The Magazine

Read It and Weep

Why does Congress hate the one part of No Child Left Behind that works?

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Richmond, Virginia

In a classroom at Ginter Park Elementary School, a century-old brick schoolhouse on a dreary, zoned-commercial truck route that bisects a largely African-American neighborhood in Richmond, a third-grade teacher, Laverne Johnson, is doing something that flies in the face of more than three decades of the most advanced pedagogical principles taught at America's top-rated education schools. Seated on a chair in a corner of her classroom surrounded by a dozen youngsters sitting cross-legged on the floor at her feet, Johnson is teaching reading--as just plain reading. Two and a half hours every morning, systematically going over such basics as phonics, vocabulary words, and a crucial skill known as "phonemic awareness" that entails recognizing the separate sound components of individual words--that the word "happy," for example, contains five letters but only four sounds, or phonemes.

Phonemic awareness is an important prelude to phonics: learning which phonemes are represented in written English by which graphemes, or combinations of letters. According to the principles Johnson is following, it is the mix of phonemic awareness and phonics that enables children (and adults learning how to read for the first time) to sound out, syllable by syllable, unfamiliar-looking words they might encounter on a page and then link those words to meaning. In the world of forward-thinking educational pedagogy, phonemic awareness is deemed useless, phonics of only intermittent value, and the sounding out of words deadening to a child's potential interest in books.

As her main teaching tool, Johnson is using something that also makes the most advanced minds at America's education schools blanch: a reader. Those fat hardback textbooks that were the staple of grade school until the 1970s are out of fashion these days, replaced in most elementary-school classrooms in America by "authentic literature": illustrated trade-press children's books of the sort that parents buy to entertain their offspring at bedtime (or that older youngsters check out of the public library to read for pleasure) and entirely lacking in teachers' guides or clues as to how they might be used as instructional tools.

Again, not so at Ginter Park. Every one of the dozen children sitting at Johnson's feet holds an open copy of the very same textbook that Johnson holds, whose no-nonsense title makes its purpose plain: Houghton Mifflin Reading, Grade 3. It comes supplemented with such fashionably disdained materials as vocabulary lists, ready-made comprehension tests, and teachers' guides that include built-in lesson plans and scripts. Indeed, Johnson is handing out one of those very vocabulary lists: 30 new words that they will encounter in the story to which their books are open but which they haven't started yet: "Poppa's New Pants." Johnson is sounding out the words with the children and going through their meanings: "pattern," "plaid," "draped," "hem."

"What can you tell me about a hem?" she asks. A little girl promptly flips up the hem of her T-shirt and shows it off to the group.

"Sew--S-E-W," says Johnson. "Now, does anyone know a homonym for sew?"

"So--S-O!" shouts another girl.

"Yes!" says Johnson, explaining how it is that two different words with two different meanings can sound the same. A homonym--they really still teach such things these days?

The education establishment may sneer at the techniques Johnson uses, but they are part of a small-scale miracle: Ginter Park, despite an unpromising location and a high-poverty-level student body, now ranks in the top third of more than 1,100 public elementary schools in the state of Virginia, holding its own against schools in the ultra-affluent, highly educated suburban counties of northern Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Until only five years ago, Ginter Park, located in a once-upscale trolley-car suburb that has seen better days, was near the bottom of the state's academic barrel, the second-worst-performing elementary school in the Richmond Public Schools district--which was itself the second-worst-performing school district in the state.