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Teaching reading is still rocket science

New York Teacher

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Miller Photography

Second-graders at PS 112 in East Harlem, each in their designated reading spot, read independently from their book baggies.

What does good reading instruction look like?

It would be so nice if it were easy to say. A kindergarten classroom with letters all over the walls and the daily recitation of letter sounds? Children in a 1st-grade classroom sprawled on a rug reading independently? Reading experts would be unlikely to sign off on either scenario. They want to see more.

A single strategy or recipe is not enough. Getting children to fluency and teaching them how to interact with text is complex work. Teaching reading is rocket science, to borrow the title of a 1999 AFT publication.

Yet many teacher preparation programs fall short in this area. What’s worse, many city schools — maybe most — do not have coherent reading programs in place, leading to an epidemic of early reading difficulties.

“Let me start by saying that the increase in the number of students receiving special education services is directly related to what is not available in the general-education classroom,” UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez testified to a City Council hearing on special education last October. “Instruction in foundational reading skills is lacking across the system.”

Not about the labels

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During a reading workshop mini lesson, teacher Carol Mui-Chan (center) works with her 1st-graders at PS 112 to fill in a "bubble map" about a character in their book.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña recently called for a “balanced literacy” approach to reading, which tries to balance instructional strategies, from direct phonics instruction to independent reading of good books. But balanced literacy has stark opponents, who see this approach as shorting students on basic skills.

An emphasis on independent reading, they say, will not unlock the mysteries of text for those who don’t have decoding skills. “What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” fumed New York University professor and national reading expert Susan Neuman.

At any rate, says Rita Danis, the co-director of the UFT Teacher Center, “balanced literacy is an approach, not a reading program. It’s contingent on teachers’ knowledge of how to teach reading.”

Best teaching practices, according to Neuman and education professor Kathleen Roskos, include explicit vocabulary development, building knowledge through many types of texts; rereading to help comprehension; smart use of digital textbooks; and instruction in grammar and syntax.

“But to attain a high level of skill, young children need many opportunities to develop these strands interactively, not in isolation,” they write in “Best Practices in Reading,” a 2014 International Reading Association publication.

Another reading expert, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Catherine Snow, echoed Danis’ assertion that teachers, not programs, get children reading. “If we’re going to have a slogan, it shouldn’t be ‘balanced,’ it should be ‘integration,’” Snow told a recent CUNY education panel. “It isn’t about the labels. It’s about what happens Monday mornings in the 1st-grade classroom.”

Early intervention

Snow spoke of the 1st grade for a reason.

There is solid research showing that students who do not read well by 3rd grade face greatly increased odds of educational failure. A 2012 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found such students are four times more likely not to graduate than proficient readers at that grade. For poor readers who live in poverty, the failure rate is far worse.

But 3rd grade is too late to correct problems, according to Danis and many others. “If a child is struggling to read in 1st grade, it’s like a tear in a stocking. If you wait, it’s up the whole leg,” Danis said.

Increasingly, schools are using RTI — Response to Intervention — starting in the earliest grades to try to get all students on track. It is based on the “five pillars,” five foundational reading skills based on research by the 2000 National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. RTI provides a systematic look at how these skills are taught. “RTI is a framework, a way schools can organize themselves to help students at all levels,” said Evelyn Edwards, a reading teacher and UFT Teacher Center field liaison.

Regular classroom assessments identify students who are on track and those who aren’t. Children who test below grade level get additional instruction or possibly a different kind of instruction, and regular progress monitoring. RTI is not a core reading program but a sort of best-practices checklist. Schools must show they have sought to teach these skills before any special education referral.

Seek it out

Edwards, the Teacher Center field liaison, believes that the Common Core early-grades reading program, Pearson’s Ready Gen, is leaving gaps in instruction. It does not have a phonics component, for example. That must be purchased separately and is expensive. Further, many teachers say Ready Gen lessons can veer way above students’ heads.

“We do not have a research-based reading program and teachers know it,” Edwards says.

Schools should offer professional development in these skills, Teacher Center experts say. If they don’t, teachers should speak up. “If you don’t know how to teach reading or want assistance, seek it out,” Danis urges. “Ask for support.”

Danis said teachers need to be prepared since no one program is ever going to work for all students. “If they understand the components and which to use when, if you give people time and resources, things will grow,” she said.