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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
List Archives

Lesson Study: Reading Programs

This listserv conversation grew out of the 'Lesson Study' conversation. The discussion of professional development and lesson study practice led to another thread regarding the teaching of reading. The MetLife Fellows of the Teachers Network Policy Institute engaged in a lengthy discussion of reading instruction programs such as Open Court, Reading Recovery, Balanced Literacy, and Phonics.

While the debate over curriculum programs rages among the pundits, the insights of classroom teachers themselves are a crucial voice long missing from this debate. The single point that runs throughout the thread is this: 'Whatever the program, Teaching Counts!'

 

Date: January 20, 2002

From: Lisa

     I am a Reading Recovery teacher. Reading Recovery is an early intervention tutoring program for 1st grade students having a hard time learning to read and write. The basis of our training is very similar to research lessons. Every Reading Recovery teacher is trained in "behind the glass" sessions. Every training site has a "two way mirror." One teacher teaches her student, and on the other side of the glass is the training class and the teacher trainer. The class discusses what the student is doing, and what decisions the teacher makes in helping the student. Reading Recovery teachers are trained for one school year, attending training sessions once a week. There is always a "behind the glass" session every week in which we watch and discuss two different teachers and their students.
     The training I have received as a reading recovery teacher has been the best in my 13 years of teaching. We are also required to attend "Continuing Contact" sessions at least 6 times a year if we want to continue being Reading Recovery teachers. Every session must have the "behind the glass" sessions with the Teacher Leader helping to focus the discussions as to how we can improve our teaching. We are encouraged to make "colleague visits" to other Reading Recovery teachers in which we watch them teach a lesson and then discuss the lesson with them. If we are having a hard time accelerating a student, we are told to call another teacher and have them come watch the lesson.
     In the beginning of training we are all very nervous about being watched by other teachers, but as you get more experience it becomes a little easier.
 

Date: January 20, 2002

From: Jane

    I have to agree with Lisa about the process of becoming a certified Reading Recovery Teacher, it is a weekly lesson study. The focus is on the lesson observed, not really who is teaching it. The conversations following
the lessons were the most powerful I have ever had in teacher education. My teacher leader challenged us to reflect on every aspect of our lessons and why we do the things we do (questioning everything). It was that very focus on practice that made the difference for me.
     This reminds me of something that Dr. Jim (Stigler) said last week. He shared that Linda Darling-Hammond compiled research on what policy was "doing" to improve teacher quality. He said that she found that 80% of
policy was focused on how to recruit good people into the profession. The other 20% was focused on improving teachers already in the classroom.
     I recall my Reading Recovery training class. There were ten of us that went through the entire year as a team. I remember one teacher in particular that I didn't think was at the level of the rest of us. She was sweet and well
meaning, but didn't seem too grounded in early literacy. Her lessons behind the glass were sometimes difficult to watch, as she struggled through them. Now we could have just found a "better" person for the job if we believe that
is the way to improving quality. That same teacher a few years later worked on her National Board Certification, and after three tries, I am happy to say, she passed this year. Four the past four years, she had worked
continuously on reflecting and improving her craft, and it has indeed helped make her a better teacher... one that policy makers would probably like to recruit into the profession.
     Just a few short points that I found interesting listen to Dr. Jim (and there were many more, but I don't have the time to type it all out). He gave us his three implications for improving teacher:
1. Focus on improving teaching methods, not teachers. Developing professional knowledge, to change "standard practice." Changing of the standard practice overtime will improve instruction/achievement, not quick fixes.
We need to shift away from getting new people in to working with what we have and working on how to improve it. He gave the example of the amazing, gifted teacher whose students always achieve and who is well respected, but when he/she retires, all that knowledge lives with them if it has not been shared with others.

2. Methods for improving teaching must respect the cultural nature of teaching. We must create context in which cultural routines can be brought into awareness and changed in small increments, small changes that fit into
teachers routine and sustain these changes over time.

3. Teachers are the ones in the best position to do this work. Most mainstream research is not relevant to the classroom. The details, individual teacher and students, are missing.

I really found number three the heart of professional development. Teachers need to do the work in improving their own practice.

 

Date: January 20,2002

From: Sheryn

Lisa and Jane, did you have guiding questions for your discussion during "reading recovery?" Also, can you suggest a book or website to find out more about the process. I am interested in using research lessons for a gifted education class I am teaching this spring on differentiation of instruction. Does anyone also have information on the work done at Harvard on case studies that is similar to the Japanese model of research lessons?
Sheryn

Date: January 20, 2002

From: Jane

     Yes, I had guiding questions that my teacher leader used. I am not sure about a website, but Ohio State does a lot of teacher training. The program used the work of Marie Clay as it's basis. She has many books that are very
helpful if you want to learn about Reading Recovery or just early literacy in general, focusing on the students who need something extra.
     I think Teachers College has a research project where they are looking at a collaboration between a school in NY or NJ and Japanese teachers. The Japanese teachers have been traveling to the states to work with the school
and coaching them on how to "do" lesson study. That may help you with your research as well. I think you could find something about it on Columbia's website maybe?

Hope this helps!

