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A different approach to language

Students would read and write far more than they do now under curriculum changes proposed by a group of Hernando County teachers and administrators. If adopted, the new language arts curriculum would increase greatly the amount of reading and writing students do at all grade levels and lessen the emphasis on testing for isolated skills, such as the rote learning of vocabulary lists.

"We don't want students copying out of a glossary and memorizing words. Out of the 13 ways to learn to read, this is the least effective," said district elementary supervisor Betty Durden, who heads the group.

The new curriculum is known as "whole-language learning."

Its basic tenet is simple: Reading and writing are not isolated activities that can be learned in a vacuum, but are a part of every subject a student learns.

In a whole-language approach, students learn vocabulary from the text they are reading, not from a random list of words. They study grammar by analyzing texts they are reading and writing, not by diagraming sentences that have nothing to do with each other.

"There will be fewer mimeographed papers, fewer workbooks," Durden said.

In the process, the students will be reading and writing more.

"It's moving away from a highly structured textbook curriculum to an extensive amount of children's literature," said Ruthellen Crews, a professor of education at the University of Florida.

Although Crews said there is a general trend in Florida toward more whole-language learning, the idea is not new.

"Good teachers have been doing this all the time _ recognizing that children learn language by using it," she said.

"To begin by drilling young children on parts of speech and minute elements of language is ridiculous."

The proposals are tentative and must be discussed with other administrators and approved by the county's elementary school teachers and middle school and high school language arts and reading teachers before any changes take effect.

The group hopes for final School Board approval of the curriculum revision by mid-December. The changes would be phased in during the next school year and would be implemented fully by the 1992-93 school year.

"It would be a major-league difference," Durden said.

A similar group has been working on proposed changes in the district's mathematics curriculum and is reviewing proposals with teachers.

On Tuesday, members of the language committee presented a preview of the proposed changes to a group of administration officials.

Their main complaint, several teachers agreed, is that even when students do read, they are encouraged to look for specific things in a text _ a list of adjectives, a list of colors, a character's middle name, for example _ instead of trying to understand the entire story.

"At high school, we expect students to read for comprehension, but we found in the committee that they weren't learning these skills in elementary school," said Suzanne Spaid, chairwoman of Springstead High School's English department.

The group has outlined dozens of reading and writing skills and prepared charts suggesting grades in which those skills would be taught.

The approach to reading and writing also is intended to mirror the way children learn to talk: at their own pace and in their own manner.

"We teach a lot that students don't learn," Durden said. "Our goal is to teach them reading and writing skills when they are ready to learn them."