In public schools, good reading instruction for all children is imperative. Understandably, parents and teachers want to do the right thing to help children excel at reading and learning. On that point, we all agree.
States are passing Science of Reading (SoR) legislation claiming it’s evidence-based instruction, settled science, to address what appear to be abysmal reading scores that were troubling even before the pandemic.
Many states contract with companies providing direct instruction or online programs promising success with the SoR. This all got a foothold with the 21-year-old No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Here’s why that’s concerning.
1. Kindergarten Expectations
NCLB made kindergarten the new first grade replacing developmentally sound activities: unstructured play, exploration, social activities, art and music, science, social study centers, naptime, and more. No justification existed for this, and no research indicates that formal reading instruction, including repetitive assessment, should be so pronounced at such a young age.
Children pressured to learn to read before they’re ready might not do well in school and may become anxious, believing they’ve failed.
NCLB didn’t improve reading. Yet, kindergarten reading standards alignment has become normalized, and many parents and educators now believe that young children should learn to read earlier than ever.
The SoR movement encourages, rarely questions, formal reading instruction at an early age before many children are ready.
2. Preschool Reading Readiness
Reading readiness became a reality with NCLB. This isn’t simply reading picture books to children or teaching how enjoyable reading can be (See my tribute to Jim Trelease); it’s forcing preschoolers to work on skills and endure assessments to prepare for kindergarten.
When adults create developmentally inappropriate expectations for kindergarten reading, preschoolers must also step up the pace.
SoR supporters seem unconcerned about the pressure of reading readiness and repetitive assessment on young children.
3. Read by Third Grade, Or Else!
NCLB supporters promised all third graders would read at grade level by 2014! It never happened, but third graders are now expected to read, or they’ll be held back as having failed.
While reading difficulties at this age should be addressed, it isn’t true that students cannot learn or improve reading skills after third grade, and alternative solutions other than retention do exist.
There’s no need to make children go through the personal devastation of retention. Many retained students drop out of school.
However, Furman professor and researcher Paul Thomas recently described how more states are retaining third-graders due to reading assessments, despite clear research about retention’s harm.
The SoR movement seems to ignore the many studies showing the damage caused by retention.
4. Variables that Affect Reading Instruction
Variables that can affect whether or not children learn to read include:
- Having clean, well-maintained school buildings with classrooms that have controlled temperatures and few disruptions.
- Manageable class sizes which are small enough for teachers to provide individualized instruction.
- Great school libraries where students have access to books and reading materials of interest.
- Teachers with teaching degrees and reading backgrounds who don’t have to rely only on commercialized programs.
The SoR movement rarely refers to the many variables that could negatively affect children learning to read.
5. National Reading Panel (NRP)
The NRP has many problems and is controversial, said to make false claims about literacy development. Yet, it is still considered the gold standard with no effort to update, evaluate new research, and review problems.
Concerns of one of the panel members, an elementary school principal, Joanne Yatvin, who wrote a minority view, are still ignored. Her viewpoint was published by Education Week in I Told You So! Misinterpretation and Misuse of the National Reading Panel.
…I could see that the report [NRP] as a whole was narrow, biased, and elitist. I was troubled by the fact that it covered so few of the important issues in teaching reading today, that the ideologies of panel members had governed the choice of most of the topics, and that teachers of beginning reading had been excluded from the entire process. Moreover, I believed that because of its weaknesses, the report was dangerous in its potential for misuse. The responses of my fellow panel members to my concerns ranged from reassurances that all problems would be ironed out before the report’s publication to “So what?”
The country needs a new, more inclusive NRP with a panel that includes parents and teachers to review current reading programs and peer-reviewed research studies.
SoR supporters repeatedly ignore the NRP’s controversy, nor do they call for a more inclusive and complete reading study with teachers and parents for a new NRP.
6. Reading First
NCLB’s Reading First (RF), a $1 billion phonics-focused program to get students reading by the end of third grade, claiming scientific-backed research, was devised by many of the same individuals involved with the SoR today.
