Monday, May 17, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 3: Building Bridges with Colleagues

Over the past month I have been exploring the Science of Reading (SOR) narrative that has dominated discussion about reading instruction for the last few years in posts here, here, and here. What I have argued is that the SOR narrative is far too narrow a conceptualization of reading instruction and that making it the dominant mode of instruction is dangerous. The prior posts back up that argument with relevant and recent research. Some readers, while sympathetic to my overall message, have complained that my language in these blogs is confrontational and likely to cut off conversation rather than build bridges. 

I admit that I have used words like "defeat", "fight", "overturn", and "combat", in discussing how we must respond to the SOR narrative. That is because this narrative is being foist upon school leaders, teachers, and children through lobbying groups, state legislatures, and school boards that have bought into this narrow view of reading instruction. My language is aimed at the narrative and those who blindly promote the narrative, not at teachers who are seeking the best way to teach reading and are looking at the SOR narrative and wondering if this is the best way to go. To those colleagues, I do indeed seek, and hope we all seek, to build bridges. Here are some ways we might be able to do that.

Despite disagreements on how best to teach reading, there are some things we can all agree on. In conversation with colleagues let's start there. After establishing our basic agreements, let's explore together what the research says. Finally, let's agree to try instructional strategies with our students, gather some informal data and report back to each other on how things are going. These conversations can be either formally structured professional learning committees, informal book groups, or just two colleagues getting together to explore their understandings.

Start with the Things on which We All Can Agree

  • No matter our philosophical differences when it comes to instruction, all teachers want all children to develop both the skill to be a successful reader and the will to be a lifelong reader.
  • We can all agree that children need to learn to hear and segment the sounds in words (phonological awareness).
  • We can all agree that in order to be successful readers children must learn to rapidly decode words based on their knowledge of how words work (phonics, onset-rime, morphology).
  • We can all agree that the goal of reading is comprehension and that skilled comprehension requires prior knowledge, content specific vocabulary, fluent reading, and use of a variety of comprehension strategies.
  • We can all agree that reading aloud to children helps to develop comprehension, vocabulary, and interest in reading.
  • We can all agree that no matter how good our instruction in reading is, children will learn most of what they need to know for skilled reading by doing actual reading, so motivating children to be engaged readers is part of the teacher's job.
Work Together to Learn What the Current Research Says
Try Things Out in the Classroom
  • Invite teacher volunteers to try new ideas, strategies, and approaches out in the classrooms and report back to the group.
  • Set up opportunities to observe each other teaching using strategies discussed together and meet in groups to discuss what was observed. I like to think of this kind of activity as similar to "making rounds" in the medical profession. We need to find time to learn from each other.
This kind of work takes time. It also takes cooperation from the administration. It would be wonderful if this sort of professional learning time was already built into the school day, but I know in most cases it is not. 

The important perspective here is that fighting back at the SOR narrative demands expanding everyone's understanding of the breadth of possibility in reading instruction. Whatever side of the fence you might find yourself on, don't we owe it to the children to provide them with everything we know that works, not just a type of instruction that we personally favor?

Next time I will look at how teachers can communicate a more balanced view of instruction to school leaders and community groups.

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