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Reading Reform Foundation Hosts Annual Conference
By Sarah Ann Mockbee

Dr. Diane Ravitch

Dr. Agnes Howell-Jack, an aspiring principal with the Chancellor's Leadership Academy, recently attended the Reading Reform Foundation's 23rd Annual Conference with the hopes of becoming more familiar with innovative teaching approaches that were being introduced and discussed. Reading Reform Foundation, a not-for-profit literacy organization based in New York, hosted the conference, “Effective Techniques for Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling.” The conference included 24 workshops on specific teaching strategies as well as a keynote address given by Dr. Diane Ravitch, noted author and Research Professor of Education at New York University.

“As educators, it's our responsibility to be exposed to new ideas,” Howell-Jack said. She noted that “following a routine” will never be a successful strategy in education and that the Reading Reform Foundation Conference offered her an opportunity to stay on the cutting edge.

Marcelina E. Lyew, a kindergarten teacher at PS 166, already knew the value of Reading Reform Foundation's educational seminars. She took a course with the Foundation last summer in which she was introduced to a reading program called the Spaulding Method. “I have been teaching for 30 years in the New York City school system,” states Lyew, “and I have been through many reading programs. The Spaulding Method, which I discovered late in my career, is the best program I've used.” After seeing the progress her students made with the program, she was eager to attend the conference to learn if there were other methods she could supplement into her daily curriculum.

Administrators and teachers like Howell-Jack and Lyew are part of a target audience the Reading Reform Foundation hoped to reach through its conference. The Foundation's mission is to influence and encourage educators of both children and adults to teach reading, writing and spelling by using phonics methods that employ multi-sensory techniques. Dr. Ravitch honed in on that very principle with her address, “Why Content Matters.”

Speaking to hundreds of teachers, administrators, tutors and parents, Dr. Ravitch spoke about the benefits of a phonics-based approach for teaching students how to read and, more importantly, how to comprehend what they are reading. “Children need to understand the connections not only between letters and sounds but also between what they read and what it means. [They] must be able to make a large leap from being able to decode words to being able to comprehend words in different contexts.”

Dr. Ravitch, who holds the Brown Chair in Education policy at the Brookings Institute, also stressed the importance of a coherent curriculum that builds on vocabulary and knowledge incrementally, but she concedes that this is where education has fallen short. Curricula tend to be more random and less integrated. She maintained that an aligned curriculum helps children establish a foundation of background information that will prove critical once they begin to approach larger, more complicated subjects. Dr. Ravitch insists that as long as curricula lack continuity, students will miss valuable opportunities to connect ideas and concepts across disciplines.

Phonics-based learning, coupled with a coherent curriculum, has earned Dr. Ravitch's backing not simply because it makes good sense to her but also because it is a proven method of learning. “Study after study, underwritten by the National Institutes of Health, affirmed that teachers must use a variety of strategies, including phonics and phonemic awareness, especially when teaching beginning readers.” The research has been overwhelmingly convincing, yet it has taken many years for the program to be endorsed officially by state departments of education and schools of education, which dramatically influence the way future teachers educate students.

Dr. Ravitch noted, however, that the New York Department of Education has yet to approve a phonics-based program and has instead adopted a reading program that does not place emphasis on phonemic awareness. She suggested that the test results for New York City public schools have been less than satisfactory. “Not only is the current achievement gap growing between the have and the have-nots under the current program, but the population of excellent readers is rapidly declining.” Dr. Ravitch acknowledged that the Department of Education stands behind their program and that they strongly believe that it is good for students, but she disagrees.

Dr. Ravitch was quick to point out that because most departments of education around the country have endorsed a phonics-based reading program, youth literacy was on the right track. She was also optimistic about New York's position, thanks in part to private institutions like the Reading Reform Foundation. “Things are looking up in reading and much of the credit goes to the stalwart members of the Reading Reform Foundation who have steadily and quietly done the right thing for year after year, decade after decade, helping teachers learn to be effective in the classrooms whether or not it was fashionable to do so.”

Leona D. Spector, Vice President of Reading Reform Foundation, Trustee Sandra Priest Rose, and President Aileen Lewisohn Godsick were all in attendance at the conference. Obviously pleased with the turnout, Spector felt confident that the workshops that followed Dr. Ravitch's address would prove beneficial to both teachers and students. Most workshops focused on the importance of content and were conducted by education experts as well as some of New York's most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Lincoln Center Institute. Spector assured attendees that the workshops would reinforce what teachers were already doing and would offer many ideas to take back to the classroom.

So why does the Reading Reform Foundation host a conference like this year after year? Rose enthusiastically summed up the answer when she stated unequivocally, “We love teachers.” We can unequivocally add that teachers love the Reading Reform Foundation because they are taught how to convert their children into fluent readers and lifelong learners.#


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