To hear parents and the media talk, teachers don’t know how to teach reading. In Alabama, Education Week is bragging about a $48 million literacy program. It teaches teachers how to teach reading.
Why? I find it a strange phenomenon. Reading instruction and identifying reading problems used to be a large part of learning how to be an elementary school teacher.
While it is good of Alabama to train their teachers how to teach reading, if they need to, it doesn’t speak well for the teaching profession, and it raises many questions. Alabama’s program is for disadvantaged children, but why aren’t teachers prepared to teach in their college education programs? The message that teachers don’t know how to teach reading is prevalent, across the board and directed at public schools.
What has happened in the last 30 years? Why don’t teachers seem to know how to teach reading anymore?
Teachers have always picked commercialized programs to teach reading, but it used to be more a professional decision on the part of the teacher. They were given credit for understanding what made a good reading program and they didn’t have to go through massive instruction to learn how to teach the program. A workshop or two, if anything, was good enough.
I like to use the example of when I was learning to be a teacher in the 70s. I student taught, in part, in a third grade class in an elementary school near Detroit. The school served many students whose parents worked in the auto plants. It was not a wealthy public school, but it was a good school. It was especially well-run when it came to reading instruction.
There were three third grade teachers who would meet regularly to discuss the reading progress of their students. They combined their classes and placed students into small groups according to skills the students needed.
There was no Response to Intervention or massive testing to seek out problems. Teachers just figured out where the students were by looking at their work and reading with them. They probably did some informal testing. The students didn’t see one group as being better than another. They learned one skill and would move on to the next skill. It seemed quite natural.
Reading was tightly monitored. My supervising teacher made me write serious lesson plans. Students had plenty of phonics, spelling too, but there was also a lot of enjoyable reading. Students had time to visit the library, and they were often read to in the classroom. They were also given plenty of time to read on their own.
And they wrote stories. They wrote beautiful stories. I still have the letters they wrote me when I left, along with a picture of the class! The students were all smiling! The teacher was smiling too. I think that says a lot!
No one timed reading, or rewarded students for reading progress, or counted how many books they read per week. It was just expected that you would learn how to read and teachers would follow you and help you get there—even if you had a few difficulties.
The teacher taught other subjects too. Students had social studies and science. They did projects. They decorated the room when I was there like a spaceship. They learned about the planets. They didn’t sit and do reading and math skills all day.
They went out for recess several times each day. They had art. No one talked about testing.
The teachers didn’t have a lot of money for materials so they shared. The library had a resource area where you could check out materials. Teachers purchased supplemental reading materials together.
So why don’t teachers seem to be able to teach reading like they used to? Why do they have to go through all kinds of professional development like they never learned anything before they entered the classroom?
- Has this been an intentional plan to de-professionalize teaching by those who want to privatize schools? Is it because of exaggerated claims that students weren’t reading well enough 30 years ago? Has the authority over how to teach reading been stolen from teachers?
- Have the education schools sold out to commercialized companies and not provided the right kind of reading instruction to teachers? Is there too much concern about making a profit on reading programs?
- Are the Teach for America types, or the online fast-track programmed teachers, ill-prepared to teach reading? Who’s monitoring those programs?
- Did NCLB and RTTT change the way teachers are supposed to teach? When there is so much concern about high-stakes test results, teachers will find it difficult not to follow the program that will appear to help them succeed.
- Is it because wealthy parents are pushing children too hard, to read too early and poor parents don’t push hard enough?
- Are there more children with disabilities in the regular class who need remediation? Are regular education teachers required to learn how to teach special education? If so, how is that fair to the students in their classes who don’t have disabilities?
Whatever it is, for a country like the U.S. it doesn’t look good. It doesn’t look good at all.
Leah K Stewart (@LearntSchool) says
I’m a product of our 21st Century Schooling, from the UK though things seem to have slid in a similar direction as the US as far as accountability/testing goes. My grades and results were always top, yet I was honestly put off reading by the end of school. I’d heard reading was enjoyable, but had never seen it or experienced it, so couldn’t believe it. In primary school I had this feeling that books were designed to improve our reading so we could do something else with that skill. Something interesting. Reading skills are measurable and masterable and are of transactional importance; ‘If I can prove I understand this text you give me a grade, a certificate, in the future I get money for this?’ Only a couple of years ago (I’m now in my mid 20’s) did I discover joy in reading -where you want to burst and tell everyone you know, yet you’re speechless that another person wrote this!- as I tentatively explored the local library near the office I was working in. Only very recently did I realize how therapeutic it is to read and how powerfully reading connects people. Now it’s clear I graduated with the skills, but missed the point. I wonder how many other students experience this? Reading in schools is becoming a mechanical and calculated act, based on what the poor teachers were made to do with us. And all this because someone, somewhere, who we’ll never meet has decided they need ‘evidence’ of our ‘progress’.
