Refocusing On Teaching Phonics

Program aims to jump-start students' reading skills

CHULA VISTA — The kids in reading class at Castle Park High School are what Teri Swanson calls the “walking wounded” from the public education reading wars.

Some of these 14- and 15-year-olds started the semester reading at a first-grade level. So you might call Room 604 an educational ICU.

Swanson, a curriculum specialist for the Sweetwater Union High School District, said that what Castle Park and other South Bay high schools are dealing with are victims of whole language instruction. Whole language is a philosophy and teaching strategy that assumes children will pick up reading through interesting literature rather than through breaking down words.

The traditional method of teaching reading by linking sounds to letters was not in vogue in the early ’90s when these students were starting their education. So in high school they need phonics, and they need it fast.

The California Department of Education incorporated whole language into its English-language-arts guidelines in 1987, and the state approved an elementary grades textbook series that was whole-language based.

But after the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that nearly 60 percent of the state’s fourth-graders read at less than a basic skill level (only Louisiana finished behind California), the Legislature mandated a return to phonics instruction.

Castle Park teacher Diane Ruston is one of the district’s star teachers of what is known as metaphonological reading, which is basically a high-school-level phonics program.

In Ruston’s class, students concentrate on learning sounds. They spell with colored blocks used to represent sounds rather than letters. For example, a teaching assistant in a recent class had students use the blocks to spell nonexistent words like shrite, then change it to shroat, then to shroag. The nonsensical words are used to emphasize sound rather than spelling.

To practice making sounds, students look at flash cards that illustrate how to form the sound physically with their mouths.

It’s not just whole language that put the 15 students in Ruston’s class this semester. The education of Ada Spradlin, 14, has been disjointed by her frequent moves — she’s attending her 10th school since kindergarten. Jesse Silva, 14, wondered whether he was kept in bilingual education too long before he started reading in English. Robert Armstrong, 14, had ear trouble as a younger child, so he had trouble hearing the teacher.

As measured by standardized reading tests, students generally make two to four years’ progress in decoding (sounding out words) and a year to 18 months’ progress in comprehension during the single-semester class. That’s generally not up to grade level but is enough to give the students the tools to succeed in their other classes, educators said. The class is offered at all 20 Sweetwater high schools and junior high schools and is known on the district level as Reading to Learn.

The success of the program, now in its fourth year, earned Sweetwater a Golden Bell award last month. The California School Boards Association gives the awards annually to recognize excellence in education and to promote the programs as possible models for other schools.

Sweetwater is the only district in the county to have won two Golden Bell awards last month. It also won for the joint city-high school library at Eastlake High School.

Teaching reading at the high school level is becoming a trend as the state has established tougher academic standards and mandated tests to give a public accounting of how schools are doing their job.

Borrego Springs High School started a reading intervention class for a group of ninth- through 12th-graders in September. In fall 1998, Oceanside opened a ninth-grade academy where its students get phonics instruction as part of four daily hours of literacy. San Diego city schools have ordered seventh- and ninth-graders with low state reading test scores to drop an elective and take an intensive two-hour literacy class.

The problem of illiterate high schoolers isn’t new.

In fact, said Cheryl Dorris, a Sweetwater administrator, “I would say that students were graduated in the past that had great difficulty reading.” Since no one who has been through the program has reached graduation age yet, it’s too early to tell whether the program will improve graduation rates or produce a more literate graduating class.

High school teachers have traditionally been concerned primarily with teaching the content of their classes rather than the mechanics of learning, Dorris said.

“Those teachers . . . were never trained in how to teach a child to read or how to help a struggling child, because the assumption was the child learned to read in elementary school and comes to you a reader,” she said.

And teen-agers often are not comfortable admitting they don’t know how to read.

Erandi Torres, 15, said she remembers being told as a sixth-grader that she was at the third-grade reading level. She didn’t ask for help, however, and hoped teachers wouldn’t call on her for fear that other students would stare at her.

Robert, who hears normally now, said, “I think it (the class) is important because if I didn’t have this class I’d still be in the situation of being embarrassed or scared to read in front of people.”

Comments are closed.