Thursday, May 17, 2018

Follow the Child, Not the Program

I got into a bit of a twitter spat recently with a well-known literacy expert who reacted strongly to one of my posts. After a bit of back and forth, this person wanted to know about my credentials to discuss the topic asking, "Have you ever taught elementary school children to read?"

I responded that I had taught reading for many years as a reading specialist in grades K-4. Then came this question, "What program did you use?" A question I hear repeatedly and that I never know how to answer. I never used a program. To be sure, my work was influenced by a great many researchers and theorists: Marie Clay, Ken Goodman, P. David Pearson, S.J. Samuels, Patricia Cunningham, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Frank Smith, Lucy Calkins, Louise Rosenblatt. My work was also shaped by my professors: Susan Mandel Glazer, M. Jerry Weiss, Dorothy Strickland, John Clifford, Morton Botel, Susan Lytle, Brian Sutton-Smith, Marilyn Cochrane-Smith.

But I never followed a "program"; I followed the child. I worked primarily with vulnerable readers and writers. Kids for whom programs often had not worked very well. Applying a different program seemed futile. I got all the information I needed by talking with the child, observing the child in literacy and non-literacy situations, conducting interviews with the child, collecting samples of the child's writing, and listening to the child read aloud.

My knowledge of literacy research, theory, and instruction allowed me to make instructional decisions for children and then to try different approaches to help these vulnerable readers. Was the child able to use all the sources of information available to decode a word? Could the child track words on the page? Was the child gathering meaning while reading? Did the child carry a summary of the story forward when turning the page? This information allowed me to construct a picture of the reader and design an instructional approach.

School district administrators are often too quick to jump on (and off) the program bandwagon. If scores are low, it must be the program. Let's try another one. If an individual child is struggling, let's try a different program. Plenty of program publishers are out there ready to take school district money. All these programs have two things in common, 1) a slick presentation designed to convince you (and parents) this is the answer to all literacy learning problems, and 2) they don't work.*

Don't get me wrong, many programs have helped many children come to reading. Children are such skilled language learners, that almost any reasonably well-organized program that offers a balance between decoding instruction, comprehension instruction, actual time for reading of real texts, and teacher read aloud is successful for most.

In the 1950s, I, along with most of my classmates, learned to read using the "look-say" method found in the Our Friends and Neighbors Series (Oh! Look! See Spot run!). Later most students came to reading successfully through a more structured phonics (sound it out) approach such as that in the DISTAR program in the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s and 90s saw the growth of the constructivist approach, which emphasized making meaning and the reading of real literature with decoding instruction as needed. Again most kids learned to read. In the late 1990s and into the present, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, the emphasis returned to a focus on direct instruction focused on phonics. Again most children learned to read well enough.

Throughout all of these movements, however, one thing has persisted. Some children, about 15-20%, have struggled to learn to read well. No program has really been able to break through that number, despite the claims of Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Fundations, and other programs. Why? There are many reasons why children might struggle: learning disabilities, language differences, the impact of poverty, poor instruction, etc. Because the causes are complex, the answers to how to help these kids are also complex. Programs can't respond to this complexity (especially when they lack a balanced approach), but teachers can. If we want to bring a higher percentage of kids to literacy, we need to invest in our teachers, not in programs.

What would that investment look like? Most new teachers graduate from college with a limited understanding of literacy because they simply do not get enough instruction in how it works and how to teach it. This lack of knowledge leaves the novice vulnerable to every program that comes down the pike that promises results. So, one answer is more literacy instruction for prospective teachers.

Even more important, though, is more embedded professional development for teachers in their own school buildings and in the classroom as they are teaching. Recent moves toward having literacy coaches work with teachers in the classroom hold promise. Unfortunately, these coaching sessions have often focused on getting teachers to implement a program with fidelity, rather than with helping teachers meet student needs through better understanding of literacy instruction overall.

In the book, Research Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, Hoffman and Pearson argue that to improve literacy instruction schools need to invest in their teachers and not in programs. They suggest the following strategies are associated with improving teacher ability to meet the needs of students.
  • Concrete, teacher specific, and extended training
  • Classroom assistance from local staff
  • Teacher observation of other teachers using similar instructional strategies
  • Regular meetings of teachers focused on literacy instructional practice
  • Teacher participation in decision making related to literacy instruction
  • Local development of instructional materials
  • Principals' participation in training
Programs don't teach children literacy; teachers do. Wise administrators invest in their teachers, not in programs. Wise teachers follow the child, because the informed observation of a child's reading behaviors will always tell knowledgeable teachers what instruction is needed.

*I know stating that these programs don't work will upset many, but don't take my word for it. The US Department of Education has been unable to identify any "remedial" program that successfully improves reading ability except for Reading Recovery, which is not a program, but an instructional approach that is the foundation of balanced literacy. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been around since the 1930s and yet we still have students who struggle and no independent research that shows that Orton-Gillingham and its related programs (Wilson, Stevenson) works to improve reading. It may help some improve decoding ability, which is not actual reading improvement. Some folks will say that if teachers would only apply their program with fidelity, it would work. This is just another way of saying the program doesn't work. If the program can't be applied successfully, in practice it doesn't work.