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Leah, Thanks for sharing. I find this to be a unique perspective. You graduated with the skills but not the joy of learning how to read. I wonder how many young people feel the same way you do. I think you were lucky to discover the library! Happy reading!
Leah K Stewart (@LearntSchool) says
I’m hugely lucky to have had a library so conveniently near the office, though I’m not sure this example is so unique. There was a study in the UK several years back asking primary pupils why they read and they overwhelmingly talked about reading being ‘good for the future’ and ‘important to get a job’ and this hit the headlines because so few said they read because reading is fun. For students lucky enough to come to school from a reading household they’re likely to already know the joy of reading for pleasure and for personal growth… they will have seen it at home and for them the technical aspects of reading will be wonderfully complimentary allowing them to delve deeper into a world they’re already eager to explore. For the rest of us these skills are acquirable, but I know many adults who say as they were put off reading by the end of school, regardless of the grades they got. Perhaps I’m only an extreme example because I learnt to perform so highly without caring; this was because I trusted our system which measures performance (so focuses on performance), and I think my teachers trusted the system too.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Leah. It is always interesting to learn of the similarities and differences in how children learn from across the pond. This sounds similar to our country.
The teaching of reading to my kids has been – like any other subject – a mixed bag. We’ve had teachers who have used cross-classroom ability grouping to establish 12 reading groups per grade level and move each child ahead. We had a first grade teacher who created a reading group of two F&P level O students and three level J students and didn’t understand why we didn’t consider that appropriate. We’ve had teachers who kept a stash of upper level books for high ability students. We had a teacher who told our daughter since she had finished the highest level books available in her classroom, she should move down a level and read those books. Some teachers have been great at teaching reading and others haven’t. But if some teachers need additional training and the state or school doesn’t want to single them out, all are sent to training. While it might be more effective to evaluate each teacher and choose which ones need help, I suspect that would be seen rather negatively.
Nancy Bailey says
Well most likely, Joshua, parents won’t find the perfect reading teacher, but students who are advanced have different needs. Certainly a child shouldn’t have to back track when the teacher runs out of books! I think if a student is mastering high level books they should be allowed to bring in a book of their choice or pick one out in the library. Nice to hear from you.
James Sullivan says
I taught lieracy on the secondary level up to a year ago. It was required that we took grad courses in disabilities. In addition I have training in cognitive science. My students always learned skills because I taught them and focused on interdisciplinary learning. Furthermore I chose books and materials that they enjoyed. in Addison I exposed all students to a wide variety of texts including difficult ones but I learned how the text related to the student and the student related to the texts through transactional reading response. I also required them to write journals entries or videotape them with parental permission. my students engaged in conversations constantly concerning how they related to the text. This involved slot of work. As far as standardized tests I focused on cognition and how it was measured. If u want to teach reading them expect to put in long hours before and after class and talk to your colleagues in other subjvts
I also think that schools have become to pressured at young ages, and teachers need to have more autonomy.
On another note, I live in the Midwest and talk to lots of parents and teachers about struggling readers. The dominant strategies that teachers here use are whole language based. These include trying to figure out what a word is by looking at the first letter or two, trying to figure out what word would fit best in the sentence, and looking at the pictures. Posters and handouts of these strategies are EVERYWHERE in schools. These are guessing strategies, not decoding strategies. Really structured teaching of how phonemes and graphemes correspond and how to break words apart is rare.
Yes, there are some phonics here and there, as in “a says aaaa” – but teachers do not seem to have been taught about the critical concepts of 1) phonological awareness and 2) rapid naming. I believe every reading teacher and every special education teacher should know about these, because there is a large body of research showing that phonological awareness (different from phonics) and rapid naming skills in K and 1st grade are HUGE predictors of reading success in later grades. I have yet to talk with an educator who can accurately define what phonological awareness and rapid naming are, let alone screen for those skills or intervene if there are problems.
So right now what is going on are these guessing strategies, combined with telling a child’s parents to read with them more and it will just click. It’s such a disservice, because parents blindly believe that their kids will be fine. And when they aren’t reading well in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade, self-esteem has begun to suffer, and it takes longer to get them on track. Systematic teaching of phonological awareness skills, combined with direct teaching of the syllables and rules of our language could have lessened and in some cases even prevented their struggles.
