Have you ever heard a child say, “I’m going back to the beginning to get a running start!” when he got stuck on a tricky word?

What do you think happens when a child can’t figure out how to pronounce that word? Take a moment to recall a time when you struggled with an activity and couldn’t figure it out, then imagine having the added stress of being watched closely by your teacher, parent or friends while the pressure builds for you to “just get it.” We get anxious. We then try to avoid it altogether.

A similar experience happens when children can’t figure how to read words—they begin to avoid reading. They get anxious, feel stupid, and might start exhibiting behaviors that are new or unexpected.

Students writing and reading

Too many teachers are trained that reading is a contextual and semantic guessing game that requires making predictions, skipping words, looking at the pictures, guessing based on the first letter, or going back to the beginning of a sentence to see if reading faster will help. From my experience, these techniques confuse many children and do not help a child “decode” the word in front of them.

Did you know that children who are poor readers rely on the very types of strategies that are being taught in our classrooms with the mistaken belief it is good practice?

Good readers can decode words quickly and accurately. Research has proven that children who cannot read well are missing the basic fundamentals of how to navigate print. I feel that it’s important to address this need.

Unfortunately, programs such as “Readers Workshop” developed by Lucy Calkins emphasize teaching strategies that may be easy for teachers to implement into their classroom, but this method alone is woefully insufficient for children needing explicit instruction, especially those in kindergarten through third grade.

Readers Workshop is widely used and well-loved across America, and it sparks deep conversations with kids about books that might not happen otherwise. However, it is not meant to teach the fundamentals of phonics or decoding that are essential for children to access print. If, in the words of Marilyn Adams, words are the “raw data of text,” then we as teachers need to teach kids how to access that raw data. Little else matters in my view, especially for kids in grades K-3.

Teachers and students learning

Brain science shows that skilled readers use phonic decoding to read unfamiliar words.

Our failure to use this knowledge to improve how we teach children is causing real harm, especially to those most vulnerable (Seidenberg, 2017). We learn written language most efficiently in the same way that humanity first learned it, by following the pathway from phonetic speech toward reading, which is phonics.

Spelling is too often seen as separate—unrelated to reading—and is taught only to proficient readers even though spelling and reading rely on much of the same knowledge—the link between letters and sound. Spelling instruction can be designed to help children better understand that key knowledge, resulting in better reading (Ehri, 2000).

When will teachers have access to best-practices, grounded in research and science, so they can deliver classroom literacy instruction based on facts, not guessing games?

Collage of Stern Center Instructors providing Professional Learning

The time is now. Teachers have the opportunity to access some of the most effective structured literacy workshops and courses in the state.

One example of the powerful impact that teacher knowledge has on student impacts is a literacy focused professional learning project in Orange North Supervisory Union, where for the first time ever the Williamstown School had zero referrals to Special Education for reading (2015-16). Brain science and research show us the way.

We owe it to our teachers to share the knowledge they need to teach our children how to read proficiently.

If you’re interested in contracting with the Stern Center for Language and Learning to provide a full professional learning program, your school may be eligible for discounted rates through the Cynthia K. Hoehl Institute for Excellence.

Plus, if you are an educator looking to increase your knowledge base, the Stern Center provides an assortment of courses and workshops in the areas of structured literacy, social learning, math, executive function, and more.

References, Links & Recommended Reading:

Carbo, M. (2005). What principles need to know about reading instruction: Research is clear on what works in five essential reading areas. Principal, Sept./Oct., 46-49.

Ehri, L. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin. Topics in Language Disorders, 20(3), 19-49.

Joshi, R.M. et al. (2008-09). How words cast their spell: Spelling is an integral part of learning the language, not a matter of memorization. American Educator, 6-43.

Lyon, G.R. (2003). What principles need to know about reading: The 20 million school-age children suffering from reading failure could be reduced by two-thirds with early identification, prevention, and intervention. Principal, vol. 83, number 2, Nov./Dec., 14-18.

Moats, L. (2006). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you may think. American Educator, Winter 2005-06, 12-22, 42-43.

Roth, M. (2017). Why Johnny (Still) Can’t Read: We know more than ever about how to teach literacy, but when we test American kids, two-thirds score at low levels of competency. Wall Street Journal. Jan. 10, 2017.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Write a Reply or Comment