Date: January 21, 2002

From: Lisa

     Ohio State University is the official "head" of Reading Recovery in the United States. Every region has a University or College center. For NYC and surrounding areas it is New York University. I actually have a Continuing Contact session tomorrow.
     I will ask my teacher leader if there is something published on the training process of Reading Recovery.
Another great part of Reading Recovery is that "teacher leaders" are chosen jointly by the school district and the university training site to become "teacher leaders." They are trained intensity for a year in Reading Recovery and in how to train teachers. They are then the ones that lead the training of Reading Recovery teachers in their school district. They remain teachers, not supervisors. They also are part of a network of teacher leaders that must also attend their own continuing contact sessions and visit other teacher leaders. They also must continue to teach their own students. I believe they must work with at least 2 students. This means they can never "forgot" what it means to teach. I also believe that even the Teacher-Leader trainers in the universities must also work with students.
     I have found that a major problem with the "school system," is that principals and assistant principals stop teaching when they become supervisors. They are "above" teaching. In fact many become supervisors because they don't like teaching! They are supervisors, not educational leaders. I believe that just like in Reading Recovery, all supervisors must be required to teach a set number of lessons a week. This would mean they would not be able to forget what teaching involves.
     Some districts require teachers to attend Reading Recovery conferences that are held in different regions of the country. There is one yearly conference held at Ohio State University where 5,000 teachers from across the country come to attend very detailed workshops on specific parts of the lessons. It is very intense and teachers leave the conference worn out, but very "wired-up" to go back and try what they have learned. The district must sign a contract with Reading Recovery agreeing to follow many of the Reading Recovery procedures. One of them is that every training class must attend one regional or national conference. Unfortunately my district does not have the money to send us again. Last October a group of us used our own money to attend the Northeast conference. As you can see ongoing staff development is a central part of Reading Recovery. It is what makes it the most powerful and successful intervention program.

Date: January 21, 2002

From: Lisa

        Fostering a climate of teachers helping teachers has come-up in my school as a way of improving student learning. It is very interesting how this has come about.
      My school was chosen to be part of the CFE's (Campaign for Fiscal Equity) demonstration school project. CFE won a law suit last year against the state of New York. The judge found that NY State was not giving certain areas (NYC in particular) the funds that are needed to provide an "adequate" education for the children of New York. Unfortunately, our governor appealed that decision. CFE decided to facilitate discussions at 10 schools around the state to discuss what we would do with the extra money and how we would be accountable for it. Parents, teachers, administrators, and outside community groups sat down for the first time to discuss what to do if we actually had the money we needed to provide an adequate education for our students. The discussion in the past has always been how to provide for many needs with a tiny amount of money. After discussing the many programs and staff development needs the school would fund we began a discussion of accountability. It was in these discussions that we began talking about the school climate and needing to create a school culture of excellence. We started discussing "teacher study groups" and what to do about teaches we observed that were not doing a good job of teaching.

     We realized that while our school was in great need of adequate funds, there are some things we can do as a school to improve learning without more money. That is, we need to change the climate in the school. We need to break down the barriers of separate classrooms and get teachers talking about what worked about a lesson and what didn't instead of just complaining about students, their families, supervisors, and the "system." I brought up the idea of starting a few study groups for interested teachers and perhaps as teachers in these groups get more comfortable with each other, they will start to help each other by observing each other's lessons. I gave out copies of "A Lesson is like a Swiftly Flowing River" and another article on "teachers coaching teachers" as examples of some possibilities. We also decided that instead of one large staff conference once a month, we would use that time to meet in grade level groups to discuss curricular issues. This will hopefully start teachers sharing what works for them and what does not.
     This has been an exciting process for me. We have agreed to continue meeting. Some teachers in the group are not very optimist about being able to change the climate of the school. Part of the problem is that it is such a large school-950 students with many staff members.

Date: January 21, 2002

From: Sheryn

Lisa,
I have printed what you wrote and I plan to share it with others. The Reading Recovery program solves two issues for me: (1) excellent reading instruction and (2) leading "from" the classroom. I love it! Our school system is using Open Court with mixed reviews. I have heard that Open Court has not been globally successful. It sounds like Reading Recovery may be a better idea. What do you know about "Corrective Reading?" This is the reading program our school system is using. It is highly scripted and relies on choral response. Groups are formed based on decoding and comprehension skills. The poorest readers are supposed to be placed in groups no larger than 6 or 7. Better readers have larger groups. We are finding that because we are block scheduled, it is hard to place students as they should be for optimum effect.
Thank you for talking with me about these topics.

Date: January 21, 2002

From: Lisa

Sheryn,
Unfortunately Reading Recovery is not a classroom reading program. It is an intervention program for struggling readers. We pull the students out of the classroom and work with them individually. There are some classroom programs modeled after Reading Recovery though. I believe one is Mondo (not sure if I am spelling it correctly).
My school also has Open Court. It seems to work OK with average and above average readers, but not well for other readers. The phonics part of the program is good, but the books at least in first grade are too phonically controlled. We are trying to get teachers to use more guided reading groups in the classroom.

Date: January 21, 2002

From: Jane

Lisa, not you too!
Is the whole world adopting scripted phonics based programs??? Open Court is a good reason for why we need lesson study. To examine why a lesson doesn't meet the needs of all our students, especially the ones that are not "average" or speak English, and how to modify it so all students have equal access to the curriculum.

Take Care,
Jane... who is "doing" Open Court her way.