Reading First became a scandal; the Department of Education’s Inspector General concluded that officials were awarding grants for their favorite programs.
It also didn’t work out well. University of Southern California Emeritus Professor of Education Stephen Krashen wrote about Reading First’s problems. And a 2008 study indicated students in RF schools showed no better reading skills than children in schools without the program.
…it [Reading First] had a consistent positive effect on reading instruction yet no statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension.
Despite the RF mess, some of the same individuals involved, including those on the National Reading Panel, continue to push the SoR as settled science.
7. Reading and the Corporate Connection
Corporate school reformers promote the SoR along with support for privatizing public schools. This connection is disturbing, mainly because they criticize, sometimes harshly, and other times it is more nuanced, teachers and public schools. Many of these same individuals promote or sell online reading programs with few peer-reviewed studies to show effectiveness.
It validates the corporate message when well-respected educators sign on to such groups.
Many reading programs sell the SoR, but there’s little proof other than the company’s research that these programs work.
8. Common Core State Standards and the SoR
Since 2010, Common Core has figured prominently in the reading curriculum teachers have been forced to teach, yet there’s little discussion about why students haven’t excelled with Common Core reading.
Reports criticizing Common Core abound, yet it’s ingrained in many online reading programs sold to school districts.
Shouldn’t the English Language Arts standards be examined if students show increased reading problems, including the Reading: Foundational Skills?
If Common Core improved learning, wouldn’t those standards have worked for all children? Some creators of Common Core State Standards now promote the SoR and even sell reading programs.
Why is there no examination of Common Core found in online programs on the part of the SoR enthusiasts?
9. Teachers Replaced by Technology
Within any profession, including teaching, it’s imperative to study and research what’s new and improved. But only in education are teachers cast as failures in that process.
Some well-meaning teachers have professed they didn’t learn what they needed from their university coursework to teach the SoR, making teachers, universities, and even public schools look dispensable because many SoR programs are online. Like Amplify and iReady, both advertise the SoR and are controversial online programs.
The SoR movement could lead to students relying on computers and mentors, not professional teachers, for all their reading instruction.
The SoR is flawed, definitely not settled science, and without consideration of the above, children may continue to experience reading problems for many years.
Yatvin, J. (2003). I Told You So! The Misinterpretation and Misuse of The National Reading Panel Report. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-i-told-you-so-the-misinterpretation-and-misuse-of-the-national-reading-panel-report/2003/04
As a 36 year teacher of first and second grades, I wholeheartedly agree with you! I went from a lover of teaching to a restrained and confined interpreter of whatever new program had been mandated. At the conclusion of my teaching career I was no longer permitted to include science, social studies, penmanship or art in my classroom curriculum. I now NEVER encourage anyone to enter the profession, and my fellow retired teachers agree that they would not go back to the classroom for any amount of money!
Nancy Bailey says
That’s sad. I’m sorry to hear that, Jane. But I understand.
Monica Plaza says
Thank you Jane for sharing!!! As a parent of two children I had to “teach” my kids at home for two years during the pandemic. I fortunately have plenty of high education, but teaching is another whole field that I do not know. I had to get creative and I refused to buy any lame online program. So I taught freely, it was NOT easy, but I was free to teach, (pens, pencils, paper, white board, and printed books!!!) The result of my amateur teaching was really good and my kids enjoyed it!!! My kids are back in school now and I think they are been robbed of learning, because of how teaching is being done. They are bored!!!! The results on tests are terrifying for all the students. The county keeps buying all these testing apps and online programs. I know that teachers are suffering the constrains that you are describing. I hate it!!!. My children are fortunate that I am able to supplement at home. We are losing people like you. Real teachers are been replaced by underqualified individuals that are having teaching jobs that pay well and they would not have been qualified for in the past. The results of this trend are going to be very detrimental. I am so sorry that you have to see your life long career demean in this way. One of my best friends was a lifelong teacher and she is debastated and cannot even comprehend how did we get here. Thank you again for sharing. I really appreciate all of this information. My children’s education is very important to me and teaching is a very skillfull art, not easy in any way.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Monica. Teachers must appreciate you greatly for your insight!