There is also very little knowledge of the science of reading – and by this I mean, what is going on in the brain of a struggling reader? What is going on in the brain of a good reader? What kind of instruction makes the struggling reader’s brain make those neural connections that are needed?
In my state 60%+ of 4th graders are not reading at grade level – and that is the norm in our country. So I do think we should be looking at how reading is taught. There are many variables in a classroom with teachers and students determine how well a child will learn – but with numbers like that, clearly we need to be looking at how colleges and universities are preparing reading teachers. In my opinion, the buck ultimately stops with them.
Agree wholeheartedly with this comment.
>There is also very little knowledge of the science of reading <
There ware massive amounts of brain based reading research done in the 90's. We know what works but the school system and the education colleges have failed to acknowledge that they have been going about this all wrong.
Attend an International Dyslexia Association Conference and you will find out what is really going on.
lThe Whole Language instruction fad that took over education and teacher training has a lot to do with this…
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for your comment. It gives me the opportunity to say that I believe the Whole Language/Phonics debate has been a huge distraction. The reality in my opinion is that all children learn differently. Many children don’t need phonics. Others need some, and those with reading disabilities might need much. But the fact is, phonics has been a dominant force in many classrooms for years now. And everyone has their favorite program that they will swear by.
if you look at all the brain based research that came out of the 90’s you will find the the SINGLE biggest predictor of reading success in phonemic awareness.
Only about 5% of children will learn to read no matter what but they do need phonics at some point to decode whether its taught to them or they figure it out themselves.
My oldest child had almost No phonemic awareness and got to 4th grade (with sped help) and could not read anything he had not learned to sight read. Since he had very poor short term memory (something many teachers who love sight reading instruction fail to verify if their students have this issue or not) he could basically not read at all.
Most of the time when people state that phonics won’t work, what they don’t realize is that it will NOT work until children have mastered the art of phonemic awareness. Few teachers know how to teach phonemic awareness and until they figure this out , these children are doomed to a life time of illiteracy.
My second son was taught phonics or the fact that the letters each have a separate sound, His inate PA was excellent and he was reading at a early 4th grade level after only 6 weeks of instruction in pre-k.
Want to know how to tell if a kid has PA? Just do a CTOPP. If every school did this for every student, we could really change the face of illiteracy in this country.
If phonetic, linguistic, systematic and multisensory reading was deployed in the pre k-3/4 grades, all children would learn to read, and less kids would be. given IEPs. Unfortunately sped teachers aren’t taught these methods, nor are gen ed teachers, so most kids with language processing disorders can’t get beyond the 4th grade level. Whole Language instruction ensures that 20% of the population will NOT learn to read, so I hardly consider it a distraction. My two cents. I am the parent of two children with language disorders (yes they read on level now) and I have a master’s of special ed.
Have you modified this perspective since the recent Sold A Story podcast and its ensuing massive response?
Are you familiar with the work of Maryanne Wolf or even Mark Seidenberg?
Nancy Bailey says
While this is an older post, the reading war is still distracting. I am familiar with all of the people you mention, but I don’t think their push for phonics or online instruction is valid. Hanford left out much, and as a long-time reading teacher for children with disabilities, I worry about her bias take about reading. Her reporting is incredibly political, and I found it insulting.
Be mindful of the words special education. Special education teacher training programs do not teach them how to teach reading either even tho students with reading disabilities make up 85-90% of their caseload. If regular education teachers got the training that actually works like systematic instruction with skills for TEACHINg phonemic awareness (Lindamood Bells LiPs) then all kids would learn and the number of so called “special education ” would drop dramatically.
Nancy Bailey says
Hi Robin. Well I don’t know what they’re teaching in special education these days. But having learned to be a teacher in the area of learning disabilities, I can tell you years ago we looked at reading and the various programs, including phonics, seriously. I would also respectfully argue that not all students need heavy duty phonics when they are young. I’ve known children who have had to sit through endless phonics work sheets when they were already reading.
We have really got to break away and look more individually at children and what they need to learn how to read when they arrive at school, .and I’m not talking about just plopping students onto the computer either.
Thank you for your comment.
If children have mastered the codes, then it time for reading groups. I agree with your prior statement that reading groups are the way to go. Having two children at oppose end of the reading ability, I get that.
Stephen Zedler says
Scientific research has revealed a lot in the past 20 years, not just in the way of effective reading instruction methods, but also about what skills contribute to language development and reading fluency.
Peer-reviewed, published research has shown that the multi-sensory awareness of phonemes and phonological processing skills provide the strong foundation that the phonological system needs to be able to effectively sound out words. Sounding out words, in turn, is the cornerstone for reading fluency.
