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Yes, there's a right way to teach reading

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By Peg Tyre

Reading lessons

Many school districts have adopted what they call a "balanced literacy" approach to reading. If administrators at your child's school describe their reading program that way, you'll need to ask a few more questions.

In some schools, balanced literacy means that preK teachers work on letters and letter sounds. Kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers deliver an orderly progression of explicit phonics lessons and, as the children become competent and confident readers, push them to discover the best that literature and nonfiction have to offer while doggedly building up their comprehension through weekly word study, spelling tests, and story analysis.

In other schools, balanced literacy can mean something very different and something that looks a lot like what is called the "whole language" approach — which is now largely discredited. At these schools, teachers provide a portion of the kids with a smattering of phonics (most schools now concede that some kids do need phonics to help figure out the code) and also encourage them to guess words from illustrations, and later, from context. As the children (hopefully) get more competent at reading, teachers minimize the study of language and devote their time and energy to getting kids excited about words, reading, and books. If you care about your child's school success, you'll want more of the former kind of instruction — phonics and word study — and less of the latter.

Once you've seen science-based reading instruction delivered well, you'll want it for your kids. For six years, Kristina Matuskiewicz, a kindergarten teacher at Edna C. Stevens Elementary School in Cromwell, CT, believed that, like all the teachers at her tidy suburban school, she was helping to make good readers. She read them stories, she identified words and described their meaning, she offered them a variety of good books and worked to shift them to independent reading. "Each teacher had their own approach to teaching reading," says Matuskiewicz.

The problem was, none of their approaches were working very well. In 2007, only 70 percent of the third graders were proficient in reading. Not only that, each year about 33 out of 489 kids in the preK through second grade classes required outside support in reading — a program that was costly for the school and for the district.

What the "right way" looks like

The principal, Lucille DiTunno, decided the school needed to take another approach. First, she asked her teachers to establish a "literacy block" — 90 minutes a day dedicated to reading. Three years ago, DiTunno paid $28,000 to Literacy How, then a division of Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, to bring consultants to the school every week for a full year to teach teachers about the scientifically proven methods that help kids learn to read.

The first meeting, says Literacy How consultant Wendy North, was a disaster. "We got off on the wrong foot," says North. The teachers felt like they were being blamed for the struggles of kids they hadn't taught in years. Instead of directing the anger at the inadequate instruction they had been given at teachers college, she says, they felt humiliated and angry that outside experts were being brought in to teach what they already knew — how to teach reading.

North persevered. These days, kindergartners in Matuskiewicz's class get a different kind of instruction than their older brothers and sisters did. During the first week of kindergarten, Matuskiewicz sits with each child and determines if he or she knows the letters and their corresponding letter sounds. The skill levels of the children are variable. So, class work in the autumn has to do with "sorting" — identifying letters and connecting them to sounds.

Some of the kids with a keen sense of phonemic awareness are already moving on to what is called in teacher-speak "decodable text" — little books with single lines of text made up of words that can be sounded out with ease. After about thirty minutes, all the children stop their work and, using a broad hand motion for each sound, sing what is known as "the vowel song" with great gusto. When the chorus of cheerful voices begins to die away, North and Matuskiewicz look pleased. "The rap against phonics is that there is too much drilling," says North. "But look at this classroom. No one is suffering here."

First grade teacher Angela DiStefano, a 12-year teaching veteran, says the Literacy How approach to reading has changed her professional life forever. "Before that, I thought it was my job to teach kids to share my enthusiasm for reading." Now, she teaches them to read with explicit instruction on how to sound out words. Not long ago, she gave a seminar for first grade parents to teach them some rules about vowels (for example: vowels make their short sound in closed pattern words like tap and the long sound in open pattern words like hi, so, and my) so parents could reinforce the lessons at home.

The Literacy How approach has increased the scores on interim tests, and results from the first third graders who learned to read this way are expected to be high. Already, only three children per year are now being referred for the costly reading support, a massive savings for the district.

DiStefano says that the new program has made her relationship with parents more straightforward. "Before, we might say, 'That child isn't reading!' And we'd shrug. We didn't know what to do. Now we can sit with a parent and say, 'Your child is struggling to understand the rule that when a word ends with e, the middle vowel says its own name.' And we can describe our plan to reteach that and get parents to emphasize that at home and get that child back on the path to reading success."

Seven tips for reading success

  • Remember that learning to read and to read very well are crucial to your child's well-being.
  • Find a school that uses scientifically based reading instruction. Find out what that is, and make sure your child's school is doing it.
  • Make it clear to your child's teacher that you expect frequent, detailed reports on your child's progress in basic reading skills.
  • If your child is not moving forward steadily, be prepared to take action. "Wait and see?" Nope. Watchful waiting is a good practice for many aspects of child rearing. Progress in early reading is not one of them.
  • Be prepared to encounter some confusion and defensiveness from the people you'd think are the experts. Do not be deterred.
  • Throughout elementary school and middle school, teachers should be engaging in increasingly sophisticated forms of word study.
  • After second grade, surround your child with all kinds of books and make what she's reading a topic of dinnertime conversation. Listen to the way she talks about books to ensure that her comprehension continues to deepen.

This article is an excerpt from The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve by Peg Tyre. Tyre is an education journalist and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Trouble With Boys. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and other publications. Tyre is director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @pegtyre.

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