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Reading by 9 for Success

October 18, 1998

Reading pulls the levers of success in school, at work and in life. Children need to master this complex skill as early as possible. Most can learn to read competently, but in Southern California the majority do not during the first critical years of school. There can be no more excuses for this broad and chronic failure.

The Times today launches Reading by 9, this newspaper's crusade to help children learn to read in English by the end of third grade or age 9. Our news pages, and this editorial page, will continue to examine the problems that keep nearly two out of three third-grade students from testing at grade level in reading, and will also spotlight solutions that should result in measurable progress in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

As part of this call to action, teachers, parents and students will be asked, in the coming months, what they need to succeed in reading. Businesses, service organizations, community groups, existing literacy programs and individual volunteers will be asked to join in this partnership to improve early literacy.

The Times will also prod the next governor, Legislature, local school boards and districts to provide every primary teacher with reading materials, textbooks, training and other tools they need to do a better job.

The Times Festival of Books will also support this initiative with a strong emphasis on reading. Between what it will do in the paper and in community activities, The Times is committing more than $5 million in the next five years. Book drives, donations and fund-raisers will be encouraged to stock book corners in preschool and day care centers, improve school libraries and support public libraries.

Research shows that 95% of children have the capacity to learn to read, and there can be no more debate over what works. A key stumbling block to literacy in California has been the polarization of reading instructors into two camps.

Proponents of a teaching method called "whole language" emphasize reading and storytelling and dominated reading instruction in the state in the late '80s and early '90s. When a 1994 test showed the state's fourth graders plunging from 12th to last place among 39 states tested, many California school districts blamed whole language and reembraced the more traditional phonics teaching method, which focuses on teaching children the rules by which the 44 basic sounds in the English language are formed from the alphabet.

Research on the brain explored in today's installment of The Times' ongoing reading series suggests that educators have been falsely framing the debate. Most educators know that the fixation on the "whole language" teaching method was never meant to come at the exclusion of phonics, and that a mix of methods works. In fact, researchers say that intensive phonics training--including new, phonics-based computer reading programs--can actually rewire crucial neural circuitry in students having trouble learning to read.

Recent scientific research underscores the need for certain interventions:

* Teacher training. As a University of Texas language expert told The Times, the new research "is not having much impact" on classroom instruction. The state Department of Education can work with the pioneer in reading research, the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development, to improve teaching certification requirements.

* Early testing. Studying about 10,000 children over the past 15 years, the Childhood Health Institute has shown that with a $10 test, teachers can identify a student's specific literacy skills as early as kindergarten, but efforts to begin such tests have commenced only recently in California.

Researchers' understanding of how children read is still evolving and science will always be a poor substitute for an experienced teacher. But educators need to make better use of current research. Learning to read requires committed parents, prepared children, excellent teachers, first-rate resources and a state that holds high expectations of every child.

Reading by 9 represents this newspaper's commitment to be part of the solution to the reading crisis. We will advocate, facilitate and communicate for at long as it takes on behalf on a mission that must not fail: Our children must learn to read.

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For more information, please call toll-free (877) READBY9 or visit The Times' web site at www.latimes.com/readingby9. E-mail: readingby9@latimes.com.

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