Date: January 22, 2002

From: Gail

Sheryn,
I would be extremely leery of any reading program that features "scripted" lessons. Those publishers don't know us or our students. That's one of the many wonderful aspects of Reading Recovery--a highly trained professional (the teacher) makes instructional decisions based upon what an individual student needs.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Lisa

     I guess one of the advantages of a scripted program like Open Court is that it helps new teachers that don't know how to teach reading. I was one of those teachers. I was put in a first grade classroom after two classes in the teaching of reading and no student teaching. The problem is that after teaching first grade for eight years and following a "program," I still didn't really understand "the reading process." It was only after being training as a Reading Recovery teacher that I began to understand what it takes for a student to learn to read.
     There must be much better staff development to help teachers understand reading instead of just following a program. That way if they are required to follow a "program," they can at least try to make appropriate modifications for their students.
     Another problem with programs like Open Court is that there must be continued training in the program. In my school, new teachers are not trained. New teachers are given the teacher's manual and told to teach reading. Then you have the situation where there is really no reading program in classrooms.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Lamson

We need to realize that open court is a new process.

Everyone learned to add and subtract in elementary school and when they grow up to teach they just need to learn how to deal with children. Reading is not like that. Almost everyone has grown up with the look/see holistic method of reading and when they grow up to teach they need to learn a completely new way of reading to teacher the children. Hard to do. Old dogs don't like new tricks, but they can still learn.
 

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Gail

One of the issues concerning the teaching of reading is that no one, not even the "experts," really completely understands just how a person learns to read. The result is people all over the map claiming that their method is "the right way" to teach reading. I submit that reading is a process which is LEARNED with the expert assistance of adults (parents, teachers) who provide a nurturing environment for that learning to take place. Just what kind of environment is nurturing would depend on the needs of the individual who is doing the learning--it might be a scripted parts-to-whole learning situation, it might be a whole language situation where the child is exposed to so much literature from birth that s/he figures out the process somehow (both my sons learned to read this way, and some of my students have, but many have not). My point is that there is no one answer for all learners. That's the complaint I have about whole school, scripted programs--they assume that the process is the same for all learners, and that has not been proven to be the case.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Leo

Lisa's experience points out a certain reality that we ignore at our own risk.

     One of the features of a "failing school" in an urban school district is a continuous, rather rapid turnover in staff, with the new staff always lacking the most basic preparation in the craft of teaching -- both in general and with respect to their specific subject material. They come in with nothing in the realm of pedagogical knowledge, and there is almost no one at their schools to mentor them into the field.

There is a simple law of pedagogy which applies to such situations: something is better than nothing.

     While highly scripted programs for teaching any subject are flawed in all kinds of ways we can easily identify, they are something. They provide some foundation for teaching the subject upon which a teacher can always build upon as s/he becomes more adept in the craft. You can always critique and improve the most rote and automatic method, and create something better; you can't critique and improve nothing.
     That is why I think we can offer critical support for the introduction of highly scripted programs in certain, clearly delimited contexts. That is different, of course, from saying that they should be introduced in all contexts. Then they would be, in most instances, replacing more with less. And the corollary to the law that something is better than nothing, is that one should not replace more with less.
     Let me also say that one of the problems with highly scripted programs of instruction is the implicit assumption that all kids learn the same way at the same rate. Insofar as they work, therefore, such programs tend to be driven down to the lowest common denominator. One of the problems with reading instruction is that we tend to slide over the reality -- which I pose here in the most general terms for sake of brevity -- that, depending upon the authority, somewhere between 2/3 to 3/4 to 4/5 of kids learn to read easily and "naturally," and that, for them, something along the lines of a "whole language" approach makes perfect sense, while the remaining 1/5 to 1/4 to 1/3 have difficulty, and need a more structured approach, with a greater reliance upon "phonics." While the children who have difficulties learning to read are present across the socio-economic spectrum, they are concentrated in schools which serve poorer communities. It is absolutely essential that those children learn to read by grade three [at which point children read to learn], or we are sentencing them to "death at an early age." We need to be able to address the needs of these children, or there will always be a pressure to "return" to a "basics" instructional program which has a "lowest common denominator" baseline.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Lamson

Children have been learning to read for over 200 years in this country. There may not be "one best way" to teach each and every child but you can bet that phonics that millions of people learned worked fine. If you believe the numbers our reading problems didn't start until we left phonics. It is dreaming to believe that a loving nurturing environment will allow everyone to learn to read. Reading is a set of skills learned, not a feel good environment that allows students to magically read. We should go back to what worked for over a century and give up on the warm fuzzies which don't produce readers in public schools.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Robert

Well said Leo.

     When I first became a science teacher I used the teacher support books all the time. Scripted was great and the more detail the better. Now after 24 years of teaching the same thing I don't need scripts or books. Been there, done that, for so long I can write the script now.
     Reading is the same way. If you never taught phonics you need scripting for several years. You can gradually wean yourself off the script and do your own thing. And yes, everyone doesn't learn the same so we need some phonics folks and some look/see folks. Everyone is so quick to point out that all kids don't learn the same but no one ever questioned teaching all kids the same look/see method. Why the big complaint about phonics?

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Gail

My question to you, is what makes you think that reading is a set of skills learned?

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Robert

There is a method of decoding letters and the sounds they make. All kids can make them but unless they are done in sync with regional standards the children still can not read, and if not thoroughly mastered they can read but cannot understand. I can read a few Konji words but don't understand them. Same with Arabic.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Lisa P.

