To ensure that the new standards are followed, the state now requires colleges to certify
that they are teaching phonics, and their students must pass a test proving that they
understand the approach.
State's Role Draws Protests
The state's strong hand in college classrooms has provoked anger at the highest levels of
the California State University system, which produces nearly 60% of the state's
Cal State's Academic Senate--the voice for nearly 19,000 instructors--condemned the
Legislature earlier this year for threatening academic freedom and ignoring contrary
research on early literacy.
Chancellor Charles B. Reed, meanwhile, has publicly chastised the state for legislating a
"single prescription" for reading.
"We're going to follow the law, but we are going to be broader, more comprehensive,"
Reed said. "I have a lot of confidence in our faculty. They are the experts."
Reed's comments pale next to the pronouncements coming from college campuses.
"It's unrealistic to expect that classroom instruction will radically change because
legislators pass a new bill," said Jeff McQuillan, a Cal State Fullerton education
professor. "No matter how many laws you pass, you can't shut a professor up."
The controversy is rooted in competing philosophies over how children learn to read-
whether it is a natural act or a skill that must be learned.
There is research to support both sides, but the state has decided that reading is a skill
that must be taught through phonics.
Lawmakers have relied on the findings of the National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development and other research centers. Their research indicates that the key to
reading lies in the ability to break words into bits of sound--a skill known as "phonemic
By mastering sound-letter relationships in an orderly sequence of lessons, children
learn to "decode" words automatically, making it easier to concentrate on the meaning of
Those theories contrast with the belief that children learn to read by drawing on their
own backgrounds and the context of stories--breaking unfamiliar words into their parts
after literature is repeatedly read.
That method is aligned with whole language, the approach to reading instruction that is
largely blamed for California's dismal reading test scores of recent years.
Such "whole to part" advocates fear that phonics alone will turn children into "word
callers" who can only recognize print without attaching meaning.
"Just because you can decode doesn't mean you can understand," said Cynthia McDermott,
reading course chairwoman at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
On at least one point, virtually all agree: Children need phonics and literature to become
proficient readers. Indeed, the state does not ban the teaching of whole-language methods.
But disagreements arise over which step should come first, and on how much phonics
instruction is necessary.
The result is a gray area of teacher training that is producing a hodgepodge of lessons
rather than the uniform strategy envisioned by lawmakers.
Future teachers are getting more of what the state wants in some classes but are
encountering lessons drawn from whole language in others. And, in many classrooms,
explicit phonics is presented as an alternative rather than a necessity.
"Nobody argues about the value of phonics," said Moustafa, the Cal State L.A. professor.
"The question is, how you teach it?"
To demonstrate her method, Moustafa recently asked her students to pretend they were
5- and 6-year-olds. She projected a story, "Dan the Flying Man," on a classroom wall.
The tale was written in Arabic script and featured big pictures of Dan flying over a
bridge, a train, a house and other objects. Arabic was used to represent how the
unfamiliar code of written words would appear to children who cannot yet read.
Moustafa pointed to each word with her index finger as she read in English and again as
the students read along with her three more times.
The students split into pairs and repeated the story until each student had memorized it.
"I am Dan the Flying Man. Catch me, catch me, if you can," they read.
Then came the test.
Moustafa pointed to the word "the" projected on the wall and asked if anyone recognized
it. Just four students out of 32 raised hands.
She had the students match the word on the wall to its place in the story by seeing the
unfamiliar word in the "flow of the language." Nearly everyone got it.
"If you teach phonics in isolation, you have no clues to help you out," she told the class.
"This is whole to part. First you understand the whole story. Then you understand the
Teaching by Example
Moustafa's students greeted the lesson enthusiastically.
One of them, Mario Alcocer, applied it a few days later in his own classroom at Park
Avenue Elementary in Cudahy--reading a story with his third- and fourth-graders
several times, asking them to recall favorite words and then breaking down words.
"As a practitioner, it feels right," said Alcocer, who is working under an emergency
credential. "It makes sense."
