REYNOLDS GIVES MAVERICK TEACHER TWO YEARS FOR READING EXPERIMENT
THE OREGONIAN Copyright (c) 1997, The Oregonian Publishing Company
Thursday, October 23, 1997
SECTION: EAST ZONER PORTLAND ZONER SOUTHWEST ZONER
HEADLINE: REYNOLDS GIVES MAVERICK TEACHER TWO YEARS FOR READING EXPERIMENT
BYLINE: SCOTT LEARN of the Oregonian Staff
Summary: Chuck Arthur, who teaches Wilkes, uses mostly phonics not whole language -- plus discipline -- to get his students to read
Chuck Arthur, a first-grade teacher at Wilkes Elementary School,
says a way to teach all children with IQs above 65 to read is
right in front of educators' noses.
But Arthur believes the irrational appeal of fads, ignorance of research and fear of bucking the education establishment are keeping it out of the classroom. And that's the main factor turning a third of Oregon's third-graders into poor readers.
``We are subject to fashions at the expense of kids' learning,'' he says.
Arthur, 57, is not your typical first-grade teacher. He has steeped himself in education research for two decades, including four years of postgraduate work at Boston College. He has taught retarded children how to read.
He is outspoken, rock-solid in his convictions and, he admits, not always well-received by his colleagues.
Now the Reynolds School District is cutting him loose on a two-year experiment designed to help show that explicit, painstaking, step-by-step phonics education in the early grades should emerge from education's doghouse.
His subjects: the 23 first-graders in his charge. His hypothesis: None of them will fail.
``Every single kid you see here will be able to read,'' Arthur said. ``I have a non-English speaking Russian kid. He's going to learn how to read.''
No Squirming allowed
``OK. We're ready to go. Is everybody sitting? Good. We're
looking good. OK, here we go, let's go, let's go, let's say these
sounds. Let's do it.''
Arthur is sitting in a swivel chair on wheels, locking eyes with six children sitting in front of him, hands in laps, eyes on him.
As the children slowly sound out letters, then small words, Arthur
congratulates them, slaps them five, warns them he'll be coming back soon for more, and demands absolute attention.
Children may not talk out of turn. They may not squirm in their chair. They may not stretch.
Arthur, a former associate minister with a master's degree in divinity, says his reliance on phonics and his belief in disciplined, direct instruction are not based on religious faith or right-wing leanings.
In fact, he's a Democrat.
Like many teachers, Arthur's approach is based on the conviction that comes from dramatic success. He says he leans on the nation's decades of research in early childhood learning to back him up.
John Nelson, a grant writer at the nonprofit Columbia Education Center in Southeast Portland, got to know Arthur after his daughter transferred to his class last year.
``As soon as you start talking about direct instruction you're attacked as a right-wing wacko,'' Nelson said. ``You don't have to spend much time around Chuck to figure out that he's not a right-wing wacko.''
The supporting evidence
At least for the early grades, education research does back
up Arthur's use of detailed, explicit phonics. That includes a
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study
that evaluated research conducted over three decades.
The prevailing debate about reading pits phonics against whole language, which emphasizes learning words through meaning and context rather than sounds.
Both methods eventually work for children who learn to read easily, researchers say. But for the other third to 40 percent, neither is sufficient.
Even before phonics, struggling readers need training in ``phonemic awareness,'' the ability of children to distinguish sounds, pull them apart and put them back together.
The institute's study recommends that schools teach whole language, using interesting stories to develop vocabulary and language comprehension.
But the study also says that students, beginning in kindergarten, need to develop phonemic awareness. And the agency says schools should teach explicit phonics, the common sound-spelling relationships in words.
The trouble: Researchers say most primary teachers have not learned how to teach explicit phonics and phonemic awareness.
Don't blame TV
Arthur has been teaching it for 20 years. The first time he
used a detailed program was in 1977 in Massachusetts, where he
helped teach troubled, retarded first-graders.
He laid the reading building blocks one by one, helping the children first distinguish sounds, pull sounds apart and put them back together. Collectively, that set of skills is known as ``phonemic awareness.''
Then his students matched sounds to letters, sounded out letter combinations, sounded out words. Then they read.
``Before you can get them to sound out letters and words, you have to teach them that words have individual sounds,'' Arthur said. ``That's a genuine research discovery over the last two decades.''
That detailed approach requires students to sit still and pay close attention, so discipline is at a premium. And counter to today's education trends, the teacher has to methodically march the class through lessons, not step back and allow children to reach solutions in a more creative way.
By the end of the Massachusetts sessions, one student, Jay Chipman ``could read better than he could talk,'' Arthur said. ``I remember showing the mother that Jay could read, and she was just bawling. That code can be cracked.''
Unlike many educators, Arthur doesn't say poor readers come from homes where their parents don't read to them.
He has spent 16 of 26 years in the classroom teaching children with behavior problems. But he doesn't pin poor early childhood reading on emotional troubles, television, broken families or anything outside schools.
He believes the key is explicitly teaching children the ``alphabetic code,'' how to interpret the letters on the page.
