words are built of sounds," said Duane F. Alexander, the institute's director. "There are about 40 different phonemes in the English language. All words are put together from these sounds. Then comes the concept that these sounds are represented by letters or combinations of letters. The first is phonemic awareness. The second is phonics. They're not the same." For example, there are three phonemes in "cat": kuh, ah, tuh.

Phonemic awareness is a key concept children need to learn before they can read. "Some kids just pick it up automatically," said Alexander. "Others have to be taught." The federally supported research has also demonstrated that even those who have difficulty with phonemic awareness can be taught to read if they are identified early and if remedial steps are taken in first and second grade. The research also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, almost as many girls have difficulty learning to read as boys, but since they don't act out in class, they often don't get the remedial help they need.

Alexander, 58, grew up in Annapolis, Md., and enrolled in aeronautical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. "It was the Sputnik era and I was going to send rockets to the moon." But he quickly learned he wanted more contact with people and switched to premed. At Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his medical degree, he specialized in pediatrics. He had been a camp counselor and enjoyed working with children. A 1968 training program at the National Institutes of Health hooked him on research, and he has worked at NIH since 1971. Alexander served on the staff of a national amniocentesis study and then was the physician on the staff of a national commission on protection of human subjects of biomedical and behavioral research. He became NICHD director in 1986.

While at Penn State, Alexander was active in student government and played the tuba in the university's Blue Band. He still returns to play with the band at homecoming festivities. He and his wife, Marianne, met at Penn State; she heads a consortium of women's colleges that encourages students to prepare for careers in public service. The Alexanders have two children: Keith, 29, a doctoral student in history at the University of Maryland, and Kristin, 25, studying for a master's in environmental education at Mankato State in Minnesota.

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Question: Why, after all these years of focusing on reading, are so many children still unable to read and understand what they read?

Answer: We have been focusing on reading, but we haven't necessarily been focusing on the right things. For the last 15 years or so, reading instruction has been dominated by the concept that children don't need direct instruction to learn to read. They can just absorb it. . . . If you expose them to rich language in a context they can understand, a teacher need only to guide rather than instruct.

This is basically the whole-language approach that took hold in American education as a philosophy without a scientific base. That's the way that much of the instruction has been delivered in schools these days, as not really instruction but guidance and exposure.

Q: And for some children that works?

A: Yes, some children seem to learn to read on their own. Some learn to read in spite of what we do in teaching them. The problem is that for about 60% of kids this doesn't work. Reading is a bit of a struggle. For 20% to 30% of kids it's a real struggle. It's one of the hardest things they have to do in their whole educational experience, and they really need direct instruction in the basic processes of learning to read. . . .

What we're starting to discover is that brain patterns are different among kids who learn to read easily and kids who don't. . . . We're also looking at those children who require special instruction before they receive the intervention and after to see what kind of changes we're going to get in brain patterns. . . .

Q: Is there a test to predict who will have difficulty learning to read?

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