Karen Drexler says
“School districts around the country are passing Science of Reading (SoR) legislation…” State legislatures are passing these laws. NOT school districts.
Nancy Bailey says
You’re right, Karen! I stand corrected. Thanks for catching that.
Your welcome! Believe me when I say, I wish districts had the autonomy to do what’s right for kids. As a reading specialist, I am now spending weeks “dyslexia” testing mandated by our state legislature.
Monica Plaza says
Nancy, thank you sooo much for continuing to shed light to this alarming trend. WE ALL NEED to know. I hate when parents suffer through this, believing that is their children failing. It is our politicians and systems failing the children. Kind Regards!!!
Nancy Bailey says
Another excellent point! I wonder every day how many children are failing! It’s good to catch reading problems early, but children have to be given a chance to develop.
Dorothy Scanlan says
The county I work for uses an absolutely awful reading program called Benchmark. It’s heavily scripted (reminiscent of the Lucy Calkins writing program) and is web based. The teachers hate it (I’m glad I’m not in the classroom–I’m a librarian), and the real joke is it might get the boot after just three years in use. That’s a good thing, of course, unless the county trades it for some other equally abysmal program. And I can only imagine how much the county paid for all this… I, too, cannot recommend anyone to go into teaching.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for sharing, Dorothy. That sounds sadly typical when it comes to programs.
Thank you for this, Nancy! You have managed to put into words some things floating around in my mind, especially the “same people” points you made.
Hetchinger and then KQED published an article that summarizes a meta-analysis of studies of Orton-Gillingham and a meta-analysis of other reading programs or approaches for students who are dyslexic or otherwise having difficulty with word-level reading. The latter study found that all the effective programs were intensive and administered one-on-one or in a small group, not with the whole class or something a general ed teacher can do along with all the other general ed things. Here is the article: https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/59981/leading-dyslexia-treatment-isnt-a-magic-bullet-studies-find-while-other-options-show-promise
Thus, I have unanswered questions, and you are a critical thinker, not a bandwagon-jumper, so I will ask here. Thank you in advance for reading through these.
If students with reading difficulties need intensive small group or one-on-one support, what should early grade general ed teachers do for their range of readers?
For typical readers, how much systematic word-work (sounds, patterns…) do teachers need to teach explicitly? Up through which sounds/patterns: single consonant sounds, blends, vowel teams and diphthongs, syllabication, roots & affixes, allophones?
Is a typical reader ever ready to acquire additional sounds and patterns on their own by independent reading? Or do they need to be taught all the sounds and patterns all the way up? For instance, no one taught me that the tt in mitten is a glottal stop or the tt in butter is a /d/, but somehow I’ve been able to read and spell these words correctly many decades before I knew what a glottal stop is.
This may be a lot! Feel free to address as many or as few as you like. I’ll be happy to consider and learn whatever you share.
Nancy Bailey says
I love these questions, Carrie, and thank you for commenting! Let me think about this and work something up, maybe even in a post, if that’s o.k. because they deserve a thoughtful answer.
Also, thank you for the article about OG. I’ve heard about the lack of research, even though some parents swear by it.
I would be so happy to read a thoughtful answer. I teach undergrads in CA in a teacher ed program. I need to get a grip on all of this for their sake, and for the sake of their future students. Thank you for helping me with this!
Nancy Bailey says
Good for you! I will work something up. Thank you!
