Reading instruction that works

Children learn to read at Lapham Elementary, a K-2 school in Madison that relies on direct instruction in phonics. Black kids do particularly well compared to other schools that use a “balanced literacy” approach. Yet the successful school’s left after being denied a promotion, and the program is being changed.

Five years ago, in 1999, Lapham bucked the Madison district’s reliance on the Balanced Literacy reading program in favor of a grounding in explicit phonics for nearly all first-grade students. The results have been impressive. They have also been ignored.

Former Lapham principal Barbara Thompson often invited district administrators to visit, but they never seemed interested, she said last spring, before quitting to become superintendent of the New Glarus school district.

Lapham’s innovative approach has resulted in reading scores for Marquette Elementary third-graders that are virtually unsurpassed districtwide. (Lapham’s K-2 program is paired with Marquette’s 3-5 grades.) Scores for African American students particularly stand out.

In 1998, just 9% of Marquette black third-graders were considered “advanced” readers, as measured on the third-grade state reading comprehension test; by 2003, 38% were “advanced.” District-wide, only 9% of black children scored as “advanced” in 2003.

For Marquette’s low-income kids, the “advanced” figure was 32%, up from 19% from five years earlier. For all students combined, the school ranked a close second to Shorewood Elementary, with 52% scoring “advanced.” (See the chart on page 10 for school comparisons.)

Other Madison elementary schools use an expensive tutoring program called Reading Recovery for children who lag in reading. Lapham teaches them to read well in the first place. In Madison, one third of black students are referred for special education. Lapham teachers think few of these children are disabled. They just need better reading instruction.

Via Education News.

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  1. Phonics works!!!

    I have been saying it for many years, and I’ll say it again – memorizing a bunch of words does not make a good reader. Being able to sound words out allows for more fluency and the ability to tackle new words that come along.

    Home schoolers by and large use phonics-based curricula, and look how many home schoolers made it to the finals of the International Spelling Bee last week. I don’t think it’s coincidence.

  2. Mike McKeown says:

    Reading Recovery is not only expensive, it is ineffective. It is whole language, one-on-one. Emphasis on familiar words and familiar stories, along with ‘multiple cueing systems’ including using pictures for clues, and de-emphasis of systematic phonics instruction. Why should we be surprised that the same schools that use Whole Language disguised as Balance Literacy should also choose Reading Recovery?

  3. Bill Cosby mentioned Hooked on Phonics ($200) as a fine program; in his important NAACP Brown anniversary speech.
    Pretty much ignored — you should look at it.

    When blacks start demanding results, instead of white guilt words, schools will use phonics, and testing, and vouchers — and more blacks will learn a LOT more.

  4. Lapham and Marquette are strong schools. The pairing serves a diverse community with a sizeble portion of low income students (although less so than the Madison district in general), but achieves excellent results on the WRCT and WKCE.

    However, this article is a good example of a problem many journalists have when reporting on school assessment results. Journalists are not always careful when reporting on results for specific groups to consider the number of students assessed. The DPI website doesn’t break out the WRCT results by group, but it does for the 4th grade assessment, the WKCE. The fourth grade had 10 low income students this year. With a population that trends that small over the years, we are looking at the difference of one or perhaps two students when the Isthmus writes “For Marquette’s low-income kids, the “advanced” figure was 32%, up from 19% from five years earlier.” Oh well.

    That having been said, it is a great article and I encourage folks to follow the link and read it in its entirety.

  5. I have worked with Literacy programs for the last 9 years and know children need guidance and repetition to read. But the first most important aspect of learning is knowing the letters of the alphabet, the sounds each one makes, vowel sounds and putting it all together to make phonics. I think it takes many hours of understanding the basics before the child can put it all together to form words and read. If steps are skipped holes develop in the process and children slip through the holes. Resulting in a lack of reading level abilities. Looking at pictures and guessing does not teach a child to read. It developes the idea concept of a story and identifying parts of a story but it does not help a child understand the words that are actually in print on the pages. Children need that extra development to identify letters and sounds into words or sight words that are then repeated in a story. I have seen so many children just look at the pages and guess the words. Or they pretend they know the story at kindergarten age by memorizing the words spoken by the teacher when telling the story. This phase of learning how to read may be easily taught by some but the majority of children miss the whole concept based on using these pictures or manipulatives such as a popscile stick to help them remember the story Popsicle Days.
    Our base of education in elementary schools needs to reevaluate teaching methods when it comes to reading. Problems need to be caught early in Kindergarten not when the child reaches third grade. In this society children are reading by Kindergarten. Its those who haven’t had the impact of home and literacy that fall behind or miss the understanding. Emphasis and reading evaluation should begin in the transition age of Kindergarten to First Grade. I think this area is the most vulnerable when it comes to grasping the reading concepts. If the teaching process was adjusted to engage a transition K-1 reading concept, reading abilities would be comparably better by first grade.


  1. “The results have been impressive. They have also been ignored.”

    Joanne Jacobs mentioned a story on Balanced Literacy today that’s really gotten us steamed. Seems a public elementary school in Madison, WI, has resisted its school district’s push for the mediocre Balanced Literacy program, and instead has been teachi…