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THE NATION

School Excels in Reading by Sticking With What Works

April 01, 2002|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — From outside, Seaton Elementary School doesn't look like a national model for anything, except maybe urban decay. The windows of the beige brick building are barred, the garden out back is littered with beer bottles, and the adjacent blocks are scarred by the crumbling hulks of once-graceful brownstones.

But after being buzzed in past the security doors, a visitor can see reading taught with an intensity and structure that the Bush administration wants to replicate across the country.

Test scores have soared at Seaton, as has enthusiasm for reading. That has happened despite characteristics that have been barriers to learning elsewhere: Virtually all of Seaton's students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized meals, and English is not the first language for a third of them.

"These kids can do it . . . regardless of what people think, as long as they're given appropriate instruction," said Seaton Principal Willy Lamb. "Not that they don't come with some issues. But what we're trying to do is deal with those issues while still teaching them."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Reading program-A story in Section A on April 1 about a successful reading program at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., had three names incorrect. The correct spelling of the principal's name is Willie Lamb and that of the kindergarten teacher quoted is Mary Hailes. The correct name of the fourth-grade teacher quoted is Betty Wood.

The school is being used to bolster the argument that the nation's schools should stop embracing instructional fads and begin teaching lessons grounded in cognitive and educational science.

That culture shift is laid out in the education reform bill signed by President Bush in January. The Education Department will hand out more than $5 billion over the next five years for states to promote teaching reading based on what the legislation calls "scientifically based reading research."

Not philosophy. Not instinct. Not hope. Science.

At Seaton recently, preschoolers clamored over an inflated plastic doll called "Miss F" and begged for the chance to write the letter on the chalkboard. Then they all stood and stretched, touching their "fingers" to their "feet."

Such a lesson is based on research that has found that even 3-year-olds enjoy learning letters and sounds, giving them an early and fun start on skills crucial for actual reading.

Here, children begin reading in kindergarten. In one class, the children gathered around teacher Mary Hale could barely contain themselves as they repeated phrases such as "Andy Apple is an acrobat" and read in unison words rhyming with "at."

Second-graders during a recent visit were writing a response to a story using words such as "quarrel" and "warrior." And in a fifth-grade class, every student was able to flawlessly and passionately read his or her lines in a play about the Underground Railroad heroics of Harriet Tubman.

None of that was happening five years ago. That's when Seaton became one of nine District of Columbia schools in a federally sponsored study of the effects of a structured phonics program bolstered by intensive teacher training.

The difference, said veteran fourth-grade teacher Mary Woods, is "almost like night and day. These kids have a cockiness and a self-confidence because they know how to attack words."

That pleases Susan B. Neuman, assistant U.S. secretary of Education in charge of overseeing the overhaul of reading lessons nationally.

She began her career three decades ago in Berkeley, teaching in an open classroom of first-, second- and third-graders. Back then, she said, the dominant progressive philosophy held that children's natural curiosity would help them learn to read more or less on their own. Neuman and colleagues didn't so much as teach, she said, as they "trailed the children as they went through activity, activity, activity."

Some children did learn to read. But many did not. And they suffered the consequences, Neuman recently told educators gathered in Washington from 23 states to learn about the administration's Reading First and Early Reading First programs.

She left teaching after eight years for what was to turn out to be an illustrious career as a reading researcher. But she used the experience of seeing her students struggle as she sampled different techniques.

"We do have evidence. We do know what works," Neuman told the educators.

The evidence was summed up in 2000 by the National Reading Panel, mandated by Congress. To tap into the new federal reading money, states will have to agree to promote teaching consistent with its findings.

The money is far more than has ever before been made available. California alone stands to receive $134 million from the program this year and $147 million next year.

Typically, the federal government has left such decisions to the states. And, reading policy varies greatly. California, for example, already mandates phonics in early reading lessons. Other states, such as Connecticut, leave such decisions up to local districts.

In addition, for at least 50 years, the dogma of how best to teach reading has swung from one extreme to another, often amid rancorous debate.

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