Denise Nessel says
RE having to learn all the sounds and patterns to be an effective reader: As Steven Strauss noted in his excellent book on phonics, it’s almost impossible to teach the full range of encoding principles that we call phonics. The subject is a great deal more complex than most people realize. However, it’s also important to realize that the application of phonics is not the most important reading skill. Also critical is the reader’s attention to the context (that is, meaning). Teaching phonics without also teaching how to use context is of limited use to young readers. This may be anathema to proponents of the “science of reading,” but it is nevertheless what I know to be true from my decades of experience in reading and also what a great many experts and researchers have noted through the years. Strauss’s informative and highly readable book is called The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics: Silent “E” Speaks Out.
Judy Wallis says
Reading First was $6 billion that yielded a small bump in decoding at grade 2. Look at NAEP when these same students hit challenging texts. They lacked the comprehension strategies necessary. They read fast and accurately but didn’t understand what they read. Imagine what might have happened if we’d spent the money on books, high-quality PD, and real literacy coaches instead of “police”
Nancy Bailey says
Exactly! Thanks for saying it so clearly, Judy.
Sandi Goodwin says
In my state we are being forced to take a Science Of Reading course. I teach math. Says it takes 6O
hours ( of your own time) to complete. 10 six hour days…No- Double that. This is year 42 for me.. Even if I was retiring at the end of the year I still would have to do this. Makes no sense.
Nancy Bailey says
You teach math and must take a Science of Reading course. That’s ridiculous. It also sounds punitive. Sandi, I wonder if anyone else in other school districts faces this.
Jason Clevelad says
I also teach math (algebra 1 & 2) and have been required to take a reading class. I am thankful for this new class. For the past 10 years my school district has used Lucy Calkins’ balanced reading curriculum with terrible results.
Each year I get many students that have earned a D- and have been passed to the next math course! These students are not capable of comprehending the most basic of word problems. Yes I have 9th graders that reading at a 5th grade level.
I’m not sure if SOR is the answer but I can see that balanced literacy has been a failure.
Nancy Bailey says
So much is left out here. We don’t see test scores or know anything about the students other than your opinion. Everyone has preferences, but your claims about your school district are not proven.
Any test of “reading comprehension” is, in effect, testing a lifetime of language acquisition combined with a lifetime of knowledge acquisition. The enormous gap created by disparate exposure to language makes developing fair and objective reading tests a near impossibility. And that’s because the selection of random reading passages will always favor students from language rich home environments. However, there is a way to counteract the huge advantages of being raised in affluence and privilege when it comes to testing reading comprehension. My idea for doing this simply requires that the topic (and related vocabulary) of each reading passage to be used to test reading comprehension be provided before the start of the school year. This would allow for vocabulary and content knowledge instruction during the school year that would level the playing field regarding reading comprehension.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent point! Reading comprehension is the most critical and least attended to. It’s also unfair as you point out. Helping children with the necessary vocabulary and with a better understanding of the tested subject matter should help immensely. Thank you, Rick.
Thank you for this
I’ve been reading and sped teacher for 25 years and I feel fortunate to have been in reading recovery and working in a district supporting balanced literacy. Sadly SOR is finding its way to our district too.
This SOR insult to our years of experience and training in what is best for the literacy learning of our students.
We are now expected to spend wasted hours on dibbles testing and teaching isolated skills and use black and white decodable “readers” Ugh
It’s tragic! I’m wondering how to reconcile this.
How can I advocate for what’s right for our kids ?
Nancy Bailey says
I’m sorry, Diana. It all seems political and insulting like you say. I’m wondering if they’re doing research to compare whether this is the right approach for children. It doesn’t seem like it. Thanks for commenting.
