In an effort to improve dismal reading scores, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools has ordered that phonics be made a mandatory part of curriculum districtwide, officials disclosed Friday.

The program, including several other plans to improve reading, could be put into effect within a few months. The move toward phonics aims to clarify a jumble of ambiguous guidelines that has resulted in a variety of uncoordinated approaches to reading instruction.

Phonics is part of most schools’ reading programs, said Deputy Supt. Liliam Castillo. But phonics instruction is often blended into other activities, such as reading stories or storytelling. Now the district is clear: Phonics lessons should be strengthened and should stand alone as a teaching tool.

“It will not be an option to teach phonics,” said Castillo, who is in charge of curriculum for Los Angeles Unified. “We thoroughly believe that phonics is a critical part of learning to read.”

The new policy would have a significant effect on the way the district implements Proposition 227, which requires that all students be taught almost entirely in English. Now, formal phonics instruction is delayed for many students until they become fluent in English.

Supt. Ruben Zacarias said earlier this year that improving reading skills was his top priority. Results from last spring’s standardized tests revealed that two-thirds of the district’s third-graders could not read at grade level. His program would put the district in sync with the state, which has embraced phonics as the foundation of reading instruction.

Zacarias’ proposal requires approval by the seven-member Los Angeles Unified Board of Education and would cost $22 million over four years. It also calls for:

* Creation of a program for early identification of struggling readers.

* Revision of elementary school report cards to reflect phonics-based instruction.

* Devotion of two hours each day for reading.

* A process to identify three textbook series that all schools in the district would have to choose from, to provide consistency and continuity.

* Developing a method of assessing the needs of individual students.

* Special training and materials for teachers.

“This policy ensures that everybody knows they have to do it, and how to do it,” Castillo said.

The proposal drew positive responses from principals and teachers across the district, as well as from Marion Joseph, a member of the California Board of Education who compares the district’s existing reading program to “a Tower of Babel.”

“Zacarias has recognized that children in Los Angeles are not reading at the level that will enable them to be successful,” Joseph said. “Instead, they’ve been under the influence of people who believe reading is somehow acquired through osmosis by being surrounded by books. Test scores prove that isn’t working.”

“I applaud the superintendent’s efforts to use his leadership role to reinforce what is successful,” said Susan Arcaris, principal at Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood. “The whole idea is hopeful. We’re all on the same train now.”

Lloyd Houske, principal at Cahuenga Elementary School just west of downtown Los Angeles, called the proposal “fabulous,” even though “effective schools have been doing these things all along.”

“Still, when was the last time you heard a superintendent talk about instruction? They’re usually too wrapped up in budgets and management for that,” he said. “Zacarias must be commended for becoming our vision keeper.”

“I like it,” said Justin Ezzi, a fifth grade teacher at Park Western Elementary School in San Pedro. “But then, I’m a back-to-basics guy.”

In response to the new law, the district has been delaying formal reading instruction for children with limited English skills until they become fluent in spoken English. That process could take a year or more, resulting in a significant delay in reading instruction for those students.

Zacarias’ plan would ensure that formal reading instruction would not be delayed.

“We’re moving away from that thinking,” said Carmen Schroeder, associate superintendent of instruction. “Whether students are limited-English proficient or English speakers, they will begin to learn to read the first day of school.”

Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, called Zacarias’ proposal “a heartening development if it in fact means that Los Angeles Unified will implement a serious phonics program.”

However, he said that “sweeping changes have been proposed in the past that have not been translated into the classroom.”

Not this time, vowed Schroeder.

“Our program,” she said, “says, ‘Guys, let’s stop and ensure that we include systematic phonics instruction for beginning readers from day one.’ ”

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