     From what I understand, reading is not a set of skills, but a process of making meaning. As readers, we use various tools (called cuing systems) to help us make meaning. Obviously, phonics plays an important role -- one of
the most important tools of a reader is the graphophonic cuing system. Teaching students to use this cuing system is indeed teaching a set of skills.
     However, reading requires much more than phonics. Many students have mastered phonics perfectly, but can't read well because they aren't proficient using other tools -- such as context, syntax, etc. To read well,
students need to put all these cuing systems together, in much the same way that a basketball player might put together individual shots that he/she has practiced to play a game.
     The whole language movement was a reaction against the phenomenon of students who could "call words," but not understand what they were reading. (To continue the basketball analogy, these kids could make perfect shots
standing still, but not use them in a game.) The idea of whole language was to have kids practice the whole process of reading, not just its discrete parts. (You wouldn't teach basketball without ever playing games, would
you?) Unfortunately, some teachers threw out the baby with the bath water and didn't provide enough phonics instruction for some kids, which in turn inspired a backlash against whole language. Ideally kids should have
instruction in phonics and "skills," as well as a lot of time reading real books. It shouldn't be an either/or situation.
     What's interesting to me, though, is that phonics is NOT the way reading was taught for the majority of U.S. history. Reading specialists, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that phonics came into vogue in the
50's and 60's as a way of making reading more "scientific." I believe that before that time, reading instruction was much more balanced.
     I agree with Leo that scripted programs might be better than nothing, although it's sad that we have to consider "nothing" as a possibility. The problem I have with programs like that is that kids need very different
things. As an upper grade teacher (7th and 8th grades), we still get non-readers, but usually they are non-readers for very different reasons. Some kids might not be able to sound out words, while others might pronounce
everything but not understand it. It's counterproductive when we lump all these kids into the same remedial program, regardless of their individual needs.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Sheryn

It is frightening how unwilling educational leaders are to make use of best research and best sense about reading. For the first time in my career, I feel confident that whole language and phonics can coexist, but I also know without a doubt that reading instruction must fit the individual needs of students. One reading model does not fit all; however, in hierarchical systems like schools, bosses continue to mandate scripted whole-class models of reading instruction. What can we teachers do to solve this problem?

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Jane


The complaint is not if phonics is needed to teach the reading process, it is how phonics is taught. Whole Language includes the teaching of phonics, but  it was implemented like many quick fixes: without training and understanding from the people who are "mandated" to teach it. How can children inventive spell if they don't know the connection of letter to sound? It is my belief from teaching beginning reading for the past 15 years, that children learn most effectively through whole to part phonics, rather than part to whole. It's like riding a bike. You can learn all about the parts of a bicycle, but unless you have actually been on one and experience the process as a whole, knowing the names of the parts does little good.

Okay, enough about the teaching of phonics. Like Gail said, not every child learns the same way, but like writing, there is a reading process and readers must learn to use a variety of sources to put it all together. Phonics is
just one part of the whole process.

Date: January 23, 2002

From: Jane

That is my fear Sheryn.
     If teachers are mandated to teach scripted program (and in some schools in Los Angeles these mandates are strictly enforced), then what control do we have over how to meet the needs of the students we serve?
     Robert had mentioned that at the beginning of his teaching career he needed a guide. With so many new teachers I can see some value and "comfort" in having a guide to learn from, but if new teachers only trained to follow the guide without going deeper into other strategies to help students, how will they learn to truly teach? It would be logical to think that as teachers grow and develop their craft, they are able to modify and let go of some of the guide in order to meet the needs of their students. But that is not always the case. At many schools in Los Angeles, the program is the main focus on professional development, not best instructional practices. Teachers are required to follow a pacing plan developed for them and required to be on the same exactly lesson as their neighbor next door, regardless of who they teach. My concern is that we are creating a "generation" of
teachers that are not really going to know what to do without a guide.

Date: January 24, 2002

From: Gail

Sheryn  writes: "in hierarchical systems like schools, bosses continue to mandate scripted whole-class models of reading instruction. What can we teachers do to solve this problem?"

One thing we can do is refuse to remain silent. If we know better, that is, if we know that what's being proposed/mandated is inappropriate, we have to speak up. We can cite legitimate, respected research to back up our points and strengthen our arguments. One of my mentors also suggested that we may need to simply refuse to implement inappropriate programs--either vocally, by banding together as a group and refusing to do it, or silently, by closing our doors and doing what we know is right for children (as a certain colleague of mine does with Open Court!)

Date: January24, 2002

From: Lisa

     Many people have gotten the wrong idea that "whole language" reading instruction did not include phonics instruction. That is why we now refer to a good reading program as "a balanced literacy" program. That is students must be taught phonics and early reading strategies. I heard at a staff development workshop that the English language is only around 45% phonetic.
     If you only teach children with phonics, they will only be able to read 45% of the text. Readers need to use meaning, structural, and visual cues. "Meaning" means as a student is reading, they must think what would make sense in the sentence. Structure refers to the syntax of the English language. In order words, what one reads must "sound right," (e.g., You could not read, "I ran to the go. Instead of "go" you would need a noun.) Visual refers to graphophonics (letter sound connections). You need all 3 sources of information when reading.
Some children do learn to read by any method and it is usually the children of literate parents. A "balanced literacy" method is important for those students that do need help.
     Another important issue for the teaching of reading is that students must be taught reading with material on their reading level. Some scripted programs (like Open Court) are "whole class" instruction. That means that no matter what level the child is reading on, they must read what the class is reading. Research has shown that a student makes the most gains when learning easy to instructional level materials. That is why I believe that reading instruction must use grouping so that students are working on their own level.

Date: January 25, 2002

From: Robert

 If whole language is such a great deal, why are educators looking for something that works?