Moustafa did not use the traditional method favored by the state for breaking down words.
Her students broke the word "pin" into its consonant and vowel parts, P-IN. In
traditional phonics, they would have broken it into each letter sound, P-I-N.
Nonetheless, Moustafa said, her lessons meet the state's guidelines because she teaches
students to break down words into their parts in an explicit, systematic way.
Teacher credentialing officials in Sacramento aren't so sure. As a result of inquiries
from The Times, state officials have asked the Cal State L.A. program to ensure that its
instructors follow the guidelines in its certification document, which calls for aspiring
teachers to get explicit phonics and phonemic awareness.
"If there's been a misunderstanding, it needs to be corrected," said Linda Bond, director
of government relations for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
State education officials once embraced the type of lessons Moustafa offers.
In 1987, the state turned abruptly from phonics to whole-language reading instruction
that emphasized the importance of children acquiring skills through exposure to
But test scores a few years later showed California schoolchildren struggling with
reading. In 1994, the state's fourth-graders ranked below Mississippi and Louisiana on
the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The scores alarmed state education officials and lawmakers, and led to a spate of new laws
aimed at returning phonics and spelling to classrooms.
Millions of dollars were budgeted for new textbooks, reduced class sizes and a statewide
test to gauge progress. Millions more went to train teachers in the explicit phonics
methods championed by the state.
Testing for Phonics
Seeking to ensure that colleges of education got on board, lawmakers took the
unprecedented step of requiring campuses to certify that they were teaching phonics, and
having teacher candidates take tests to prove they understood the method.
As of this month, aspiring teachers are required to pass the Reading Instruction
Competence Assessment--RICA--to get a teaching credential. About 18,000 teaching
candidates will take the test over the next year.
So far, 80% of the 1,428 people who took the first rounds of the test passed. Some
lawmakers and education officials wonder if the high pass rate is a sign that the test is
too easy. Education professors see it as vindication that they are preparing students in
But the assemblyman who wrote the law creating the test is disturbed by the number of
students flunking the exam.
"A 1-in-5 failure rate is not something to brag about for colleges of education," said
Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose). "It concerns me when we are ramping up the
hiring of new teachers."
Many professors object to the test and the certification altogether, calling them
intrusions by the state in the classroom.
"It has been personally insulting to have people who are not as studied in my field
prescribe how I will practice my professional work," said McDermott, the Cal State
Dominguez Hills professor. A colleague who asked to remain anonymous added:
"What we have in the state right now is McCarthyism."
Policymakers say the phonics initiative is not censorship but an attempt to get colleges
and elementary schools on the same page.
"Is it academic freedom for professors to continue doing what is not in the best interest
of children?" asked Marion Joseph, a member of the State Board of Education and an
outspoken advocate of phonics. "My heart is broken for children, but my heart is also
broken for teachers who are not prepared."
Students Divided Also
The debate is alive and well in professor Cara Garcia's class. Garcia is busy arming her
Pepperdine University students with an arsenal of reading methods.
First she plays a video sanctioned by the state that shows an explicit phonics lesson,
fast-forwarding through some classroom segments. "Get the picture?" she asks.
Then she demonstrates what she calls the "language experience approach" in which
children read stories or sing songs with their teachers and talk about the experience as
instructors jot down the comments and then teach the children to read their own
Her students are left to figure out which of the very different approaches is best. As
Garcia's lesson draws to a close, a debate erupts.
"This language experience approach is not connecting with me at all as a way to learn to
read," one student says. "I want to teach the rules."
Garcia seeks to reassure the student.
"It's not like the whole-language approach is going to do away with all those rules," she
A second student joins in.
"For children to understand something, they need to relate it to prior experiences and
Garcia gives her opinion.
"I personally don't think you can drill skills into a person," she says. "It's so arbitrary."
But a third student wants those very skills and drills.
"I learned through phonics and I'm fine," the young woman says. "There are certain
things that need to be spit out."
- Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved