Editorial: All The Ways NOT to Teach Reading

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I was completely blown away by this article in the Atlantic published April 13th 2018, called, “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years” by Natalie Wexler.  It’s completely accurate and according to my teacher social media feeds– completely divisive. I was thinking about my instructional practices and the practices of teachers I work with every day and realized it is true that we are often consumed with teaching the discrete skills associated with reading and math at the cost of contextualizing our instruction. The basic premise of the article is that we are so obsessed with teaching reading and math, reading and math, reading and math that we have forgotten to teach children about the world. This has resulted in the decontextualization of reading instruction which, it turns out, makes our students poor readers. Although really this is no shock. There is literally nothing more boring than reading worksheets. If my only experience with reading was in the form of worksheets I would likely never have fallen in love with it.

Recently, I have been working one-on-one with a student, in the 3rd grade, who is struggling with reading, who has a very limited vocabulary which in turn, limits her comprehension of text. I was tempted to focus on discrete skills– like teaching her how to find the main idea in a text, how to distinguish fact from opinion, how to make inferences etc.– but to do so, because of the limited time I have with her, (only 30 minutes twice a week), I would be using a series of artificially created reading practice pages with short readings on a given topic that were anything but authentic.

I do believe that there is a place for using these sorts of practice readings– quick assessments, or warm-ups or exit tickets. But like anything we need moderation. I feel that American schools tend to jump on an idea or practice and obsess over it and do it to the complete exclusion of all else until we realize, years down the road, that it didn’t work and was a bad idea. At which point, we throw it out completely and start over with some other buzzy educational idea and proceed to do that to the exclusion of all other things and on and on and on. (e.g. close reading, growth mindset, etc.)

I hemmed and hawed about this because she isn’t getting the main idea, or inferencing or really anything when she is reading for pleasure, but I worried that she would never find that pleasure in reading if all we did were workbook pages. I decided that I would not use those practice readings focusing on individual skills, but instead would read a novel with her. I selected a novel that was on her grade level content-wise, but too hard for her to independently read. We read it together, she read some and then I read a bit more and we would stop to discuss, focusing on those reading skills she needs.

From my interpretation, the article in The Atlantic supports this idea. Wexler is suggesting that schools need to shift their curriculum to teach history and science during large parts of the day and teach reading through these subjects. But, I think the same goes for reading literature. You can learn a lot about the world from reading great books set in different places and times on different themes.

Though not entirely related, the article “Teach Kids When They’re Ready” by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, published on Edutopia in February 2018, talks about how schools are pushing kids to learn skills at earlier and earlier ages. Stixrud and Johnson make the point that American schools are trying to force kindergarteners to learn to read, when often, they are not developmentally ready to do so. This goes for a host of other skills:

“We see this early push all the way through high school. Eighth graders take science classes that used to be taught to ninth graders, and kids in 10th grade read literature that used to be taught in college. In Montgomery County, outside Washington, DC, the school district attempted to teach algebra to most students in eighth grade rather than ninth grade, with the goal of eventually teaching it to most kids in the seventh grade. It was a disaster, with three out of four students failing their final exam. Most eighth graders don’t have sufficiently developed abstract thinking skills to master algebra.”

I read that and I was alarmed, but it also confirmed what I already knew from working in schools. It made me stop and wonder what the heck we are doing. In our pursuit of improving our schools, we are continually choosing instructional practices that hurt our students’ abilities to face the world as readers and thinkers because we are panicked that they aren’t learning enough. We are falling behind in education as a nation precisely because we are unwilling to back up and slow down.  It is particularly alarming since, educationally speaking, we are not world leaders.

Our schools consistently rank lower than many other countries and we don’t seem to be improving. This latest obsession with teaching more advanced concepts to younger and younger kids is the most recent in a long line of poor educational decisions coming down the administrative and bureaucratic pipeline. First the implementation of the NCLB, which sought to improve schools by holding them more accountable for student progress. It succeeded only in creating a culture of obsessive standardized testing without improving student outcomes and started the whole teach to the test craze.  Or the Common Core State Standards, that claim to be making our education more rigorous but are often a ridiculous and attainable goal because they fail to account for the many, many students who are reading and writing significantly below grade level. Often these policies do no harm to those students who would already be successful and come out on top, but are extremely dangerous for the vulnerable populations of students who are expected to meet a higher and higher bar with no ladder.

Go read the article(s) and tell me what you think!


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