     You mix your terms here to distract the reader. Phonics is a complete system and is meant to be taught as a system. When you just teach the sounds of letters that is not phonics. What you refer to balance is simply reducing a phonics program to the parts you like and replacing the rest of the program with something else you like. Kind of like teaching a teenager to drive the car but not how to deal with traffic. Phonics is a whole program and not many people are teaching the entire comprehensive phonics program.
     I will say this until I am blue in the face...If not all kids learn the same, why have we been teaching them the same for the last couple of decades?
 

Date: January 25, 2002

From: Jane

     Robert, can you tell me how phonics is a comprehensive program? I am unclear on what you mean by this. How does it address comprehension and literary genres?
     I can "read" in Spanish, but I don't know what I am reading, so is it just oral reading that you are addressing in phonics? The entire process has to be addressed as well. My second language learners are having a difficult
time with Open Court and they are continually not progressing as well as the English speaking kids. I know because I taught more fluent English speakers last year in Kinder and they were reading and writing far above the
first graders I have this year that are all beginning English speakers? Phonics is needed to read, but like I said before, it's not the only thing.
     Programs don't teach children. Teachers do, so whatever a teacher uses to successfully teach their children, then that's what works...phonics, whole language, etc. A good teacher takes part here and there and make them fit
their students, not make students fit the program.

Date: January 25, 2002

From: Sheryn

Lisa,
     I printed what you wrote because you stated the case for balanced literacy so well. Thank you. How did our conversation turn to "the reading wars?" Do you think it is because we are still not sure how students become readers or because we still don't know how to fit how to teach reading in the context of our present classroom structures? At my school, we do not even have materials nor the scheduling capability to meet the reading needs of our students. One of my concerns is that high stakes tests of reading have preceded many teachers' capacity to teach students to read. Children become victims of a system that is still arguing about what works and how to pay for it.

Date: January 26, 2002

From: Lisa

     Teachers that really understand the beginning reading process can individualize their program to help readers that don't learn to read as easily as others. Instruction cannot be "whole class" for that to happen. That is why I wrote in an earlier post that "grouping" for reading is important. In "guided reading" the teacher works with groups no larger than around 6 children at a time. (This is one reason why small class size is so important in the early grades.)
     The "Balanced literacy" approach agrees that phonics must be taught. I happen to like the phonics part of "Open Court" (Each letter sound is associated with a story: for example, for the "h" sound it is the hound dog. The hound dog chases something and becomes out of breath, which makes the h.h, h, sound! The kids love it.) If I could setup my own classroom program, I would probably use the Open Court phonics program for the whole class, and then use guided reading groups to teach reading. Then there are the children who need even more help. That is where a program like Reading Recovery comes in. It is one on one tutoring by specially trained teachers. It works.
     I get so frustrated when I hear people say we really don't know what to do about the number of children who are not reading on grade level. We do know what to do: small class size, teachers well trained in reading (District 2 in NYC has put many of their early childhood classroom teachers through the Reading Recovery training), plenty of reading materials for the classrooms, and Reading Recovery as a safely net. All of this costs money.
     I will write later on the recent "findings" of the National Reading Panels study of research on reading. I just read an article that details how the summary that finds "phonics to be the most important part of reading instruction" does not reflect the actual survey of research.

Date: January 28, 2002

From: Lisa

"Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics" is an article by Elaine M. Garan.

     In this article Ms. Garan discusses how the "summary" put out by the National Panel does not accurately reflect the findings of the research on reading. It also shows how conclusions about the sole importance of phonics were made from only a few studies. Some of these studies were conducted only with "learning disabled students."
I found this article at the Phi Delta Kappan site. The site address is: www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0103gar.htm

     A very good source of research on good reading programs is a book by Richard L. Allington. It is called What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs. It is a short book and easy to read. I couldn't put it down! He states that what really matters is :1) Kids need to read a lot (the more you read, the better you get) 2) Kids need to read books on their level. (He says, Why do adults seem to like to give students "hard" things to read? Do adults pick out an educational research paper to take to the beach?) 3) Kids need to work on reading fluently. Teachers need to know how to teach this. 4) Kids need to develop thoughtful literacy (think about what they are reading). He gives many examples of programs in schools that are working on these four things.

Date: January 28, 2002

From: Sheryn

Lisa,
     Once again I am printing what you wrote. Thanks for the executive summary and the book suggestion. In my area, the Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring "What's Working" in reading programs. They are having Jane Fell Greene, for a "Reading Summit" Feb. 7th and Dr. Bill Sanders on "Value-added Assessment" on Feb. 28th. I am going to read that book you suggested to arm myself for these meetings.
     The present political rhetoric on reading seems to focus on "scientifically based reading programs," such as the work of Reid Lyons among others. When he spoke to a group of us in Charlotte, he made a case for phonemic awareness, differentiation of instruction based on students' needs, and lots of reading practice, especially with direct instruction. I am not exactly sure what would count as a scientifically based reading program. Do you? My favorite reading researcher, Constance Weaver, is coming to my area soon (even though she is "out of favor" in our community), and I have read parts of Reconsidering a Balanced Approach to Reading, which is edited by her. She does not dispute the importance of phonemic awareness, but what she does refute extremely well is the need for phonics to be taught before whole reading. I think the mistake most reading programs make is assuming that everyone learns to read the same way, but I do not think anyone can argue with the fact that the more a person reads, the better they get at reading.
     I think we are getting closer to a true understanding of how to teach all students to read, but I am not sure we are completely there yet; not necessarily in terms of what we know about how students learn to read, but in how we implement our reading programs. What do you think?

