California goes back to basics on literacy

21st June 1996 at 01:00
The public conversion of a top state official has given a boost to phonics. Hearings of the California state assembly's education committee are not normally the stuff of high drama, nor the settings for religious conversions. But that was how some witnesses described the recent appearance of Bill Honig, who for 10 years set teaching guidelines for California's schools.

Mr Honig did not renounce the works of Satan. But he did embrace phonics and the impact was almost as dramatic. "It was an extraordinary mea culpa," said Michael Kirst, a former colleague of Mr Honig's and now professor of education at Stanford University. "It is not often you get such an abject apology from a public official."

California is traditionally a bellwether state for literacy teaching in the US. Stung by a national reading test in 1995 that showed only the island state of Guam delivered worse scores, it is busy reviving phonics - the system of reading that some call old-fashioned grind.

In the test, given to children with four years in school, California tied for second-bottom with Louisiana and was beaten by Mississippi, which have both been historically the most backward in the US. That result was even after California excluded limited-English speakers among its immigrant population.

California's schools have been beset with problems - heavily underfunded, with the largest classes in the country, they have very high poverty levels among students. "We had scored low for years," Mr Kirst said, "but this time it began to raise eyebrows and people looked for a cause and effect."

Now California governor Pete Wilson has offered $127m (Pounds 83m) in new textbooks and teacher training in a bid to re-emphasise phonics, with the backing of the state's board of education. And New York, Ohio and Wisconsin are showing interest in following suit.

From 1982 until 1992, when he was forced out after allegations about a conflict of interest with an education foundation run by his wife, Mr Honig was California's state superintendent of public instruction. He used the formerly obscure post to shape the teaching of reading, though he says now he was no specialist.

Through drafting the California Language Arts Framework, Mr Honig and like-minded officials eased the way for the adoption of "whole language" teaching - the theory that children best expand their reading by being exposed to stories and sentences where they guess at words, through literature and free-style creative writing. And as so often, California cut a cultural path for many other states.

Phonics, the stringing of vowel and consonants together to spell out meaning, one word at a time, requires the kind of drill and practice that its late 20th-century critics say is stifling and boring.

Before the committee Mr Honig, now author of a book called Teaching Our Children to Read, said why he had changed his mind. "The mistake was we weren't focused enough on the skills stuff and we took it for granted. It wasn't a sin of commission, it was a sin of omission. We just assumed teachers would keep doing what they were doing." Researchers in the past 10 years had "found out how important the deep phonological process is. It's the key both to spelling and to reading."

The committee also heard from Barbara Foorman, a researcher at Houston University whose work has been much cited in the debate. Students from poor neighbourhoods, she found, fared considerably better with phonics instruction. Without it they were in danger of suffering a "curricular disability".

Professor Kirst explained the changes in California as another swing in the philosophical pendulum between old and new methods. "We tend to get out of balance in American education policy," he said. Whole language got its first airing in the 1920s and had a run in the 1960s, during the "new maths" era. "There was another run in the 1980s and now it's getting clobbered in the 1990s."

Conservative "pro-family" groups in the US have consistently been among the toughest critics. Beverly Sheldon, director of research at California's Traditional Values Coalition, accused Mr Honig of "damaging a lot of children for life" by experimenting with "new-fangled notions".

"I'm not sure what he's doing can make atonement for what he did," she said.

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