Gregg Heacock says
The strands that come together, according to the graphic used by those advocating “the Science of Reading,” includes comprehension, but I have yet to see how comprehension, itself, is addressed. I believe it is assumed that once children can use their decoding skills to become more fluent that the sequence of words will be comprehended as they might be when spoken aloud. However, Maryanne Wolf, whose work on the Reading Brain points out that while the brain we are born with is set up for seeing and for hearing and for carrying out executive functions, there is no part that is set up for reading! It is only by exercising the plasticity of the brain that we are able to relate the sequence of letters (that we recognize with our eyes, not our ears, which is why phonological awareness merely prepares us for phonemic awareness) to words we have heard and stored as memory, along with the original emotional response related to them and other responses over time. Dr. Constance Amsden reported to her University of California, Los Angeles, graduate students, preparing to be certified as Reading Specialists, that one of her elementary school students, when she asked her class to write about something exciting they did over the summer, turned in a paper with the single word—Blister. She asked him about it, and he proceeded to tell her about hiking with his father on a path that followed a stream that had them climbing over rocks and down hills, and, when it was over, he took off his shoe and discovered a huge blister! Dr. Amsden claimed that words are holographs! As we move around them, we discover a variety of meanings tied to emotional experiences.
But, Dr. Amsden also taught us a dialogical, color-coding method for teaching grammar (how words relate to each other) that builds comprehension. Last year, working as a substitute teacher, I was permitted to use her method when teaching a small group of 3rd-grade students. I began as Dr. Amsden began with us, except that she passed out small colored strips of paper for students to place under words in the sentences she had us write down. All I could do was use fairly dried up markers to underline words on the white board that students read aloud. The students were given paper and crayons to write out the sentences and underline the words once we had discussed what answer would be best. [Dr. Amsden did not believe in using crayons because students do not feel good about learning when the mistakes they have made cannot be erased. The markers gave her a means to look around the room and at a distance see which students might need help.]
Here’s how it went:
I wrote a two-word sentence on the board: “Birds fly.” Then, higher up and to the side, I wrote with a red marker: “Underline What word tells you what’s happening? Draw a red line under it.” Students’ first response was that both words together told me what’s happening, which I agreed was so but that one of the two told “what” was happening. so I prompted further by saying this word has a form where “-ing” might be added. Eventually, they agreed it was “fly,” which I then underlined with the red marker.
Now, with a red and blue marker, I wrote “What word tells you who or what fly? Draw a blue line under the word that tells ‘who or what ____?”
Then, I asked whether “birds” were a “who” or a “what”? One girl thought it could be either, but others assured her that birds were a “what.” “What’s the difference? What does ‘who’ refer to?” They felt comfortable saying that “who” referred to people. Knowing these students had already been taught about verb tense, I asked what the past tense might be. They told me, “Birds flew.” “So, ‘fly’ would be the present tense?” They said it was. “So does this sentence mean that birds are flying right now?” They thought it didn’t and after some discussion said that it was a general statement that applied to the past, present, and future. “Do you know any birds that don’t fly?” Hands shot up, and voices cried out: Yes, they did. Penguins led the list, and, frankly, I wasn’t sure about some of the other birds mentioned, but it was clear to them that many birds, like chickens, were not capable of what we think of as flying.
At this point, I departed from what I learned from Dr. Amsden and entered into territory laid out for me by Dorothy Doyle, who had created her own system of Functional Grammar, which would have greater appeal for older students in that she had a category for Identity Words that broke down into 1) Words the Identify Real Things, 2) Words that Identify Imaginary Things (things you can draw that don’t meet society’s criteria for what is regarded as real), and 3) Words used as if they were things, such as substitution words (pronouns, elliptical words, synecdoches) and words identifying concepts and feelings. While I would use this approach with older students, you can see how this is connected to what 3rd-grade students can understand: The difference between Statements of Fact and Statements of Opinion. I told this class that Statements of Fact were statements that were subject to being proved wrong. They agreed with each other that “Birds fly” was a statement of fact. When I asked them about the exceptions they mentioned, they told me the sentence didn’t mean that all birds fly. “So, if the sentence said ‘All birds fly,’ it would be a statement of fact that you could show to be false?” They nodded their heads in ascent. By honoring student agency, we allow students to draw upon their oral unconscious understanding of language and apply it to their literal understanding of text. This is all part of comprehension.
