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Monday, May 10, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 2: Talking to a Parent

In my first post in this series on how teachers and literacy specialists can push back at the Science of Reading (SOR) narrative currently dominating reading instruction conversation and legislation, I leaned on the work of Peter Johnston and Deborah Scanlon in their report An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction to argue that dyslexia is not a useful term, and that the SOR narrative, with its focus on word level instruction, casts literacy learning in too narrow a light. In the second post, I posited that a focus on getting to know the individual child as a learner immediately makes clear that each reader is unique, and that each reader's needs must be viewed from a broader lens than is suggested by SOR. In this post I would like to suggest a way of communicating with a concerned parent, who has read and bought into the SOR narrative, about the literacy instruction needs of their child.

Much of my framework for this conversation comes from new work by Nell K. Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright in their recent article published in Reading Research Journal, "The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances the Simple View of Reading."  The International Literacy Association has made this an open access article and I encourage you all to read it in full. Essentially, the authors argue that we have learned a great deal about what works in reading instruction in the years since Gough and Tummer suggested the Simple View of Reading (1986), which is the basis of the SOR instructional narrative. The authors suggest a new model of reading, the Active View of Reading, which encompasses word recognition instruction, plus motivation and engagement, fluency, vocabulary, flexibility, and language comprehension.

Armed with the insight that comes from the Active View of Reading, let's see how a conversation with a concerned parent might go. Our teacher is a classroom teacher, Mrs. Hannah Jones, working with first grader Johnny Smith. It is the end of October. Johnny had entered first grade with some concerns reported by the kindergarten teacher that he seemed to have difficulty with hearing and recording sounds in words. While he had developed about 25 sight words and could write about 20 words on his own, his progress in decoding unfamiliar words was not as expected. In most tasks in school, Johnny was bright and eager, but he was not generally engaged by literacy activities and his attention to these tasks seemed to waiver. Some reversals (b, d ,e, r) were evident in his written work. Johnny's mother, Amanda Smith, has requested an update on his progress.

Hannah Jones: Thank you for contacting me to talk about Johnny's progress in reading. Now that I have been working with Johnny for about a month, I have had a chance to get to know him as a person and as a learner, so this seems a good time to meet.

Amanda Smith: Yes, thank you. I am very concerned about Johnny. The kindergarten teacher gave me a heads up that Johnny seemed to have trouble learning new words and hearing letter sounds, so I want to make sure he is getting the instruction he needs.

HJ: That's what we all want here as well. Can you tell me a little bit about Johnny at home. What does he like to do?

AS: Well, Johnny is obsessed with baseball. Most of the time at home he is either playing catch or bugging his dad to pitch to him or just throwing a ball against the garage wall. He likes to watch baseball on tv, too. I swear he would sleep with his baseball bat, if I would let him. He's very active, likes running around. It can be hard to just get him to sit down long enough to eat dinner.

HJ: How about his interaction around books or writing?

AS: Well, I try to read to him at night before bed, but he is usually pretty impatient about that. I gave him a journal, but he doesn't choose to write in it that I know of. Sometimes he draws pictures and writes on them. I have noticed his spelling is pretty bad and that he reverses some letters.  Do you think he should be tested for dyslexia? My husband said he had trouble learning to read when he was in first and second grade.

HJ: Well, Mrs. Jones, I have noticed his difficulty with hearing sounds in words and reversals, and it is true that some perceptual difficulties can be inherited, but I believe these are issues we can work on through instruction. That instruction would not be different if Johnny were identified as dyslexic. What I think is important here is that Johnny get the instruction he needs and that is what I would like to focus on.

AS: Well, I am very concerned about that. I have talked to some neighbors and they say that unless he is classified as dyslexic he won't get the instruction he needs.

HJ: I hope you will find that that is not true in this school district or this classroom, Mrs. Jones. In fact, I would like to to talk to you about that instruction now.

