…extensive research in the reading difficulties of children show that large classes are the basic cause of failure in reading as well as in other subjects.
~Professor Arthur I. Gates, nationally known authority in the field of reading instruction. Elementary School Journal; February 1937.
When parents and teachers debate phonics and whole language, they might be ignoring a real problem facing their children in the classroom—the difficulty that steals a teacher’s ability to address the individualized reading needs a student brings to school.
That problem is huge class sizes! If you note the date of the quote above, it’s 1937!
In 2018, few still discuss class size in relationship to reading instruction along with reading disabilities and dyslexia. Many policymakers and corporate reformers like to push the class size issue under the rug.
The reading wars, on the other hand, often create opposition between teachers and parents. This rift can hurt public schools, and more importantly students. There are many who believe this conflict is designed to do just that!
Some researchers proclaim that class size doesn’t matter, that it is simply not cost efficient. So there’s no point in addressing it. But class size research disputing the importance of class size isn’t always what it seems.
Alharbi and Stoet (2017) claim that secondary school students in other countries achieve better literacy in larger classes. Look closer and you will find that those classes involve students who are grouped according to ability and socioeconomic status. That’s not a fair proclamation. Ability grouping in this country is frowned upon. And while the divide between the wealthy and poor unfortunately continues to grow, the ideal in this country is not supposed to be separating students according to socioeconomic status in their schools.
In 2011, Bill Gates claimed that schools should raise class sizes and pay teachers more, like that should be a prerequisite for improving teacher salaries. In a post for Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, Anthony Cody noted reasons why this is wrong, especially for high-poverty schools. He tells of a familiar reality for teachers, 32 students per class, totaling 162 students per school day. Student’s affected by poverty are touched by the traumatic events in their lives. One wonders, how does a teacher with so many students, attend to students with needs when it comes to reading?
If the class is too large, it’s difficult. Some teachers work miracles in large classes, but it’s tough for most to juggle many students with so many hardships.
The research indicates that lower socioeconomic students in K-3 benefit from lowering class sizes. See the 1984 STAR Study. Wisconsin’s 1996-97 Project SAGE also involved lowering class sizes, and it found that improved student achievement occurs with individualized instruction and attention. Teachers are able to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses and tailor instructional strategies. Fewer discipline problems mean that classes can involve more creative problem-solving projects.
The class size issue does not only affect student’s learning to read in elementary school, it snowballs out of control as students reach middle and even high school. Students can always learn to be better readers, but if they constantly face large classes, many students will continue to be lost! Think of the student who loves science, but has difficulty reading the information. What kind of special attention will that science teacher be able to give the student with 30-40 students in the class, five periods a day?
Meanwhile, teachers and parents seem locked in the reading wars. Is phonics better? Whole language? The question might better be, is my child not learning to read because the classes are too large? Did they miss out because they could not get the necessary attention from the teacher?
Any teacher who has studied reading, understands that both phonics and whole language are important. A great reading teacher is capable of interweaving the two, depending on the instructional reading needs of every student in their class.
Some students need more phonics. Other students don’t need as much phonics. Teachers are better able to address the individual needs of their students, while bringing the class together, if they have manageable class sizes. Questions involving how to teach reading are important, but class size is critical no matter how reading is taught.
Lowering class sizes enables teachers to create an individualized reading prescription, like an IEP. It enables teachers to provide more one-on-one instruction which we also know helps students. It also provides them with more time to work with parents.
Bringing students together to work on projects and reading activities, where those with reading difficulties are discreetly working with higher-level readers, is also helpful. But this is tough to monitor if the class is large.
Some emphasize peer groups working with slower readers, but this should always be done with the supervision of a well-qualified teacher.
Others claim students will learn to read by computer. But most online reading programs are insufficient, while others are hated by parents. Technology is, thus far, merely a supplemental tool when it comes to reading.
If the education policymakers in this country truly wish to assist students learning to read, they will address lowering class sizes. Teachers need to be able to work more individually, or in smaller groups with students as they learn to read and when they have reading difficulties.
They knew in 1937 that smaller class sizes helped students be better readers. Isn’t it time we finally address this serious issue?
Arthur I. Gates. “The problem of class size in the elementary grades.” Elementary School Journal. Feb1937, Vol. 37 Issue 6, p405-407, 3p.
Abeer A. Alharbi and Gijsbert Stoet. “Achievement flourishes in larger classes: Secondary school student in most countries achieved better literacy in larger classes.” International Educational Journal: Comparative Perspectives. 2017. 16(2): 16-32.
Sharon Vaughn, Greg Roberts, Jade Wexler, Michael G. Vaughn, Anna-Maria Fall, Jennifer B. Schnakenberg. “High school students with reading comprehension difficulties.” Journal of Learning Disabilities. Sep/Oct 2015, 48(5): 546-558.
Strauss, Valerie. “Why Bill Gates is wrong on class size.” The Washington Post. March 11, 2011.
Class Size Matters is a clearinghouse with many references to better understand the importance of lowering class size.
Other Writings About the Importance of Smaller Class Sizes
What School Safety Reports Ignore: Reducing Class Size Aug. 8, 2018
K-12 Mega-Merger: What Strange World Is This? Teachers Want Lowered Class Sizes! July 16, 2018
Smaller Class Sizes and REAL Personalized Learning are Needed for Safer Schools May 20, 2018
Class Size and Its Impact on Inclusion March 3, 2018
Do You Want a Small Class Size For Your Child OR a Good Teacher? The Bogus Dilemma Feb. 27, 2014
Huge Class Sizes and the Increase in Student Mental Health Problems-Connect the Dots! Dec. 23, 2013