During the decade I spent as a teacher of struggling middle and high school readers, I was dedicated and constantly finding ways to engage and motivate my students in reading. My classroom instruction was centered around high-interest novels that sparked curiosity and commanded attention. I even facilitated direct communication between the authors and my students as they were reading each novel. With these novels, all related assignments were authentic, real-world tasks designed to broaden student experiences through various content areas.
In addition, students learned a plethora of vocabulary and comprehension strategies while they engaged in ample practice opportunities that equipped them with ways to determine the meaning of a text. Students were exposed to a variety of genres while all literature was connected to expository text to represent the content covered on state reading exams. With the necessity placed on passing state reading exams for graduation, we also covered an abundance of test-taking strategies in an effort to increase student chances. All the while, students’ varying abilities were top of mind, so instruction and materials were differentiated to meet individual student needs.
I often thought that my college professors would be so proud to hear that I applied so many of the reading strategies covered in their courses in my classroom instruction. By all teacher evaluation metrics in the Florida Department of Education, I was a successful, effective teacher (even highly effective a couple of years). Almost all of my students showed some growth on their yearly reading state assessment.
In spite of this so-called growth, there was always something nagging and bothersome to me that was just not right. Sure, students were improving their reading test scores, but they did not seem to be improving in overall reading ability. Students were still having difficulty decoding multi-syllable words. Because of their success as strategy-based, sight word readers, they were equipped with tactics that compensated for the lack of decoding skills. For example, students were trained to (1) look for keywords repeated throughout the text; (2) read the questions that accompanied the passage first to help them “find” the answers and make meaning of the passage; and (3) employ test-taking strategies such as focusing on vocabulary questions when running out of time because these might be able to be answered without actually understanding or reading the entire passage.
To be entirely candid, although I achieved my bachelor’s degree in elementary education as well as a master’s degree in reading education, I was terrified to teach students in grades K-5. I truly did not feel as though I had the knowledge and skills to teach students how to read as all my coursework was based upon the whole language approach: expose them enough to the books, and they will read. These courses also reinforced the importance of phonics during reading instruction; however, they lacked in how to teach phonics. That is why I opted to work with students of at least the sixth grade. I figured that these students would definitely know their alphabet with the forty-two sounds that can be made with these letters, along with digraphs, blends, special vowel sounds, and murmur diphthongs. Surely, they would be able to apply phonetic and decoding skills. I could not have been more wrong. Struggling middle and high school readers lack the phonetic skills that lead to accurate decoding. The result of this deficiency results in a lower reading ability.
Then I had an eye-opening experience. Upon completing an online workshop about teaching reading through the phonics method I realized that it could be taught to any struggling reader whether a school-aged child, adult, or English language learner. I discovered through the workshop that the English language is predictable and follows certain patterns that can be taught effectively with a systematic, explicit, and sequential approach to reading instruction.
Don't get me wrong, all of the other aspects of my reading instruction were tremendous pieces of my instruction and something to be celebrated because they did have a positive impact on students. However, I did not address my students’ gaps in phonics knowledge and patterns associated with English. In hindsight, if I took the top-down, whole language approach that I was using effectively but started off each academic year with a solid, bottoms-up, phonics-based method of instruction, I could have filled in these gaps and truly provided my students with a foundation for lifelong learning through reading. I believe that students would have not only improved on the state reading assessments but, most importantly, they would have had an increase in their lifetime learning achievement.