By Meg Lundstrom

In the long-running battle known as the Reading Wars, which side is second-grade teacher Courtney Cooper on?

Advocates of phonics would be delighted to see her drilling her students at Kent Elementary School, in Carmel, New York, in consonant blends. Advocates of the literature-based, or whole-language approach, would be equally happy to observe her students engrossed in trade books about frogs, then discussing in small circles, with little input from Cooper, the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Like many top-notch educators, this teacher of five years cant be pigeonholed: "I look at what each child needs," she says. "I have to use both phonics and whole language to teach them well."

Thats the word from the front lines in the still politically charged battle over the best way to teach reading. Indeed, balance has become the strategy for most schools, a careful combining of the best of both approaches. The change was recommended in 1998 by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. Whats becoming increasingly clear, educators say, is that balance is not a perfectly poised and level seesaw. Rather its an evolving, multi-layered approach crafted not only to each school but to each child. "You keep building and adding and fine-tuning," says Barbara Kapinus, Ph.D., senior policy analyst in the teaching and learning unit of the National Education Association. "What you end up with is something thats extremely complexbut meets a lot of needs."

Some schools choose a prepackaged, balanced program such as one of those listed in the Literacy Resources box, below. But, like Kent, most use a customized array of approaches and products. In 1999 the school won the International Reading Associations Exemplary Reading Program Award in New York State. "If youre going to have an excellent reading program," says Principal Cynthia Slotkin, "you never stop changing."

Steps Toward Change

Like many other schools in the country, Kent Elementary was moving from a phonics-based approach to the whole-language method when Slotkin arrived as principal five years ago. Slotkin promoted small-group guided reading of trade books based on skills levels. She and reading specialist Irene Press also boosted phonics instruction for children who needed extra help. Still, classroom practices and standards varied widely within the school.

So in 1996 the district hired reading consultant Sean Walmsley, Ed.D., professor at the State University of New York at Albany. He facilitated a committee of teachers that established five reading standards. Children would be assessed on their ability to:

read for information and understanding;

comprehend different kinds of material;

read for a better understanding of the world;

read for pleasure; and

read aloud fluently.

Walmsley encouraged teachers to focus on such new techniques as literature circles; to stress a variety of genres, including poetry; and to raise their expectations of what students could achieve.

After more than three years, the standards-based reading program at Kent is flourishing. Students are creating original operas, conducting mock trials, giving poetry readings, publishing newspapers, and writing songs. When an extracurricular "literary guild" was announced this year, 100 of 250 fourth graders signed up to read five books on their ownfor pure pleasure.

In the past, the programs success had also been borne out by the fact that generally 96 percent of the schools students passed New Yorks basic reading tests, in contrast to 66 percent of New York City students. But in 1999, the state jettisoned the fill-in-the-blanks exam and replaced it with one emphasizing writing, listening, and analytical skills. "It tests exactly what you want kids to be able to doread and respond, compare and contrast, and, for instance, write a letter based on information theyve read," says Press.

Like most schools in New York State, Kent Elementary scored only slightly above the median not atypical for the first year of a new statewide test, but a rude shock nevertheless. "In a painful way, it made us stretch and grow and soul search," says Slotkin. "We knew we had a great program and that our kids loved reading, but we had to look at what wed been doing in a much more analytical way." As a result, teachers realized that students needed more exposure to nonfiction books, practice in listening skills, and more lessons on critical, as opposed to personal, writing. Teacher collaboration became crucial and frequent.

A Complex Recipe

All this comes to bear on educators like Courtney Cooper, who must juggle many complex strategies if she herself is to fit the profile delineated in "Are You an Effective Literacy Teacher?" The children in Coopers second-grade class are divided into four groups ranging from kindergarten to fourth grade in reading ability. "I need to be on top of what each level needs and move them along accordingly," she notes. This is a typical 90-minute module:

For 15 minutes, she teaches the entire class either a phonics skill, say, str- sounds, or a comprehension strategy, such as how to read fiction versus nonfiction. To reinforce the lesson, she leads a class activity like brainstorming or charting, often incorporating handwriting and spelling skills.

Then the children break up into skills-based guided reading groups, using trade books of varying levels of difficulty on the same theme. The books might be about frogs, the solar system, or friendship. The groups are led by Cooper and three specialistsa reading teacher, reading assistant, and special-education teacher who rotate as a unit among second-grade classrooms each day.

