A 'scary' problem: reading beyond 9

NEW YORK - Forget reading by 9. How about reading by 18?

That's what Harvard University Professor Catherine E. Snow is saying these days.


Three years ago, Snow was chairwoman of a National Research Council panel whose report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," pretty much put to rest the raging battle between phonics and whole language. The two approaches - one mapping letters to sounds, the other exposing children to good literature - aren't mutually exclusive, the report said. They can, and should be, "integrated," a word that most educators took to mean balanced.

But the report wasn't nearly ambitious enough, Snow told a group of education writers here last week. Although there's consensus on how best to teach beginning reading, she said, many children don't make a successful transition to the higher grades.


Let's get beyond the third grade, Snow said, where many children stall on the reading tracks with the train approaching.

"It's scary. You spend a couple of years learning to read, but then if you're not a good reader and reading both fluently and a lot, you're in real trouble.

"The problem is getting kids reading by the 12th grade."

It's a huge challenge in a society that demands higher levels of literacy than at any time in history. Yet national reading scores remain stubbornly flat after the fourth grade, and U.S. students' poor showing in international math and science comparisons "likely reflects in part their poor performance as readers," Snow said.


Older students who can't understand what they read have a terrible time passing high-stakes tests such as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program or the high school exit tests that are to become official in 2007.


"This is the making of a disaster. If you can't read the test, you can't pass it," said Snow.

Why do many students who read well enough in the primary grades confront difficulties later? There's very little research on the problem, which Snow traces to poor skills in comprehension - the understanding of text.

Teachers, she said, often assume students will learn to comprehend merely by reading, and reading instruction is seldom effectively integrated with middle and high school subjects such as biology, history and English literature, which require complex vocabulary.

To avert disaster, Snow said, reading comprehension among older students needs to get the same attention already paid to beginning reading, and that includes a major research effort.

Snow spoke at a conference of journalists this month at Columbia University Teachers College.

Textbook publishers: the choices dwindle

When Baltimore County reading teachers receive their new textbooks from Houghton Mifflin and Open Court in the fall, they'll be customers of two of the world's five remaining major educational publishers. And they'll be in the same stable as the rapper Eminem and the movie "The Mummy Returns."

Boston-based Houghton Mifflin, which is 169 years old, was purchased this summer by 1-year-old Vivendi Universal SA, originally a French water utility. Based in Paris, the conglomerate counts among its properties the rapper and the popular movie.

Open Court, a small publisher in Peru, Ill., was bought several years ago by giant McGraw-Hill Cos., which publishes Macmillan textbooks and the books for Direct Instruction, which is used in 18 Baltimore schools. The story was familiar: Open Court was too small to compete with the giants in a business where up to $50 million is needed to introduce a reading series.

Thirty years ago, schools could choose from among a dozen reading textbook series from a dozen competing U.S. publishers. But with the purchase of Houghton this summer and the recent acquisition of Harcourt General by Anglo-Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier PLC, only Scholastic and McGraw-Hill are American-owned. (The third foreign publisher is London-based Pearson.)

A few smaller publishers have escaped consolidation. My favorite is Saxon Publishers Inc. in Norman, Okla. A family-owned company, it puts out no-nonsense books that are favorites of home-schoolers. And it's not afraid to err. In fact, customers who encounter textbook errors are invited to download a form and send it in.

Her motto might be: leave no motto unchanged

Catherine Snow's play on President Bush's education motto, No Child Left Behind:

No Child Left Unturned.