I wrote another sentence on the board—”Candles burn.”—and had them write it on their papers just below “Birds fly.” Then, I asked who would like to read out the first question and instruction. I congratulated the volunteer, then asked all of the students to read it out loud together and do what was said. When asked, they told me to draw a red line under “burn.” Then, together, we incorporated that word into our next question and instruction: “What word tells you who or what burn? Draw a blue line under it.” as telling what’s happening, then underline “Candles” as the word that told who or what burn. “Is ‘candles’ a ‘who’ or a ‘what’? “What.” The next sentence was, “Children play.” Here, “Children” told “who play.” With all three sentences in front of them,I asked them to look at all of them
Let me expand on this short lesson by telling you what came next when Dr. Amsden presented this method to the class I was taking to gain certification as a Reading Specialist. She wrote another question on the board: “Does anything tell you whom or what this is happening to? If so, put a yellow marker under that word.” These important grammatical positions are signified by our three primary colors. Here are some sentences I have used that demonstrate how that works in a classroom: “Children play games.” Since students would have already worked with “Children play,” that would make this additional word extend the sentence with more information. This was followed by two more 3-word sentences: “Teachers test students” and “Students test teachers.” When asked if we noticed anything special, we realized how effective this approach was in demonstrating that the position of words in the sentence determines their meaning. And, that in change what the word “test” might mean in each sentence.
Dr. Amsden next used the color orange to depart from the rigid pattern set by the others. in selecting which color to introduce next. Here is the question that prompts underlining a word, a cluster of words, or a phrase with the color orange: “Does anything tell you how, how much or often, when, where, why, or in what context this is happening?” Because these questions relate to “what’s happening” rather than “who or what is doing it,”orange, being a combination of red and yellow, supports students’ understanding how meaning in sentences is shaped in our minds. Though this question is long, the sentence she wrote out was short: “Dwayne ate pizza today.” We called out again the series of instructions, in each case incorporating the information gathered from the question before. The next was “Yesterday Dwayne ate tacos.” Once we marked it according to the directions given, Dr. Amsden told us to place a comma after “Yesterday” to signify that the natural order has been changed. Now, consider how you would mark the following sentence: “Suddenly, Terry kicked Charley three times in his stomach for no reason.” Traditional approaches to grammar would have students breaking down prepositional phrases, pointing out that “three” modifies “times,” both of which are adverbs. And all of this would be to prepare them to do well on a state exam, where typically performance has been low. I think you can see what a waste of time it is to label words according to part-of-speech and parts-of-a-sentence, where those labels become more important than the meanings they supposedly determine. Amsden would have students write above these underlined parts the questions that they addressed, which is where comprehension comes in. Does “Suddenly” tell “when” or “how”? While many of my contemporaries who received good grades in elementary school have fond memories of learning how to diagram sentences (while many others found it a complete waste of time), it was more labor-intensive than this approach, which leaves the sentence in tact.
Let’s go green! Does anything tell you which, how many, or what kind of thing or things are involved in what’s happening? If so, put a green marker under them and write above what question is addressed. Consider the following sentence: “Those three terrifying dogs chased my poor little kitty up that tree.” Knowing that adverbs can be moved around, we might ask whether adjectives can do the same. When I have asked my students whether we it would be appropriate to write “Three terrifying those dogs chased little my poor kitty up that tree,” they all shout out, “You can’t do that!” “Why not? Is there some rule you have been taught that tells you that?” If not, then what are the rules already programmed into your thinking that tell you this is not appropriate?” Here is where drawing a picture would help, and it would be fun to do and to display in class. Clearly, “terrifying” is seen in the depiction of what kind of the dogs these are. “How many” is seen at some distance. And “which” extends beyond the frame of the picture like the speaker’s finger pointing at those dogs. The order is obvious and natural, and now it is consciously realized by each student in the room. They are discovering how much they already know before ever entering a classroom. Now, if the word “those” were replace by “your,” there would be two people standing outside the frame of the picture. Encouraging students to visualize what sentences are saying is a step forward in comprehending their meaning.