Date: January 28, 2002

From: Steven

      In reading everyone's response on the best approach in building a child's reading ability, particularly in the area of whether to use phonic or the whole reading approach, listening to colleagues that teach reading to the elementary aged child, I can begin to understand the problems or reasons why secondary students are unable to grasp a content of reading material, because of their inability to read.
     I recently recommended to a colleague that is certified in reading, why doesn't she use both phonics and whole language concept. Her answer to me was, that phonics does not work. Even though she was expressing problems within the classroom, by the kids inability to pronounce words and understand their meaning she refused my recommendation and considered it to be ludicrous. I think the reading process is like a child attempting its first steps you begin crawling (phonics) because the child has grasped an understanding of pronunciation of words through his/her home environment. As teachers we tend to grab the child at some point of academic development or functioning. Educators have to make an assessment, then build from that point of academic functioning.
The next step is to walk (whole language). This step engages the child's ability to comprehend the language. This walk method increases in speed and duration, gradually this method increases to a run. This is the overall concept of how a child should grasp the use of their language. People entering this country speaking other language grasp an understanding of the English language through hearing and seeing.

Date: January 28, 2002

From: Jane

Are you sure she said that she doesn't use phonics? Phonics is included in the whole language program, just not taught part to whole, rather whole to part. It's not if we teach phonics, it's how we teach it that's in disagreement. I bet you if you went to see her whole language class, that there will be evidence that she teaches phonics. It's just a part of the reading process and should be used in conjunction to the other two parts: meaning and structure.

Date: January 29, 2002

From: Lisa

Sheryn,
     I agree that we actually know much about how to teach reading. The problem seems to be more in the implementation of reading programs. A high quality reading program needs well trained teachers. I don't think the "powers that be" what to put the money into training teachers. By training teachers I don't mean those 2 hour workshops once every month or every 2-3 months. Training must be ongoing with staff developers modeling in the classrooms and coming into classrooms to help make suggestions. Teachers need to be able to visit other classrooms or schools to get ideas and see how the "theory" is translated into practice. Then we need the kind of teaching/learning culture in schools that encourages teachers to work together to improve teaching on an ongoing basis. A culture in which teachers feel comfortable participating in things like "research" lessons.
      I think one of reasons some of the politicians have jumped on the "phonics" bandwagon is that it seems like a "quick fix." We don't need highly trained teachers, we only need to teach phonics. Instead of dealing with the social-economic background issues of many of the students that are having problems learning to read, we will just teach phonics. Many of the children having a hard time learning to read start school with a much lower knowledge of language. They also don't have as wide a range of experiences. How can you understand the following sentence if you don't know what a "trunk" of a tree is, "Kadeem hid behind the truck of the tree." We need high quality early childhood programs with well trained teachers. That takes money, not just buying the latest "scripted" program.
     The book by Constance Weaver sounds interesting. I am going to look for it. That's a good question, What exactly are "scientifically based researched reading programs?"

Date: January 30, 2002

From: Allison

Jane,
     I don't believe that everyone teaches phonics in a whole language program. They should (after all it is part of the whole program). It all depends upon how it was presented and interpreted. I know that in my old school we all went through training back in the '80s (by Aussies). At times I wondered if we had actually attended the same meetings because I knew that I saw and heard phonics lesson in the training and I know I used them in my classroom.
     The other 9 teachers on my grade insisted that phonics wasn't part of it and didn't do any direct phonics instruction in any form. As a result, the program didn't work as well as it should have, was deemed a failure and the school went back to basal readers.
     I honestly believe the other teachers didn't "see" the phonics component because they were so used to the DISTAR method which had been the program used at the school for many years prior to the introduction of whole
language. These teachers still insist that DISTAR is the best method for teaching reading and that whole language just doesn't work.

Date: January 30, 2002

From: Jane

Allison,
     What is DISTAR? Yes, you are right, not all teachers were trained in Whole Language the "right" way? I have heard this before from teachers that said they were taught to just read to the kids... kinda crazy if you ask me, but
like any quick fix, policy is implemented with little or no training and even less time for articulation and conversation between teachers on instructional practices.

Date: January 30, 2002

From: Sheryn

     I think we're all saying that it's not necessarily the reading program that matters as much as it is the implementation of it. Which brings us back to the idea of "research lessons" and the notion of teachers reflecting and perfecting their techniques. I am thinking that the most impressive way to impact the non-teachers (i.e. business people who think they have the answers to why schools are not teaching students to pass reading tests) is to ask them to support programs that allow teachers time and perhaps money to become specialists in reading instruction. If teachers were given time to practice during a observed lessons (like reading recovery), they might actually be able to use almost any "balanced and differentiated" idea to help kids learn to read. As an active member of my Chamber of Commerce, I plan to advocate for programs that will support teachers as specialized reading practitioners who do not only need "scientifically based" materials, but who also need excellent professional development opportunities to insure a high level of skill.

