WASHINGTON — Forget celebrities in funny hats reading to kids on the evening news or principals kissing pigs. The crusade to solve America's reading crisis is getting serious.
More than 20 states recently passed new literacy laws, tacking on often-neglected funds to improve training for teachers and tutors. Thousands of communities are starting or expanding local literacy programs.
In addition, national-service volunteers and college students tutored more than 2.2 million children last year. Washington is extending its own literacy efforts to include families and day-care providers, as well as K-12 teachers. Some $260 million in new federal support for literacy training will be distributed next month - targeted to programs based on sound research, not just good intentions.
After decades of bouncing between supposedly cure-all reading methods, lots of kids are still not learning the most basic skill of all. And new testing programs at both the national and state level are making that failure harder to hide.
In the highest-poverty public schools, more than 2 in 3 fourth- graders can't read, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). By the 12th grade, 23 percent of students are still reading poorly.
But recently, experts are calling for - and politicians are mandating - a "balanced approach" that tailors a program to each child's specific needs. Freeing teachers from relying exclusively on one methodcould ensure that more children become competent readers. But it requires teachers to be trained in and have access to materials for a range of methods - currently not the case in most schools.
"Every program we've ever studied works with some kids and leaves many behind," says G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
For 60 percent of US children, reading is a "formidable challenge," he says. For poor kids, the struggle to learn to read can be especially tough.
"There is an epidemic of reading difficulties among economically and socially disadvantaged children in the United States," Mr. Lyons told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week.
"Recent research shows that learning to read - or failure to do so - begins long before kids enter school. Children that are talked to and read to early start school with a big advantage.
"It is estimated that children from low-income homes enter school with an average of 16 total hours exposure to print, including books, alphabet letters and blocks, and name labels, while children from middle-income homes enter school with an average of 1,000 hours of exposure to print," says Lois Bader, a professor at Michigan State University.
Early exposure to rhyme and alliteration helps children develop what experts call "the alphabetic principle," or an ability to connect sounds and print.
Dr. Bader cites a favorite passage from Ogden Nash's book "Isabel Isabel": "the bear was ravenous; his mouth was cavernous" or "she showed no rancor but turned the witch into milk and drank her."
"Everyday language in the home is quite different from the language in stories and poems from books.... It's so easy to pour language into their little ears, and it just isn't being done," she adds.
To make up early deficiencies, schools must provide focused and intensive remedial work as early as possible, experts say.
But good professional development for reading teachers has been one of the weakest points in US education. Many teachers' colleges still do not require students to diagnose and correct reading difficulties. And experts caution that a flood of untrained tutors won't meet the need.
"While I have respect for what [volunteer reading programs] are doing, it's been clear from the beginning that the major issue is training and supervision," says Bader, who has directed a volunteer literacy program in Lansing, Mich., for 14 years.
One of the challenges of tutoring poor children is finding qualified volunteers. The presence of a skilled on-site reading consultant to write lesson plans, prepare materials, and give feedback can make up for those deficiencies.
"You can make a difference, but only if you have somebody on site who can intervene and teach the tutors as well," says Marcia Invernizzi, who recently helped set up a volunteer literacy program in New York, based on a model program, "Book Buddies," that she co-founded in Charlottesville, Va. She used a new tutor-training grant from the America Reads Challenge to hire a part-time reading specialist in the Bronx.
"In Charlottesville, our tutors were very well educated. Many [in the Bronx] didn't finish high school and English was not their first language. Their own schooling experience really varies and was not particularly positive. But we've shown that you can work with such volunteers, if there is a reading specialist on site every day," she adds.
States and school districts are also giving more attention to the quality of literacy training in the classroom.
"States are just beginning to be sure that they provide institutes for teachers to learn the phonics they didn't learn in teachers' colleges," says Sandra Stotsky, deputy commissioner for academic affairs and planning at the Massachusetts Department of Education, who is completing a study on new state literacy standards.
"It's part of a hopeful picture. We're beginning to restore the notion that the role of the teacher is teaching," she adds.
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