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.