Understand that, at this point, color-coding exercises are being used to create a deeper understanding of sentences while students are continuing to read stories together in class. Once these four colors and the questions associated with them are understood, I would suggest adding pronouns to the list of things students might write above the words telling “who or what is doing something” and “to whom or what it is happening.”
From experience, I can tell you that asking students to memorize a chart—one that displays pronouns in 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-person, each below the other, with the singular version coming before the plural version, like looking into a three-story house with front and back rooms—would be a complete waste of time. But, having this picture before them at all times when seeking which pronoun to write above the word or words related to it would be useful in helping students digest the content of the sentences they are reading.
Rather than using labels like noun and verb, I would have students write the pronoun above the “subject of interest” and write “past, present, or future” above the verb. Here is how pronouns can help students digest the content of the sentences they are reading. Have the students color-code the following sentence on their own, writing above the subject of interest the pronoun that could take its place: “Several students from my class went to the game last night.” Normally, if I were to ask what thing is this sentence is about, students would turn their eyes up at the ceiling as if the answer could be found somewhere other than in the sentence itself. Instead, I tell them to read aloud what they have underlined in blue and green. Together, we say, “It’s about ‘several students from my class’.” Using the pronoun that takes the place of that subject, I ask, “What does it tell you about ‘them’?” Together, we answer: “‘They’ went to the game last night.” It is important to practice this dialogical pattern of question and response until it is second nature, so that it can be applied as they read stories aloud in class.
I want to mention two more advantages of using a color-coding dialogical approach with students as they are learning to comprehend what they are reading. Here are three sentences where the word “some” answers different questions we associate with the single term “adjective.” 1) “Some girl in my class got hit by a car last week.” 2) “Some girls in my class are playing in a tournament next week.” 3) “That’s some girl you have playing for your team!” The questions are: in which sentence does “some” mean “which one”? Where does it mean “how many”? And, when does it tell you “what kind”? Traditional grammar instruction has next to nothing to contribute to students’ comprehension of what they are reading, yet we insist on spending tax-payers’ dollars and dedicate lots of time-on-task teaching students something that test have shown don’t help them comprehend what they are reading!
I could go on, introducing words like “is” and “have” that don’t tell you what’s happening but create sentences that form the basis for further reconfiguration of words to convey meaning, such as bringing a subject’s equivalent or a descriptor to the other side of the equation as in “John is captain of our team.” Then, “John, the captain of our team, is a good friend of mine.” Or, “Shana has a cold.” Then, “Shana’s cold caused her to miss school today.” But, in highlighting what the color-coding approach offers in terms of showing what sentences are really all about, I want to bring up a problem most students have in terms of how our minds work when identifying the most important elements of a sentence. Students have a great deal of trouble figuring out why direct objects are held as being on the same plain as subjects and verbs. “Who cares?” they say out loud among themselves or in their heads as teachers point out, “That’s just how it is.” Instead, I write out the following two sentences and ask my students to imagine how they might appear in a brief scene on stage: “Johnny rode his bike around town.” “Johnny rode around town on his bike.” The elements and action are the same for both. But, in theater, we can add spotlights to highlight what we want our audience to see. In the both sentences, there is a spotlight on “Johnny,” our subject of interest. But, in that first sentence, there is also a spotlight focused on “what Johnny is riding”—his bike. In the next sentence, where “on his bike” tells us “how Johnny is riding around town” our focus is solely on Johnny as he rides in circles around town! Sentences are not about what’s happening in the world around us, sentences are about conveying the writer’s point of view about what is happening around us. Students are the authors of the sentences they write. Writing gives them authority when expressing themselves. This is where reading instruction crosses an essential line that was always there! We are all co-participants with those who are writing when work to discover meaning in what we read.