Until they learn that, Arthur doesn't care if they understand what they're reading. He says he doesn't favor form over function. But in the age-old education debate, he does favor form before function.
``Just because you can't learn to read doesn't mean you're a dumb kid,'' he said. ``It's not a matter of intelligence. The main obstacle for learning to read is always the print.''
The track record
Arthur has used direct instruction curriculum all his five
years at Wilkes. His students have consistently scored higher
on statewide assessment tests in reading, writing and math than
students in the rest of district or the state.
He moved to first-grade this year, he said, because he found two-thirds of his third-grade students arriving were behind by one or two years in reading.
Early intervention is crucial, the National Institute of Child Health research shows. If students are struggling with reading at third grade, the agency's long-term studies concluded, 74 percent of them will remain poor readers by the time they reach ninth grade.
Arthur and Wilkes second-grade teacher Frank Chimenti have given themselves two years to show that their direct approach to instruction works for reading, math and writing.
Arthur's goal is to accomplish in one year what is usually done in two. He expects none of his children to fall below the 50th percentile nationwide, not only in reading but in math and writing as well.
Nelson said his daughter's experience in Arthur's class, and his belief in research-backed phonics, makes him certain that Arthur will succeed.
His daughter wasn't reading at all after three years in another school district, despite receiving extra reading help through a federally funded program, he said.
``She came into Chuck's class in late November as a nonreader, and by the
end of the year he was able to bring her up to par,'' Nelson said. ``Now it's all I can do to encourage her teachers to let her be in a reading group. They're saying, `Hey, she reads too well for that.' ''
Off the list
Arthur contends teachers aren't using phonics despite the anecdotal
and scientific evidence largely because of an ideological bias
against the direct, old-fashioned instruction required to teach
``The fact that (direct instruction) methods are effective is not important,'' he said. ``It is the way they get the results that offends people.''
The reading program he is using, Reading Mastery, is the only one he knows of that uses phonemic awareness and pinpoint phonics instruction as its base skill.
But the program, developed at the University of Oregon, hasn't been able to crack the state's list of acceptable materials. Instead, the state favors whole language programs or those that say they strike a happy medium between whole language and phonics.
Arthur thinks public school leaders and universities look down on the Reading Mastery program and other direct instruction materials because they give children less freedom of choice and equality than newer reform models.
He testified in June before the Oregon Senate in favor of a bill to require grade schools to teach phonics. Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the bill, saying he didn't want the state controlling local curriculum.
Arthur groups students by ability, a must in phonics programs but a practice that many reform educators frown on. His lowest group won't open a book until after Christmas, while whole language programs try to engage students by having them read interesting stories.
``It's a very sacred thing, knowing meaning, because reading is meaning,'' Arthur said. ``That doesn't necessarily mean you focus on it first.''
He also worries that too many educators think a teacher's dedication is what matters, not the materials he uses. That leads them to discount research into effective teaching methods, he said, or ignore it altogether.
On the other side of the ideological divide, Arthur said too many phonics backers latch on to programs that aren't based on research. Some of those programs don't address phonemic awareness, he said, or give teachers detailed, research-backed guidance for their lessons.
Those programs are likely to fail, Arthur said. ``Then they'll say, `I guess these kids can't be taught anything,' and that's not true.''
The system he uses gets down to the best wording for teachers to use in demonstrating a skill, the most effective way to correct students' errors and the examples necessary to ensure that students have mastered the skill, Arthursaid.
``People who just sort of love phonics, I'm afraid they haven't gone through that (scientific) process,'' he said.
John Deeder, deputy superintendent for the Reynolds School
District, says he thinks a balance of whole language and phonics
is appropriate. But he said university education schools have
``The education establishment has gone to whole language pretty strongly,'' he said. ``A lot of our teachers have been trained in literature-based approaches to reading, not in how to break down reading into minute little skills and in how to identify when a student is struggling.''
Realizing that, the district is training teachers to be able to teach students by having them accumulate ``bite-sized'' skills one at a time, Deeder said.
Other school districts are starting to swing back to phonics and direct instruction as well.
Portland Public Schools is putting more stress on phonics after seeing 18 of its elementary schools post among the 20 worst third-grade reading scores in the state last year.
When the district made the switch last year, Superintendent Jack Bierwirth said the schools paid the price for relying on a version of whole language that de-emphasized phonics.
Arthur grew up in the 1940s, another period when phonics was frowned on. He said he was a poor reader all the way into college.
``I guess I can empathize,'' he said. ``I can't stand the idea that a kid goes through school and does not know how to read.''
Back at Wilkes, the public address system blares into Arthur's class: ``Can I have your attention for a quick announcement please?''
The interruption hits Arthur like a slap. His head snaps up. When it's clear the message doesn't pertain to his class, he snaps back to the lesson, his voice rising to drown out the still blaring PA.
There is so much work to do, and so little time.
Scott Learn covers education for The Oregonian's MetroEast
news bureau in Gresham. He can be reached by phone at 294-5938,
by mail at 295 N.E. Second St., Gresham, Ore. 97030, or by e-mail
ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo by CAROLE ARCHER/for The Oregonian