One Group Asks: 'What Took You So Long?'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

How does it feel to say, "I told you so?" Just ask Myrna McCulloch, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Riggs Institute in Beaverton, Ore.

"We've been trying for two decades to say it's not whether you have phonics or whole language, it's how you use them both together," says Ms. McCulloch, who founded the Institute in 1979 after a transforming experience teaching at-risk children in Omaha, Neb., to read and write.

But, McCulloch says, her message fell on deaf ears because "phonics was out of fashion."

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Essentially, the Riggs Institute uses a method of phonetic instruction developed by reading pioneer, Samuel Orton, more than 60 years ago. The neuropathologist spent most of his career studying how the brain functions in learning language and wrote the textbook, "Reading, Writing and Speech Problems in Children," in 1937.

Dr. Orton compiled a list of 70 basic phonograms that children need to learn in order to "encode," or spell words that they can already speak and understand. "A student's ability to 'encode' is the missing prerequisite for success in the early composition work required of whole-language students," says McCulloch, whose method is based on Orton's work.

Orton's work has been well known to special-education departments for years. "The special ed. people have never forgotten the importance of phonics, but somehow everyone else did,"says Bill Honig, former superintendent of public instruction in California.

McCulloch blames the entrenched influence of large textbook publishers for making it impossible for smaller groups to make their message heard.

"We're not able to even submit our materials [for the official adoption list] because we don't have the money to produce lots of glossy, colorful readers."

McCulloch points out, however, that although they are not on the recommended list, her materials are approved for use in schools. "Districts that know about us can use us," she says, noting that the Long Beach (Calif. )Unified School District recommended her materials in 1989. "Teachers who use them like them a lot."

The Riggs director also bemoans what she calls woefully inadequate teacher training and certification. "The easiest thing to become in college is a teacher," she observes, adding that poor reading skills are not caused so much by inherent disabilities in the children, but rather are the result of bad teaching. "We're really teacher and curriculum disabled."

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