Date: January 31, 2002

From: Allison

     DISTAR is a scripted, phonics "reading program." A sample page would have pictures of a shoe and a football, and the letters "a" and "m" scattered across a page. You would hold the page up in front of the whole class, point to a picture and the children would have to say what it was or the sound (i.e. shoe, "mmm"). Another page would have just the letters "a" and "m" and you would point to a letter and the children would have to say the sound for
as long as your finger is on the letter. The next page would blend the letters together (you would keep your finger on "a" for more time than on "m" and you would swoop into the "m"). I will say, in terms of rapid results it looked impressive because the children did pick up on the sounds quickly and it certainly appeared as if they were reading the text. I remember one teacher telling me how amazing it was because the children couldn't speak
English or understand what the text was "but they're reading!" I argued that since they couldn't understand the text, they weren't really reading anything - they were simply pronouncing the sounds they were taught in the
combinations they were taught (drilled is a better word). I know of one teacher who actually fell asleep during her own lesson because it was so boring and hypnotic.

Date: January 31, 2002

From: Robert

Sheryn,

     I appreciate you attempt to cool things down. Much of what you say is true. However...The reason we are having this discussion is that the way we are teaching now is not working for enough children. That is why the powers are now attempting to insert Phonics. It worked before and it should work again.
     When you mention phonics to everyone you get hit with the knee-jerk response, "all kids don't learn the same" but for two decades we have been teaching them the same holistic approach.
     Present teachers will tell you they use phonics but there is a difference between phonics and a systematic phonics program. It is like putting off market parts on your car. It has some factory parts, like some phonics rules, but is not all factory parts like a systematic phonics approach. Just as teachers put their own spin and emphasis on the holistic approach to reading, I would expect them to do the same with the phonics approach. BUT, I would expect them to work within the phonics program and apply the whole package.

Date: January 31, 2002

From: Jan

     I am a firm believer in a systematic phonics approach, especially for struggling readers. I strongly believe in the direct instruction method and it is unfortunate that many teachers have not been trained appropriately. Believe me, I have talked with teachers in my building who don't think it's good because they have never been given the training/support to make it work. Granted, it's not for everyone but it can work wonders for those students who just aren't ready for a whole language approach. On the other hand, there are many "miracle" programs out there that are not what they appear to be.
     If you are interested in reading an expose about The Phonics Game, go www.edresearch.com  and click on the Mirage Award. It took us two years to gather the information and I wonder how many of the other programs available have similar weak foundations (and I am being extremely kind - read the expose).

Date: January 31, 2002

From: Sheryn

Robert,
     Phonics are fine, but what about kids who come to school already reading? Some children learn to read without any phonics instruction. My children, for instance, hated skill and drill phonics instruction. My daughter had no patience with learning to read by sounding out words. (She is extremely right-brained). My son begged me to take him out of an SRA phonics class. He bears out Constance Weaver's admonition that students who are required to do phonics skill and drill can become alliterate (haters of reading). My son says he would rather have dental surgery than be required to read. What bothers me is that teachers are sometimes forced to have reading-children doing basic sounds, which wastes precious instructional time, and I have heard horror stories about reading children being turned off to reading because they are forced to practice words like r-rat, etc. I think research proves that phonics instruction (or phonics first) is not for every child; however, I know that many children need lots of practice developing phonemic awareness, and it is also terrible if they do not get what they need in terms of reading instruction.

Date: February 1, 2002

From: Jill

     I have been reading all the posts about reading and I am confused as to why you are so so hyped on phonics, Robert. I recall in one of the posts that you said you were a science teacher -- is all this about trying to make reading more scientific? Teaching reading is an art, I don't care how publishers or politicians or spin doctors try to sell it. I currently work in Kindergarten and have taught first and second grade in English and Spanish to real children in Los Angeles and phonics alone will not make them readers. I don't need science to tell me that, I have data and and experience to back me up. This isn't a touchy-feely matter to me either. I am dead serious about getting my kids to read and if I did only what my textbook (Open Court) told me to do, then none of my students would.
     Your arguments remind me of the 'back to basics' bell that is pealing out across the country right now. Maybe the real problem that we as educators and neophyte policy makers face is not how to make schools and educational programs the way we remember them, but to remake them so that everyone has access and I mean everyone. When I go into work this morning to teach my Title I, English Language Learner kindergarteners, I give them everything I have and use every strategy that works because I want for them what I want for my own daughter -- the ability to be successful at whatever endeavor they choose in this life. It's simple, either we put up or we shut up. I put up.

Date: February 1, 2002

From: Robert

Jill,

     It sounds like you start with phonics and move on from there. Phonics is not a complete English system. It is decoding the words. When you can do that, read. Then get into the nouns and stories and great books.
     I am not looking for a science approach. I am looking to get children to read. What exasperates me is that everyone is really saying there is one way to read. The holistic way. They infer that because they have numerous objections to phonics but none to look/see methods that leave 35% of the kids behind.
     In a perfect world, teacher would be trained in a complete systematic phonics program and the entire holistic program and they would then teach their children. Those children needing phonics would get it and those needing whole language would get it. I am really pushing options. Now we have only whole language and the science says it leaves 35% of the kids dysfunctional readers. They could have been helped with phonics because science numbers tell us only 5% cant learn with phonics. That 30% of the kids is a big chunk. Those kids deserve a system that works for them. Phonics is not perfect. But it does work with some kids. But no one on this board wants to offer their kids the option except you. I praise you and respect you for doing phonics and then giving them more. Your kids learn because you offer them the means to.
     I read here and the words of Ford's color scheme come to mind. "You can have any color you want, as long as its black." I keep hearing, you can learn to read in any way you want as long as it is whole language. Thanks to you more people may see that phonics is a good starting place.

