School reading programs under fire. Experts give conventional methods and materials a low grade.

Six students and a teacher sit in a circle with books open to the same page. It is reading time in this second grade class at the Olinder School here in San Jose. ``OK,'' says the teacher, ``who is going to start today?''

And off they go, taking turns reading aloud while the other children in the classroom are busy at their desks with work sheets, filling in the blanks and circling multiple-choice answers.

Such scenes are common in first and second grades at the Olinder School and throughout the United States. In fact, textbooks and work sheets are the main ingredients of the reading series or basal reading programs that dominate instruction from kindergarten through Grade 8. Packages also include teacher manuals and such ``optionals'' as tests, word cards, films, tapes, and supplemental books.

Large publishing companies invest as much as $15 million in putting such programs together. The packages they produce, designed to take students step by step into literacy, account for an estimated 75 to 90 percent of the work done during reading periods in elementary schools.

And now these programs are under fire. ``Becoming a Nation of Readers,'' a 1984 report prepared by the Commission on Reading for the National Academy of Education, found that textbooks and work sheets are not prepared with as much ingenuity and sensitivity to goals as they should be, and that some teachers are relying too heavily on them.

In the year and a half since its publication, the report has fueled a momentum for reform in the field. Reading-instruction experts are becoming more vocal about changing the programs and developing new ideas.

Among the popular recommendations from the report were many aimed at improving the materials used in teaching. Taking note of the multimillion-dollar investment in the programs, the report says, ``. . . surely it is possible to hire gifted writers who can create stories far superior to the standard fare. The commission believes the American people ought to expect and should demand better reading primers for their children.''

Robert Calfee of Stanford University's School of Education agrees the standards should be higher.

``Some experts continue to urge a greater emphasis on phonics instruction [alone],'' Dr. Calfee explains. ``Teach the students to crack the code, and all will be well.'' Yet too heavy an emphasis on phonics, he warns, limits the vocabulary, making the stories so dull and meaningless that children are not motivated to read.

According to Calfee, reading in elementary school is too often treated as ``a trivial, basic skill,'' rather than an early and important step toward adult literacy. ``The reason we teach reading is to help youngsters learn that language can be used as a tool,'' Calfee adds.

Basal reading programs, he complains, break everything up rather than integrating all aspects of the child's developing language skills. Vocabulary is introduced outside the context of the story to be read, he notes. The stories themselves lack coherence and rely heavily on pictures. Questions about the story come at the end of the page, not at the end of an episode.

Other experts tend to agree that such criticisms are valid. Jean Osborn of the Center for Reading at the University of Illinois contends that, though these books may be successful in training children to read, they don't teach them to use the written word, as adults do, for pleasure and information. ``A lot of children don't get the idea they can learn from reading,'' she said in a telephone interview. ``They continue to see it as decoding.''

Although the vast majority of reading experts still feel that some phonics instruction is needed to get children started in decoding, there is growing concern that phonics may not be taught properly and that this instruction may go on too long.

``Becoming a Nation of Readers'' says ``the issue is no longer, as it was several decades ago, whether children should be taught phonics. The issues now are specific ones of just how it should be done.''

Work sheets and teacher manuals have also come in for criticism, in part because so many teachers rely too heavily on them, the report contends.

Calfee maintains that the work sheets ``are as bad as everyone says they are . . . the dumbest stuff under the sun.''

Fay Morrison, an experienced reading teacher at the Ohlone School in Palo Alto, points out, however, that work sheets are widely used, not to convey information or assess whether a program is working, but to keep a class busy while the teacher is working with one small group of students. ``Not all work sheets are bad,'' she adds, ``and students often benefit from working alone on certain skills. But too many of the prepared work sheets in basal reading programs don't require students to think. Good teac hers are selective.''

Teachers' manuals are also blasted by critics who feel they too often substitute for thinking -- this time on the part of the teacher. The manuals often read like a script from a play, the critics point out, right down to the boldface comments a teacher can use to introduce a lesson. Here again Ms. Morrison feels selectivity on the part of the teacher is the answer.

Jean Osborn points out, ``Not all of the blame for the inadequacies of textbooks belongs to the publishers. Publishers work hard to please their customers'' -- the teachers and administrators who decide which books to buy.

Calfee agrees reform in the elementary reading field has to include -- or start with -- instructors. ``I think that you've got to change the teachers,'' he says.

For a copy of ``Becoming a Nation of Readers,'' send a check for $4.50 (payable to the University of Illinois-BNR) to Becoming a Nation of Readers, PO Box 2774, Station A, Champaign, Ill. 61820-8774.

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