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Emphasizing Phonics, Even if the Teacher Isn't

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

At the beginning of the school year, I asked my child's kindergarten teacher about the reading curriculum. I got an ambiguous answer. Further questioning revealed no more, but the materials coming home in the backpack did. Once I saw the whole-language approach was being used, I bought a phonics book.

I've been teaching phonics at home nights and weekends ever since. I have observed my child guessing incorrectly at words for which she has the phonics skill set to sound out. We have talked about this, but it still happens. How do I undo the damage done by the whole-language reading curriculum?

My child seems to be meeting the teacher's expectations. My child has told me about another student in the class who "sounds out" but was not taught that skill by the teacher. So I know I am not alone in teaching extracurricular phonics.

Adeline Wilcox

Prince George's County

Educational researchers are still fighting the whole language vs. phonics battle, but, as you say, the phonics people have more evidence on their side. I am all for parents deciding how their children should be taught, but it takes hard work. Collect data and materials in support of your position on phonics and show them to the teacher. Listen to what she says. You are trying to be polite, I realize, but the teacher deserves your frank statement that you don't like the way she is teaching reading.

She may surprise you and say that she agrees, and that she is about to bring more phonics into her lessons. Or she may say she doesn't agree. If so, go to the principal and then the district's reading specialist, and see whether they can help. If not, you are going to have to look for another school. At least this time, you will know what questions to ask before you enroll your child.

Dear Extra Credit:

I was interested to read K. Reed's concerns ["In Search of a Private School, the Great Data Debate Continues," March 6] about her two early-reading children. My children also learned to read as part of learning to talk. We started them in public schools. One was challenged because there were other readers in her first-grade class. The other was not, initially.

That child attended one of the vaunted private schools in the D.C. area that trains "future leaders." After four years at that school, we moved him back to public school because it was our experience that all these leaders had to lead at the same rate. Individual differences and talents were not considered or nurtured. In public school, on the other hand, individual talent was recognized and nurtured, perhaps because it was rare. Also, living skills, such as learning to get along with children of many cultures, serve them well in adulthood.

Basically, as was mentioned in a previous column ["Sorry for the Bickering; Let's Pick a Good School," Feb. 28], if the children have a stimulating home environment, the choice of elementary school has little bearing on the final educational product.

H. Cheilek

Washington

I agree with your conclusion, but don't let your experience with one private school sour you on them as a group. I have seen some do a wonderful job nurturing individual differences and talents.

Dear Extra Credit:

So, in your Feb. 28 column, you say it's a danger signal if a principal doesn't have time to submit to "at least" a 30-minute interview by a parent who should be trying to decide whether the principal is worth "hiring."

Averaging the five Fairfax County elementary schools I know, we get a school I will call Average Elementary, with a student population of 814. Assuming a ridiculously low nine transfer students, in addition to the 116 new kindergartners, plus 15 families that visit but decide not to enroll, that gives us a 140 interviews per year.

Of course, the real numbers would be higher.

But sticking with our 140 interviews, we have a principal who is required to spend 70 hours on interviews alone, not counting any time wasted because the parents didn't show up on time, and not counting any interviews that run more than 30 minutes.

So you're asking (demanding, really) that, minimally, nearly two weeks of the principal's time, plus incidental time wasted, be spent this way. If the principal doesn't have time, you say, well, hey, that's a danger signal: Steer clear of that school.

I've read and listened to the blathering of enough pandering politicians and two-bit tax demagogues to know that teachers (and even worse, school administrators) are the Enemy, nothing but leeches sucking up our tax money while doing nothing to earn it.

At least, I would know it if panderers and demagogues were even a little bit persuasive. But there are already enough parents who think the whole educational system ought to revolve around themselves and their kids without newspaper columnists encouraging them to demand, "at least," something that would be a major burden if carried to its logical conclusions.

Timothy Kendall

Fairfax County

I realize my suggestion of a 30-minute meeting with the principal before making a final decision on a school sounds unusual, but I got the idea from principals, not from parents.

The best principals I know would love to have that much contact with their new families. Ask principals or teachers you know, and they will tell you that they find it invaluable to get a sense of the parents' values and concerns, and that the initial contact reaps huge rewards if the child gets into trouble at school.

They would also tell you your estimates are inflated, because few parents avail themselves of this opportunity. I realize there are columnists who belittle educators, but I am the opposite variety. More than 90 percent of what I write is about our best teachers and principals, such as the people at the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, the subject of my next book. Those schools require that every new family have an interview of approximately 30 minutes with a school staff member, often the principal or vice principal, for all of the reasons above.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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