Date: February 1, 2002

From: Lisa

Robert,
     I think you are reacting to what was a problem with the implementation of the "whole language" approach to the teaching of reading. I think some teachers were not really trained in what "whole language" instruction was supposed to be. Some of them probably did not teach phonics and that was one reason some teachers were not successful with "whole language" instruction. This just, once again, points up the need to train teachers better. Phonics should have been part of "whole language" instruction.
     Perhaps that is why we now call a good reading program "a balanced literacy approach." Yes, a systematic approach to phonics, but also teach children to use reading strategies. As a child is "sounding-out" a word, they also need to think what would make sense in the sentence. Remember the English language is only 45% phonetic. Phonics can only help a child 45% of the time.
     The problem with many "phonetic" readers for first grade is that they are hard to understand because they are so phonically controlled. "I have a bug in the bag. Is it big? Yes, the bag is big. No, Is the bug big? I have a big bug in the bag." This is an Open Court first grade step-by-step reader story. I can't really remember how the story goes, but it can get very confusing to a first grader.

Date: February 2, 2002

From: Alison M.

     The teaching of reading is the aspect of a child's education that I am most excited and concerned about. So I can not resist jumping into this conversation after carefully reading all that has been written.
     As I read, I realize that as teachers, each of us come to the teaching situation with our own personal experiences as learners, as teachers, in some cases as parents; we also come with our observations of children¹s learning, and with a belief system framed by our experiences, our language, our family structure and our culture. We are not always aware, however, of how these factors get framed or play themselves out in our classrooms. Given that issues in education are often framed as arguments and dichotomies: transmission vs. construction of knowledge, immersion vs. direct teaching, phonics vs. whole language, Ebonics vs. Standard English, we must be aware that as teachers, we are constantly making choices and taking stances that will effect our children¹s lives. We bring ourselves and our experiences to these choices. This is a good thing... we can't help but do this... there are times, however, when "we" get in the way of responding to what's right in front of us, mainly our children's verbal and non verbal responses to our seemingly inconsequential decisions.
     No one choice is going to work for all children. When we are teaching a child to read we are in essence teaching them how to make sense of their world. We are opening a myriad of possibilities to them because when they read they become informed . We are helping them sharpen a tool that will help them to feel successful and empowered. This is not a calling/vocation that we can take lightly. As reading teachers (which is a term that defines us all, even if we are teaching a subject such as science, we are still reading teachers because we are helping children construct meaning) we engage in something that is POLITICAL: its about POWER and ACCESS... it is therefore not a process that can be reduced to arguments about Open Court vs. SFA vs. balanced literacy vs...
     I'm reminding us of this bigger picture view so that we do not get tangled in the dichotomies and debate and we are freer to assess a child and respond effectively by making informed instructional decisions about the specific needs of children under our tutelage.
     As teachers we all know that when a child is unable to master this process, they suffer. They feel alienated, isolated and wear shackles of insecurity that pervade their entire school experience. There are many factors that complicate the mastery of this process for a child: dyslexia, special reasoning, memory, rapid retrieval problems, language processing, second language and home dialects, etc. Notice I called these, "factors that complicate" the reading process, not "factors that make the process impossible" (these two are often confused... leading some teachers to give up on children). Before prescribing to a program, first assess the needs of the child, the origin/source of their struggles and challenges and then decide on a program that best addresses these needs. In this sense, we become like detectives. It might mean deviating from a school/district wide prescribed program. You might find that the great magical program that worked for 90% of the class did not work for the other 10%. Its not that they are stupid and can not learn. They clearly need another approach. The issues become: do we, as teachers, have the specific training in alternative reading techniques? Do we know how to assess and describe what we see concerning the child's reading struggles? Do you know how to match a specific technique to a diagnosed or observable reading challenge? Is the school even open to you using alternative methods or deviating from the set program? When do you find the time to provide such alternatives for those few children?
     If we, as teachers, do not have the knowledge/skills, (which is usually the case, because no regular teacher training program, undergrad. or graduate, prepares you for what you find and no ongoing professional development has been effective in supporting this effort... so instead of addressing learning disabilities, the rigid use of scripted programs begin to cultivate a culture of children that "seem," to be disabled. When we try to implement school/district wide programs without a commitment to constantly assessing and modifying/eliminating/supplementing to match the child- even when its a good program, we fail), does the school have the resources, via trained specialists? Does the family have resources for outside tutoring?
     Given the new continuum initiatives, it will be incumbent upon classroom teachers to get specialized training in alternative reading techniques to have a repertoire of strategies under their belt. In many cases, these strategies are more phonetic based, systematic and sequential. The truth is that the more automatic a child's decoding skills are, the more mental capacity they can invest into comprehending and gaining meaning from text. The more we know as teachers, the more you can mix and match and help children to expect meaning and social relevance as they read. In this sense teaching of reading is an art.
     I am trained in an Orton Gillingham based, multisensory approach to teaching reading. It is very much a bottom-up program. Children are not exposed to reading literature/ or trade books until every sound that they might encounter in the book have been explicitly taught and mastered. In the purest form of Orton, children are reading phonics controlled text that only use the phonemes that you have explicitly taught and have been mastered by the child. This is an intense, highly structured, sequential, REMEDIATION program that I have seen work like magic for many children. Children who have struggled for years begin to feel successful and happy. Would I use it for everyone, never. Do I employ the Orton Gillingham approach in it's purest sense, not at all. If you determine that a child needs direct teaching of each phoneme and how they blend to form words, I value the sequence that this program provides for which to do this. I also incorporate the sequence into my spelling instruction.

 

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