As students silently read, the instructors circulate and guide youngsters in decoding and pronunciation. Cooper may ask analytical questions: "How does a frog compare with a toad? How do you know that?" She may refer to the lesson, asking them to point out the str- words, or to explain how they know a book is nonfiction. With weaker readers, she might employ phonics cards, having them sound out the letters, using their fingers to draw ve and ng in the air. Or she might mix the skill-leveled groups by arranging them in circles, where they analyze elements of a book or the style of an author.

During the last half hour, the focus is on reflective writing. Children may write a page about what theyve learned, or they may pick a library book to read independently and then review.

The students seem deeply engrossed in learning, and Cooper is upbeat and unfailingly encouraging. "Youre doing so well," she beams at three children with low-level skills who are working through a pile of phonics cards. "The stack is getting smaller now but it will get bigger again so you can learn even more skills." They smile back, catching her optimism.

Afterward, Cooper and the three specialists exchange notes on individual students. As a result "sometimes my plans change nightly," she says. "If Im not driven by the kids, Im not teaching them well. It takes a lot of time to do it this way about an hour and a half to prepare each night but the kids benefit. I see tremendous growth with some and steady growth with others. I dont see kids stagnate, the way they sometimes do with a basal they dont understand."

Parents concur. They tell her that their children love to read their favorite passages out loud at the dinner table. "Its been a real role reversal," one parent recently reported. "I always had to push my child to read, but now shes saying, Let me read to you."

Thats what matters to Coopernot the polemics of the Reading Wars. "If youre not open to doing a little bit of everything for everyone, you wont be reaching your kids," she says. "Theres no single recipeits a process, and you just have to keep on trying different things, until it clicks and you reach the child."

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Are You an Effective Literacy Teacher?

Research makes it clear: Its teachers, not legislators, who pack the greatest wallop for children. A 1998 Dallas study found that children assigned effective teachers for three years scored 34 percentile points higher on reading tests than a matched group of children assigned ineffective teachers.

In a two-year study conducted by the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, University of Notre Dame reading professor Michael Pressley, Ph.D., headed five teams of researchers who observed 30 first-grade classrooms

in diverse settings. The report wryly concluded: "Excellent first-grade teaching is more complicated than rocket science." The report, the entirety of which can be found at, states that the most effective teachers

Kept students rapt and riveted. Ninety percent of their students were engaged in academic matters more than 90 percent of the time. With students so busy, there was little misbehavior.

Had excellent classroom management. Rules and expectations existed, lessons were well planned, and instruction was carefully coordinated with aides.

Encouraged self-regulation. So effective was this, said the report, that "students seemed to be lost in their work, so much so that it was not unusual at all to see students continue to work right into recess."

Created a positive, cooperative environment. "Put-downs, sarcasm, and negativism simply were not part of either the teacher talk or the student talk."

Explicitly taught phonics and other reading-related skills in the context of actual reading and writing tasks. By balancing phonics and literature, the teachers were "teaching to childrens needs more than adhering to particular theories."

Matched accelerating demands to student competence. They "worked to match [individual] children with just right books not too hard, not too easy."

Made strong connections across the curriculum. Reading and writing were integrated with all content-area instruction.

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Literacy Resources

Following are some programs and Web sites on various approaches to literacy teaching. Many links to other literacy organizations and programs can be found at

Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement:

Both of these Web sites list the latest literacy research and findings.

Center for Inquiry: This Indianapolis public school program, developed by Indiana University professor Jerry Harste, Ph.D., treats reading as an inquiry process rather than a phonics or comprehension process. Its inner-city third graders test as well as fifth graders in the eighth month of school. For information, call teachers Beth Young or Bonnie Beaumont at 317-226-4292 (226-4202 next school year), or visit http://education.indiana


Core Knowledge: This rigorous core curriculum stresses building a strong foundation of knowledge; it is used by more than 1,000 schools nationwide. Call 804-977-7550 for an information packet or visit

Success for All: This comprehensive whole-school reform approach emphasizes early, intensive intervention for at-risk students. Recent research shows that by the end of first grade, students in the program on average score three months ahead on reading tests; by the fifth grade, theyre a full year ahead. Call 1-800-548-4998 or go to www.

Meg Lundstrom writes for educational publishers and education, business, and womens magazines. Her last article for Instructor was "Character Makes a Comeback," October 1999.