Working Together: Addressing Challenges in Literacy through Teamwork by Doctor William Kerns

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The wonderful ILA chat this week inspired my blogging partner, Dr. William Kerns, to write the following entry. In order to get it out to everyone in a timely manner, we’re doing this extra blog post this weekend. ENJOY

Dr. Sam

Working Together: Addressing Challenges in Literacy through Teamwork

William Kerns

The debate over phonics represents one of numerous challenges that threatens to narrow the curriculum in P-12 schools and in higher education. In early childhood, teachers face pressure to conform to a narrow view of reading instruction that is based on a Simple View of Reading, which takes decoding and language comprehension into account but, in this author’s opinion, fails to adequately account for the many ways that social-cultural experiences shape and reshape the way that a child reads. This pressure is combined with pressures to “teach to the test” in order to achieve certain scores on high stakes examinations.

I do not intend to offer a panacea for this situation in this short blog. In fact, any attempt at offering a panacea would run counter to my belief that one-size-fits-all solutions are themselves potentially harmful to students. I situate myself in the social-constructivist school for reading and language arts. This blog’s proposed plan of action is also situated within a social constructivist understanding of reading and the overall language arts.

We need to work together. This collaboration should include work among P-12 teachers and university professors within a school and within a district. This tends to already be emphasized in schools, especially among teachers who instruct the same grade level. The collaboration I call for is not only local, but also statewide and national.

Dialogue through social media is a powerful tool.  By virtue of reading this blog online, I am presuming that most if not all readers of this blog are active in online communications with fellow educators. This can be the start of a type of professional learning community in which strategies and resources are actively shared. It can also be the start of an inquiry community, in which research efforts are performed in collaboration together even among people at a geographic distance from one another. Along with this collaboration comes increased voice.

Mutual support is vital. This can take the form of basic friendships, even among those of us who have not actually met in person. We all get tired and discouraged at times. We need one another as a support base.

Finally, comes perhaps the hardest part. Public advocacy of literacy education even among those with whom we might strongly disagree. An important aspect of fighting for the active, engaging, constructivist approaches to education that readers of this blog are likely to favor is through dialogue and through example. The thing with dialogue is that it works best when both sides of a dialogue feel mutually respected. The collaboration that I advocate is, in many ways, already occurring. However, I advocate that the collaboration should become increasingly systematic and strategic. Teamwork will help produce increased research. Increased dialogue. Increased awareness. In a sense, we each are ambassadors of literacy education. We each have a role to play. And who knows, we might even enjoy this process along the way. We need to come together. We cannot adequately address the challenges we face if we are working in isolation.

This call for action is not easy. However, below I will outline some areas where I believe there can be agreement and collaboration.

Children need to develop skills in phoneme awareness and phonics, decoding, accurate and automatic word recognition, reading at an appropriate rate, vocabulary and word attack strategies, text comprehension and strategies for comprehension of difficult texts. Misunderstandings and lack of agreements abound. For example, proponents of approaches to reading instruction that privilege taking social and cultural experiences of a child into account are often accused of being “anti-phonics” when in fact a social constructivist approach does recognize the importance of decoding, phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Greater emphasis tends to be placed on inquiry, games, songs, rhymes than in programs that are based on synthetic phonics. Proponents of whole language prefer to work on these skills in the context of real/authentic texts being read.

Complicating matters, there is a great deal of linkage between the reading process and the writing process. Writing is both a way of learning and a way of communicating. In fact, I argue for an approach to reading instruction that is inclusive of areas often discussed within English Language arts, including but not limited to the study of grammar and syntax, the study of literature, the study of writing and composition, the study of linguistics, and the study of rhetoric.

Skills generally associated with language arts include reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing. I view reading instruction as insufficient without strong language arts instruction, and likewise, I view language arts instruction as insufficient without strong instruction in reading. This means that reading teachers and reading specialists need to work in alliance with language arts teachers. It also means that language arts teachers need to team up with reading teachers. The success of the two fields are linked.

A misimpression that exists about the social-constructivist approaches to instruction which I support is that they are opposed to explicit and direct instruction. This is not true. However, it’s important to draw on a child’s background knowledge and to consider the social-cultural influences on meaning-making. That’s why dialogue matters. It’s important for the teacher to learn from the child as the child is also learning from the teacher. Leaving a child bored and disconnected from material is something to be avoided. Intensive, personalized instruction for students using other educational staff members. As appropriate, seek additional reading and varied forms of texts (video/digital, visual art) and instruction for students.

A wide variety of diverse literary options need to be available for students to read. These options should include representations of characters and settings from diverse cultures. It should also include multiple genres and multiple types of texts. Wide reading experiences with diverse texts is also critical. The end goal of instructional intervention is for the student to gain increased independence as a reader, to be able to gain purposeful comprehension skills and strategies that can be applied with diverse texts and in diverse contexts.

Plus, let’s not forget, we want the student to also have a lifelong love for learning and passion for reading. It is so important to provide opportunities for students to become independent readers. A wide selection of texts can be a critical aspect of intervention. Interest in a text can help a student to be increasing engaged and motivated while working on skills in an authentic context. Guided repeated reading can help a student to build fluency skills. A classroom teacher should work with a team of well-trained professionals who specialize in intervention assessment and techniques when a student fails to make adequate progress.

Appropriate assessments guide instructional choices. After all, it would not be possible to accurately determine a student’s current ability to independently engage in a task without assessment. Likewise, it also is not possible to determine a student’s upper range of ability to successfully complete a reading task with guidance and assistance unless there is assessment tied to goals. These assessments should determine both strengths and areas of weakness to address in an ongoing way that tracks progress. The strengths can be used toward addressing weaknesses, but key to this is that the teacher needs to be working in partnership with the student.

The tracking of student growth and the development of literacy abilities requires strong assessment.  Students will at times struggle in reading for a variety of reasons, including skill development but also potentially including lack of mastery of appropriate reading strategies. Too often, students whose primary language is not English may be misidentified as having a learning disability. A student might need to work on decoding, phonemic awareness and phonics, or other skills such as fluency or word identification strategies in order to enhance purposeful vocabulary development. The nature of intervention should be determined through assessment. The type of reading structure appropriate for the child depends on needs and interests. Options might include whole class, small flexible groups, or guided reading with systematic and explicate instructional strategies.

Care should also be taken when the tutoring is pulling a student out of regular classroom instruction. Students can feel embarrassed, and they can miss out on valuable instructional time with the regular class. If the tutoring is unengaging, fails to be beneficial, or it is simply boring to the student, then the effort at tutoring could backfire and contribute to the student becoming disengaged.

Finally, I believe in the importance of a positive learning environment. To be more specific, this learning environment should include welcoming students into a community of readers and writers. Such a community should welcome the exploration of new and imaginative concepts while drawing on prior knowledge. The classroom community should be welcoming to diverse students of varied backgrounds. One way of promoting such a positive classroom community is to make sure that students have a sense of belonging and acceptance. Teachers need to honor the human dignity of students and promote the ability of fellow students to honor one another’s dignity. An important aspect of honoring the dignity of individual students is to honor their sense of identity and their cultural identities.


Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the views of this author and his blogging partner. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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