When I first joined the publishing industry many years ago as a working professional, I was shocked to learn how the varying approaches to reading instruction polarized the education community.
How could those who were charged with developing literacy skills in our children see the process so differently? Was there a right and wrong way? If so, how was one to understand it? How could so much discord exist over a portion of the education process that was so important to ensuring a bright future for our children and to our communities and way of life?
I soon learned that it was just that, the importance of basic literacy skills, which lead to the discord and spectrum of opinions and philosophies. We all understand that students who exit third grade without a firm grasp on the basics of reading and spelling are not likely to develop to their full potential—academically, professionally, and personally. Our fellow citizens who struggle with literacy frequently have significant self-esteem issues that ripple into every facet of their lives. We also understand the impact that illiteracy has on society from a productivity, financial, and social standpoint. The literacy initiatives that have come and gone over the years, such as Reading First, were designed to help end the Reading Wars and to solidify the "HOW" of reading instruction to help unify the education community. The focus on research-based reading practice is a great place to start. What does research tell us about the tenets of reading and how to reach every student? Research has proven that comprehension, the goal of reading, is best achieved when it is supported by a foundation in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary development. Few have disagreed with these conclusions, as stated by the National Reading Panel. Most educators have come to the table and agreed that focusing on those basic skills and strategies has the greatest likelihood of reaching every student. If that is true then why have we struggled to show sustainable improvement?
I’m going to suggest two theories that I believe have had a major impact on the reading process and why we have struggled to overcome the barriers that are impeding so many students from becoming proficient readers.
First of all, I believe that we as publishers work way too hard to provide everything a teacher needs to effectively teach our curriculum to the point to where we don’t leave room for teachers to use their own creativity and passion for teaching. The overreliance on reading materials that are provided to teachers, both the hard copy materials and software, is not healthy for them or for the students they teach.
Teachers who enter the field are frequently told that they need to plan to use the reading curriculum that will be provided by their school. They enter the classroom with the best of intentions but over time find themselves a slave to the materials and to the standards that they have been told must be met in order for students to advance. Standards and standardized testing are a topic for another post; suffice it to say that teachers are left with little time to prepare and to teach and are left wondering how to get it all done. We need to take a step back and evaluate how to help our teachers become the “weapon” in the reading battles that are fought every day in their classrooms.
That leads me to my second theory. I was in a meeting with a district superintendent recently and asked him what would happen if, while teachers were on their way to school today, all of the reading materials they relied on disappeared, and they were left to their own devices to provide 60 minutes of quality instruction. He was taken aback by the question, but to his credit, he was honest with me when he suggested that “half of them would figure something out and get by for a while and the other half would have a nervous breakdown.” I want to suggest that if we could improve that lack of preparedness the literacy woes of tomorrow would be dramatically reduced. If every superintendent knew that every teacher who he or she is leading had the training and confidence required to reach every student, irrespective of the materials at his or her disposal, that would change the literacy landscape. Curriculum should be used to support instruction, not the inverse.
Why don’t we focus on empowering our teachers with the training, skills, and confidence that they need to succeed and then show them how to use curriculum to fill the gaps? One reason is because curriculum choices are easier to control and to retain than teachers. Training a teacher requires investment in professional development which means time and money. This results in an unpredictable shelf life as teachers might decide to change schools, retire, etc. I understand the risks associated with the investment but the rewards far outweigh them.
Every educator must be trained in the “HOW” of teaching basic reading strategies. They need to understand what is required to reach students at their level. They then must be armed with tools, including software to individualize learning, that will extend their reach and allow students to receive the extra attention that they need. Putting the teacher in the driver’s seat will result in increased teacher confidence and accountability and the result will be sustainable reading improvement for students across the spectrum.