A Call for a Reading Evolution:
(No, it’s not typo, I mean Evolution)
Dr. Sam Bommarito
As a workshop teacher I was trained to notice. One of my noticings in the field of literacy what seems to be an eternal swing between two positions on the question of how to best teach children to read. Whether one uses terms like direct teaching versus indirect teaching or synthetic phonics versus phonics or a constructivist view versus an empiricist view or in Dr. Kerns terms of the simple view of reading vs. the sociogenic view, it seems that we are locked into a pattern all or nothing in our thinking about these various positions. At the end of the day, teachers are given the choice of all of one or all of the other. That can lead to some very sad situations. Readers familiar with me know I’m out on the internet all the time looking at various literacy sites in order to get some sense of what’s going on. I recently found entries at a popular Facebook teachers site (30,000 strong!) where teachers were saying they were in the process of adopting a very strict and scripted synthetic phonics program and being told to put away (throw away), all previously used materials. Many of these were materials that had served them very well over the years. The teachers sounded both discouraged and confused. I don’t blame them.
What to do, what to do?
Perhaps what we’ve needed all along is not a revolution, i.e. jumping on the latest bandwagon and forsaking all previous things, but an evolution, i.e. tweaking things until they work. Tweaking appeals to the workshop teacher in me, we do that all the time. Tweaking appeals to my foundational training as a reading specialist, back in that day (circa 1977), when reading specialists were trained to use a diagnostic-prescriptive model. Tweaking appeals to my natural way of doing things. I don’t throw things out. If something breaks, I get out the duct tape and find a way to make it work for just a little while longer. That sometimes drives my very patient wife crazy. However, she knows that when I eventually buy new, I make sure that the new purchase does not have the faults that caused the problem in the old. Every day in every way make things just a little bit better. Tweaking is the lifeblood of kid watchers. So, let’s say rather than throw out all our current materials and start from scratch (yet again!), we try to find ways to improve what we’ve got. Let’s try having a reading and writing evolution.
A good first step in that direction would be to take a long hard look at phonics and how we should be teaching phonics. I love Dr. Tim Rasinski’s recent blog post about that very topic. Dr. Rasinski is one of the foremost experts in the area of reading fluency. His works could literally fill a room. The title of his blog post of March 10th was: “The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers Not to Use Phonics When Reading. He is not saying to to teach phonics. He’s saying to teach phonics in a way so that it is no longer needed. Shades of gradual release! Regular readers of this blog can already guess what my addition to Rasinski’s idea might be. Be prepared to teach phonics as synthetic or as analytic depending on what works with the particular child. When I talked to Bill Kerns about this, he was afraid I would scare off some of my constructionists friends with my suggestion of using synthetic phonics when needed. Too much direct teaching. I countered with the idea that many of my constructivist friends use direct teaching all the time. After all, is there a better example of direct teaching than a well crafted mini-lesson?
My thinking is my workshop friends can and will get the job done when synthetic phonics is needed by a particular student. It’s just that they would get it done with much less teaching time than is typically used up in some of the highly scripted synthetic phonics programs. Following Rasinski’s advice, their goal would be to get through this stage, which is necessary for many students, and to get students to the stage of fluent reading, which is the goal for all students.
Another pair of thinkers who seem to know how to do some effective tweaking are Burkins and Yaris. I saw them when they presented for our local ILA last fall. They warn teachers that sometimes teachers are teaching in a way that can promote learned helplessness. Teachers are simply doing too much of the work for the kids. I found they had a whole plan about how to improve the way we implement Guided Reading. As I listened to them speak I was reminded of one of the foundational pieces of advice I got during my workshop training. That advice was to know what work you a leaving for the student and why. I was taught that if you can answer that question as a teacher it is far more likely your lesson will scaffold students into real learning. Over-scaffold and you will end up creating a state of learned helplessness. Hmmm. This again sounds like there are teachers doing some very effective thinking about how to tweak current literacy practices.
Let’s turn for a moment to the pesky problem of motivation. I have no need to convince teachers of the importance of motivation. One of the followers of this blog said just last week “I just know making reluctant, below grade level readers learn to love reading takes personal relationships with each student. That was always my “secret weapon.” (thanks to authorlaurablog). It’s the creators of National Standards (National Curriculum) that seem prone to ignore this aspect of literacy. To me it self-evident that teaching in a way that promotes lifelong reading should be an explicit part of every literacy program. I’m fond of quoting Mark Twain on this. “Those who don’t read are no better off than those who can’t read.” Overall, I think I said enough make a good start in the beginning of the evolution in reading. Look over the heading in this blog explaining our recommendations for a literacy program. That is my suggested starting place for a reading evolution.
Regular readers of this blog know the impact that the events at the Write to Learn conference held earlier this year had on me. One of the things that happened is that I met Eric Litwin author of the original Pete the Cat Books. At the conference he was teaching teachers about how to use music to help students with literacy (and doing that quite well I might add). He had a prediction about how this whole swinging pendulum business might finally be laid to rest. You see, he believes that all this talk among teachers on social media and that all this smart thinking of teachers on social media, is resulting in the creation of a community of well informed, concerned teachers. He looks to this community to be the spark that results in change. He thinks this change could finally end the wild back and forth swings that have characterized the world of reading instruction for the past 5 decades. Interesting concept.
So, think about it. Maybe it is time for the evolution. Maybe it is time to tweak what we have, not replace what we have. Readers, you’ve heard some of my ideas about the coming evolution what form it might take. What do you think? Do you think it will ever be possible to find the center, to combine best practices from many perspectives and to finally be able to really help our students to enter the wonderful world that awaits those who pursue the goal of becoming lifelong readers and writers? I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.