13 Nov

I recently noticed an important Reading Today Online article written by a first grade teacher. This is certainly an article worth looking at several times, as I have. This teacher walked out of a mandated school district training. She wrote that in the first minutes of a lengthy day, teachers were told to use nonsense words as a basis of assessment, do timed tests which then labeled children and grouped accordingly, and utilize the methodology of the scripted program.

There are many issues also embedded in her article—all significant, ranging from dyslexia to the pendulum swings in reading. Be sure to read this article, whether you are a teacher, administrator, parent or other interested reading coach.

Significant questions: Why do significant numbers of America’s children continue to struggle to learn to read proficiently, regardless of selected assessment, methodology and curriculum? Why in the world would people blame the International Reading Association (IRA) for the decline in reading capability? Do we truly understand the nature of dyslexia, in regard to learning to read? Are we now blaming dyslexia as the cause for poor reading?

Let’s look back at the critical research done in 2000 by the National Reading Panel (NRP). This unprecedented review of scientifically designed (evidence-based) reading techniques clearly delineated what works to teach reading. The five areas of instruction reported by the NRP summary and sub-group reports all concluded: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension.

If we can agree that these are the fundamental building blocks of reading instruction, the pendulum stops swinging. A balanced literacy program, as far as I am concerned, can follow a scripted approach if teachers are allowed to deviate, enrich, use lots of literature and meet the needs of their students.

Should this teacher have walked out? A summary of my thoughts:

  • Nonsense words? No way! Not for assessment, or as an instructional technique.
  • Use correct models. Model everything.
  • Scripted programs work for some instructors and some kids. Let teachers opt out if they get good results with a language first approach.
  • A balanced literacy program includes extensive recreational reading at an independent level.
  • Grouping should be based on continual mastery of skills and should change continuously based on skills mastered.
  • A combination of directed classroom instruction, small focus groups, and independent learning time provides a workable framework.

A lot of experience tells me that the use of nonsense words makes no sense. Brain research promotes imprinting of only correct models. Since all children learn best differently, teach everything at least three times, in three different ways, using correct models.

I follow a continuum of defined reading skills, but never use scripted programs. I feel stifled as a teacher. I always teach according to John Dewey, matching a student’s interests. I keep track of progress through running records, anecdotal notes and routine use of informal reading inventories.

Dr. Jeanette Veatch, a pioneer in the whole language approach to literacy, was one of my mentors. The truth is, I walked out of a staff development training. Our district mandated we use the old Distar (then, Reading Mastery) program. Many teachers liked this program and training, some didn’t. The problem was, I was and am a whole language proponent, agree with everything the teacher wrote and have no guilt tonight that I walked out of a mandated training. And I was the principal.



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