Fairfax Puts Phonics to Vote: Old Way May Help Reading

Article excerpt

M-m-m . . . ice.

That's how most adults were taught to read the word "mice" when they were youngsters. They sounded it out.

That's called phonics.

Today, schoolchildren may be shown a picture of a furry rodent and asked to guess the printed word before them.

That's called whole language learning. Fairfax County teachers have been using it to teach reading for nearly a decade.

The county is preparing again to debate which teaching method is best for public school students. The School Board's 12 members will vote tonight on four new elementary reading textbook series.

It has been 12 years since the the 150,000-student school district purchased new elementary reading books. Board members can select two of the four series. One teaches phonics and three teach whole-language and a phonics approach. The new textbooks will cost about $8 million.

Nikki McClain, 44, of Falls Church pulled her daughter Sarah, 8, from public school because of the whole-language approach.

Sarah's remedial reading instructor once asked the girl to read the title of a book in front of Mrs. McClain.

"The" . . . "Big" . . . "Spider," Sarah guessed by looking at the letter "s" and a colorful picture of a large black arachnid on the book's cover.

The teacher seemed delighted by the wrong answer.

"The title of the book was `The Big Surprise,' not the spider. The teacher didn't tell her to sound out the last word, so she just guessed," said Mrs. McClain.

Mrs. McClain taught Sarah at home. After a summer spent studying with her mother, Sarah has returned to school and is reading at grade level.

Phonics teaches children to read by sounding out letters and blending them to make up words. Whole-language reading, which Mrs. McClain's daughter was taught, is a "look and say" method in which children memorize and guess at words by using letter or picture clues.

Parents such as Mrs. McClain and Cindy Ayliff, also of Falls Church, are passionate about their preference. Mrs. Ayliff was so disgusted with her two children's inability to read that she removed them from school last year and is now teaching them herself.

Mrs. Ayliff was not a home-school proponent or trained teacher, but says she was convinced she needed to do something drastic after watching her two sons' grades and self-confidence slide in Fairfax County schools.

Now the boys have confidence in all subjects and Mrs. Ayliff is crediting a different reading approach for their rapid turnaround.

The absence of phonics instruction "forced me to pull them out of school," said Mrs. Ayliff, who spearheaded a drive to collect 1,200 parent signatures on a petition supporting a phonics curriculum at Fairfax schools. "It's really sad that there are more and more children here having the same kinds of problems trying to learn to read."

Political lines have been drawn over the phonics issue. Motions have been put before the board to move in the direction of a phonics curriculum three times over the past few years, and all three have failed by an 8-4 vote, said Mychele B. Brickner.

Mrs. Brickner, an at-large member, is one of four Republican-backed members who favor a phonics reading curriculum. …