Teaching reading strategies that are effective for all students is an art.
All classrooms contain students at varying levels of proficiency in multiple reading skills, and individuals’ access to background knowledge is vast and immeasurable. Meeting the reading needs of diverse learners is often cited as one of the most challenging tasks for teachers and parents. This dilemma exists for three primary reasons.
1. Educators and decision makers need to understand the power of methodology in instruction.
Over the years, there have been many theories about the best methods for teaching reading strategies. Unfortunately, these various philosophies have sometimes resulted in confusion and inconsistency. Millions of dollars have been spent on programs and materials, yet decades of reading scores on the NAEP continue to prove that a significant percentage of US students are not reading on grade level. Statistics show that it doesn’t get better for older students; many high school graduates do not possess the literacy skills necessary to obtain post-secondary education or gainful employment.
The reading strategies that teachers foster can often be broken into two fundamental categories: one approach is phonics, and the other is called whole language. As history has shown us, the education-politics pendulum often swings between these two philosophies that revolve around differing views of how children learn to read.
Whole Language - Top Down
For whole language supporters, the fundamental belief is that the process of reading happens naturally when students are exposed to rich literature and participate in learning that requires reasoning and favors higher order thinking skills. Whole language is often referred to as a top-down approach as readers use background knowledge and understanding of how language sounds to predict unknown words on a page or meaning of text.
Phonics-based reading instruction is a methodology for teaching young children to read and spell words. The teacher introduces a series of spelling rules and teaches the child to apply phonetics (how the letter combinations sound out loud) to decode words based on their spellings. Phonics attempts to break written language down into small and simple components. It is also known as a bottom-up approach.
What seems to be lost on many is that research shows us it’s a balanced approach of both top-down and bottom-up strategies that make instruction powerful, yet, some skills, such as phonics, need to be taught using a specific bottom-up approach.
On their website, the US Department of Health and Human Services references the exhaustive review of research findings conducted by the National Reading Panel (NRP). The National Reading Panel's analysis made it clear that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates the following:
The NRP found that a combination of strategies using the five pillars—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—is most effective for teaching children to read. The research shows that not only do phonics and phonemic awareness need to be taught using a bottom-up approach, but it also needs to be explicit, systematic, and sequential. The emphasis is on how we teach, not what we teach.
When a foundation of phonics and phonemic awareness is set using these methods, teachers can more effectively balance the learning with whole language reading strategies. Without systematic, explicit, and sequential phonics, students will never learn to decode effectively and will rely on guessing unknown words, which is not a reading strategy but a survival skill.
2. Educators and decision makers need to understand the diversity and complexities of all learners.
As mentioned above, we can not take a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to teaching reading strategies. Just as reading instruction is complex with multiple skill sets and pedagogies, each student is unique and complex. Children do not enter the classroom as blank slates, they come with an individual set of prior knowledge, exposure to language, reading rituals, and cognitive development.
One in six students is affected by dyslexia, a language-based learning disability, resulting in the individual student struggling to read and spell, among other tasks. Research has concluded that students with reading difficulties, including dyslexia, generally have intelligence levels that are the same as, and often above, those of children who are proficient readers. This means that teachers must find ways to stimulate and engage these active minds while at the same time providing instruction and support in areas where students are struggling. Students who struggle with one skill may overcompensate with another skill. This is why tackling reading strategies across skills and using a balanced approach is vital.
3. Educators and decision makers need to understand how to best fit best practices into daily routines.
There is a lot to cover when teaching a classroom of students to become proficient readers. Troubleshooting the logistics of each classroom instructional schedule should not be taken lightly. Reading instruction should be well thought out to ensure that students are getting instruction in all five pillars of successful reading instruction. As mentioned above, it is important to have a balanced approach and to ensure students have ample time to receive explicit, systematic phonics instruction, such as Reading Horizons, which addresses the skills students will need to access grade-level text.
Students’ academic time needs to be balanced between direct instruction (used in phonics) as well as independent reading time, which allows the student to transfer the skills to a larger text base. Skills need to be integrated in all instruction as the goal is for our students to utilize their learning in the real world. Strategically balancing small group, such as guided reading groups, large group, and one-on-one conferencing allows for stronger differentiation practices and ensures that the multitude of standards are achieved by all students.