Research has also revealed highly effective methods for building these skills. The problem with most of our reading instruction is that it begins at the written language level, usually with letter/sound association (“The ‘p’ says ‘puh’.”). For most children with reading difficulties, the deficient skill is in SPOKEN language, which common sense tells us precedes written language. If we want to improve the effectiveness of our reading instruction, it must start by building skills that precede letter/sound association.
You’re correct that there seems to be an increased level of concern about this issue. The reason this is seen as a crisis today is because, in the past, there were avenues for students who lacked reading skills to take. Not every child in the past learned how to read. How do we know? Because, once again, research reveals to us the percentage of the adult population that STILL can’t functionally read. Not-so-coincidentally, it is roughly consistent with the estimated percentage of the population that is born with a naturally weak phonological system, whether it be due to dyslexia or some other condition. Other studies have shown that these adults CAN be taught to read if they are given instruction that goes all the way back to these foundational language skills and strengthens them from the bottom up.
Currently, there is a gap between what research has revealed and what is practiced in our classrooms. This is why, currently, about 15-20% of our students are being left behind by standard reading instruction. Most of these students were born with naturally weak phonological systems that, without systematic instruction in the foundational spoken language skills, will lead to reading difficulties. Most reading instruction ASSUMES the skills that about 80% of the population develops naturally (strong multi-sensory integration and processing skills at the spoken language level).
So, to answer your question: No. Most teachers DON’T know about the advancement of our knowledge in how language skills are acquired and how to effectively strengthen those skills. This is not to denigrate the teachers. Teachers are smart, caring, hard working people who do the best they can with what they have. Unfortunately, very few developers of reading programs, schools of education, or professional development programs have kept current with science. The gap between research and practice must be bridged, otherwise, all of our emphasis on testing and the general panic about low reading proficiency percentages will be for naught.
You are 100% correct.
The reason the Linda,mood Phonemic Sequencing works so well is that it addresses oral language production BEFORE it addresses reading. I don’t know any other system that does this with any efficacy. I have seen it teach the lowest performing readers both with and without cognitive impairments learn to read after 120 hours. If fact, even the Orton-Gillingham system (which is really a great methodology) will not work on a child with weak or no phonemic awareness skills.
All standard reading programs assume phonemic awareness develops naturally. For most yes, for others , no.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for sharing your views Robin.
Nancy Bailey says
The push to privatize public schools has in a very real way hurt the teaching profession for many of the reasons I stated in my post–especially when it comes to reading. But I can assure you most teachers used to know how to teach reading. The reading wars (a distraction still in my mind), and the quest to make a profit on every area in our public schools, has been devastating to reading teachers and public schools.
I rather like Diane Ravitch’s explanation here http://dianeravitch.net/2014/08/05/why-i-dont-care-about-the-reading-wars-anymore/
And if you want to read a longer interesting observation of what happened The Reading Wars was published in 1997. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/11/the-reading-wars/376990/
Thank you for your post Stephen.
Agreed Stephen, when you look at our family history you will see a long line of weak phonemic awareness and unfortunately shame. No one taught my kids’ grandparents or great grandparents how to read any better than what is currently taught. Their professions allowed the to skimp by, but even my husband graduated high school on a 4th grade level. He was a SPED student, his Father was not. But, his Father has the phonemic awareness of a 5 year old. Society has changed and kept them out of professions they previously excelled in. My Father became a Pharmacist because he he was accepted into Pharmacy School??? Nope, because he fought through weeder classes and got passing grades. My Father in law is a general contractor because he got a bachelor’s degree and passed a state test? Nope, he learned the trade and applied for a simple license with a basic test.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for sharing, Phoebe.
This brings an interesting point.
lynn oliver says
The truth is, they do not. Teaching reading requires 1. A knowledge of the phonics and the multiple sounds of the letters, including the front and back of “L, M, N, & R”. Many teachers have no idea what this means and how to teach the phonics and also teach their students the skill of inserting the different sounds to arrive at new words from their already large, social vocabulary. They have been taught program teaching for so long, they have absolutely no idea of how teach reading today. 2. Also it requires an understanding that reading is an abstract skill requiring more mental energy to decode, visualize, reflect upon, differentially insert the different sounds of the phonics hopefully they have been taught; organize, and to enjoy the process. 3. Teachers usually are so steeped in the genetics models of learning, they have no idea of how our average stress is made up of many layers of mental work which take up real mental energy, leaving less mental energy to deal with new mental, especially such abstract skills as reading. Understanding this important environmental variable is important for helping students have a more delicately approached method for teaching reading and enjoying the “developing skills of reading and its enjoyment”. This is something teachers so brought up with the genetics models and sheer effort they do not understand the need to change pace and intensity when teaching the sounds, a reading, along with the proper dynamics of a slower pace to nurture reflection, organization, and *motivation to read or mental reward for mental work expended. Too many times teachers are so caught up in more effort, they hurt their students’ motivation by simply using the old and hurtful methods of simple hard work or read , read, read, and also incorrectly using programmed instruction with time limits with no teacher involved nurturing. My reading approach will go to all on request. We need to remove our current, false genetics models and help students learn more correctly the proper technique and skills to learn to read and enjoy this ever rewarding skill when taught properly.