AS: Well, good. I've been reading about that, too. I know that schools have not done a very good job with instruction for kids like Johnny. That article in the New York Times a couple of years ago laid it all out. This Science of Reading. It seems to me that that is the kind of reading instruction Johnny needs, a focus on phonics. Everybody is saying that schools don't teach phonics and I know that Johnny certainly needs that, so I hope that is what you are talking about.

HJ: Mrs. Jones, Johnny certainly needs good instruction in how words work and in the phonics knowledge that will help him discover how they work, I assure you that Johnny will receive that instruction, but I want to also assure you that Johnny will receive much more than that. Since the Science of Reading work was done in the 1980s, we have learned that many things influence a child's learning to read. Decoding, guided by phonics knowledge, is one important one. Instruction in this area will include phonological awareness, that is, hearing the sounds in words, like the word cat has three sounds (k-a-t). Instruction will also focus on how to blend those sounds into words. In learning about words we need to also look at how words are spelled, what we call orthography. So, we will also spend time on learning spelling patterns, like how the word ship is made up of two parts sh- and ip. As part of our instruction in decoding we will do considerable writing using invented spelling. As Johnny writes words on the page, he will learn to stretch out the sounds of the words and try to write down what he hears. This type of writing has been shown to help readers develop their ability to hear sounds in words. 

Also very important is comprehension - understanding what we read. Comprehension is the central goal of reading and we also know that comprehension, the attempt to make sense, helps readers decode words. We can work on comprehension through our daily read alouds in class as well in stories that we use for reading instruction. Talking about what might happen in the story not only helps with comprehension, it also helps with word identification. We will also work on reading fluency, which is the ability to read aloud so that it sounds like talking. Fluency is what we would call a "bridging" activity that helps readers connect decoding ability with comprehension. We often practice fluency with short pieces of text that children read over and over until they can read it with ease.

Finally, we also need to focus on Johnny's motivation to read. We know that good instruction in decoding and comprehension needs to be reinforced by having Johnny do lots of reading on his own. Because Johnny is struggling right now, he may not be as willing to engage in this type of reading. Here is where Johnny's obsession with baseball can help us. I have already begun to gather as many books about baseball that I think Johnny can read as I can. Since Johnny knows a lot about baseball, he will already know many of the words he encounters there. If we can help Johnny have success in some reading in a topic he already knows well and is interested in, we may be able to extend his interest to other topics moving forward. Johnny's baseball love should also help us with engaging him in writing, about games he has played or baseball rules or games he has watched. Finally, his interest in baseball may help us expand his decoding ability by using words like bat, ball, base, throw, pitch and run as anchor words for learning other words that fit those patterns.

So as you see, we have a good deal of work to do, but I think an approach that considers all the variables of an active reader will support Johnny the best.

AS: Well, ok, as long as you can assure me he will get that phonics instruction he needs.

HJ: He will.

AS: What can I do at home?

HJ: Continue with your read alouds and talking about what you read. You might consider an arrangement where you choose the reading one night and Johnny the next. Also, you might consider reading to him about baseball from articles in the newspaper or magazines, even the backs of baseball cards can provide some interesting reading. Continue to take advantage of opportunities to write -even making shopping lists. Encourage Johnny to stretch out the words and replicate the sounds he hears. Also, I will be sending home books that we have read in school. Have Johnny read them to you at home for practice. Encourage him to read as smoothly and fluently as he can. He can repeat these readings as many times as you can get him to do it.

AS: Ok. I guess we'll see how it goes.

HJ: Yes. Let's check back in two months and see what progress we notice.

We need to push back at the Science of Reading/Dyslexia narrative by acknowledging parent concern, demonstrating knowledge of the individual child, clearly explaining our instructional goals, and most of all, delivering on our responsibility to meet every child where they are and providing the instruction they need.

For the next post in this series, I would like to look at fighting back at the SOR Narrative through teacher professional development.

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