There’s a disconnect between departments of cognitive science and departments of education. The neurologists and linguists do research on language and reading development and acquisition while the educators develop philosophies of reading instruction. Educators aren’t using the real research.
I think elementary schoolchildren should be taught by paired teachers, one with a specialty in reading and writing and the other in mathematics and in groups of about 15.
Here’s the bad news: Teaching reading is hard work and it takes someone thoroughly prepared in the science. Schools of education generally draw the least prepared and talented cohorts. Harsh but, to a very large extent, quite true.
If you really are interested in this issue read Maryanne Wolf’s PROUST AND THE SQUID or the more academic LANGUAGE AT THE SPEED OF SIGHT.
“Mr. Seidenberg makes a convincing case that we have learned more about reading and the brain in the past two decades than in the previous century. He also shows that our failure to use this new knowledge to improve how we teach children is causing real harm, especially to the most vulnerable. Every teacher of young children as well as those who train them should read this book.” Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University.”
Nancy Bailey says
You bring up an interesting point. Thank you. However, I disagree. My master’s degree is in learning disabilities when LD was a real area of study in ed. schools. I think it still should be. But while neurologists and linguists may do important research, it is not easily translated to teaching practice. For example, you might look up Marianne Frostig. When I was in school Frostig’s eye-hand writing exercises were all the rage…until we learned they really didn’t work.
Today, phonics is promoted based on brain research, but that’s debatable too, honestly. Although many parents who have students with reading problems will proclaim the benefits of Orton-Gillingham, phonics has been promoted feverishly by lobbyists. Phonics programs sell. Some may be useful, and I’m not against phonics at all. But it doesn’t create miracles for every child.
You are right that teaching is hard work, and wrong that ed schools draw the least prepared. That is not the way it used to be. Corporate school reform has damned teacher education and as a result we see Teach for America types etc.
Teachers used to be good at teaching reading. They combined reading and phonics, and phonics many believe works better after students learn basic sight words.
Wolf’s book is interesting but leaves little for teachers to use in the classroom. Seidenberg is a bit more useful but certainly doesn’t solve the reading problems that exist in our classrooms.
We need smaller class sizes and teachers who learn how to teach reading well and corrective reading and learning disabilities. This country needs to once again invest in their public schools instead of stripping them and higher education of resources and support.
I agree with you that we need smaller class sizes and teachers who teach reading well and can apply corrective reading methods and who are versed in children’s learning disabilities. and that this country has been disinvesting in its public schools for many years.
Marianne Frostig was not a scientist, she was more of a guru. There have been a lot of cultish practices in educational practice and they’ve left a lot of kids short on skills. All the more reason to base practices on research (vetted, scientific and independent research.) That hasn’t generally occurred in my university experience (elementary and special education in the 70’s.)
I stand my ground, however, on my belief that schools of education draw from the least clever and capable among college applicants. Perhaps it’s because the best, and brightest women now have alternative career options to the secretarial, teaching and nursing fields that they had been limited to until the mid 20th century. I DO know that among my teacher friends and acquaintances, the brightest and most intellectual ones have bailed from the system.
As to Wolf and Seidenberg, they need not be useful to teachers as a methods resource but their (and others’) findings certainly should be used as a basis for (reading) teacher training.
This is a conversation that should be occurring in every parent-teacher organization and in every civic forum in the US. It won’t though. It’s too esoteric and under-the-radar for most people.
Nancy Bailey says
I absolutely agree this should be a front-and-center conversation and debate. My fear right now is the aggressive tech over teacher push. We need well-prepared teachers and great ed. schools. But universities are getting hit with corporate reform too. Thanks for your comment. Maybe you’d like to debate me for a blog post sometime. Think about it!
Ha! As if I have the time. I have to confess I was derailed from some important duties by this conversation, as enjoyable as it is. Cheers!
Nancy Bailey says
I understand. That’s fine. Thanks for commenting!