I recently received a message from my friend, Amir:
“Maurna, I wanted to get your feedback on this article. I taught English for 8+ years and my final M.Ed. project was on reading, so this is a passion of mine. When I used to prepare NYC public school teachers for their licensing exams, they would likely do better on the reading passages if they had more background knowledge, even though that knowledge was not needed. I wonder if we are being unrealistic in our teaching of reading?”
The article, “Why We’re Teaching Reading Comprehension in a Way That Doesn’t Work” was written by Natalie Wexler and published by Forbes magazine a few months ago. The title and Amir’s wondering about whether we teachers are out of touch or impractical struck a nerve and launched weeks of further reading, reflecting, writing, rewriting, and restless nights. I felt my initial response was too defensive and I was determined to find a level-headed way to share my take on the article. I gained empathy for my students who struggle daily with writing—it has always come easily for me but not this time. I felt like the kid who gets so frustrated with their writing that they scrunch their paper into a wadded-up ball then chuck it into the garbage can only to retrieve it, smooth it out to read it over, and try to fix it one more time. I reached out to my literacy-guru teacher friends and asked for their honest feedback on my writing. And finally, I decided to try starting over in an effort to find my voice and say what really needs to be said.
The article by Wexler, like much of her writing over the years, sounds the alarm for all the things woefully wrong with today’s education system. Her laundry list of complaints includes dangerously inadequate teacher education programs, teachers and professors who ignore the need to understand and teach phonics, teachers who present lesson after lesson on comprehension strategies instead of building background knowledge, teachers who focus on independent reading levels instead of pushing text that is much more sophisticated and advanced, teachers wasting time on things not endorsed by the National Reading Panel, and, finally, teachers who challenge or flat out refuse to consider scientifically-backed research on how reading proficiency is acquired and should be taught. It is quite the list.
At first, I thought the best approach was to pick apart Wexler’s writing, first by summarizing it and then offering my stance on whether I agreed or disagreed with her assertions. In order to accomplish that, I examined just about every link or reference in her article (more than two dozen). This is where I encountered the most difficulty in my earlier attempts to compose an answer for my friend Amir.
There was just so much that didn’t sit right with me. Wexler, along with her colleague Emily Hanford, and many other “education writers” refer to The National Reading Panel’s report from 2001 to strengthen their case for emphasizing the “science” of teaching reading. Yet an article written by Joann Yatvin, a member of the NRP, decries the report for being hugely misinterpreted and misused. Yatvin might hold the “minority view” of the NRP, but her exposé of the panel’s report as “narrow, biased, and elitist” cannot and should not be ignored.
When considering Ms. Wexler’s article title about why we’re teaching reading in a way that doesn’t work, I considered sharing a snapshot of what she or anyone visiting my classroom might find happening in Room 212 when it comes to literacy learning:
- Kids writing letters to authors of books they’ve fallen in love with.
- Kids doing research and writing about a wide range of self-selected topics such as homelessness, African American molecular biologist Ernest Everett Just, and ancient civilizations (to name just a few).
- Kids with voice and choice begging for more time to read independently.
- Kids asking to stay in from recess, so they can do more writing.
- Kids performing little plays for younger students.
- Kids doing art.
- Kids engaged in joyful learning.
- Kids learning how to be creative problem solvers, open-minded risk takers, and kind, compassionate people.
I would love to ask Ms. Wexler to explain what it is exactly that isn’t working in our vibrant learning community?!
What about Amir’s question: are we being unrealistic in our teaching of reading? My answer would have to be, “Yes.” In my opinion, education writers like Wexler and Hanford, legislators all across the country, and even school administrators are being unrealistic when they suggest that the best or only answer to improved reading proficiency (aka better reading test scores) is a scripted, packaged, reading curriculum that is hell-bent on pushing core knowledge or huge doses of phonics. Wexler believes that the bright spot on the horizon is the uptick in “elementary literacy curricula designed to build students’ knowledge.” What a sad statement on so many levels. Insisting teachers follow a manual for a program that touts “scientifically-backed research” is not the answer. A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching reading comprehension is not the answer.
I must acknowledge that I, too, am being unrealistic. I have a deep passion for teaching and for literacy. It’s hard for me to admit, but I know not all teachers share that passion. Not all teachers have had the same good fortune I’ve had to learn from wonderful mentors. Not all teachers are encouraged to take risks and feel confident in what they can accomplish with their students. For many different reasons, it is sad but true, there are adults in teaching roles (luckily in my experience, I’ve met only a few) who see themselves as babysitters, are not interested in life-long learning, and occasionally act like they don’t even like kids. I wish I had an answer about how to guarantee all teachers were highly qualified, filled with passion, and loved kids. But I would bet my bottom dollar that the vast majority of teachers strive to achieve these qualities, despite being blamed so often for all that’s wrong with education.
Wexler, along with other education commentators and researchers seem to know all about “the science” of reading. They volunteer as tutors. They test students to determine whether they are proficient readers using their own criteria or high stakes tests that are riddled with bias. They are quick to point out all the things that are wrong with today’s teachers and classrooms and then they offer their easy-to-fix-it solutions (“buy a better reading curriculum, teach more content so students gain more background knowledge”).
The glaring problem from my vantage point, however, is what they don’t do.
- They don’t seem to get it that spending 165 days a year with a group of 25–30 wonderfully diverse and brilliant kids might garner them more street cred.
- They don’t seem to get it that improving vocabulary and background knowledge starts with improving the severe economic and racial divides in our society that create classrooms filled with “haves” and “have-nots.”
- They don’t seem to get it that the kids who lack adequate vocabulary and background knowledge are often kids who have not had the benefit of attending pre-school.
- They don’t seem to get it that while the “science” of teaching reading is important, the “art” of teaching reading is and should be of even greater stature.
- And finally, they really don’t seem to get it that we teach kids before we teach reading, writing, math, science, or any other subject.
No, Ms. Wexler, our teachers and schools are not failing because we are ignoring the research and are not imparting enough knowledge. However, we teachers, the majority of us who invest extra time, our own money, our heart and soul, who spend day after day, year after year, with dozens, even hundreds of kids (who for many of us become a second family), we teachers have a plethora of knowledge that only teachers have. It’s knowledge that can’t be learned until you begin your first day on the job. We do whatever it takes to know, really know, our students. We also know that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And that kind of knowledge won’t be found in any literacy curricula. That kind of knowledge is what I believe makes teaching reading a work of art.
A final note to my friend, Amir. You mentioned helping teachers prepare for the teaching exams and noted that they did better if they had more background knowledge. I cannot dispute the fact that more background knowledge comes in handy when taking a test and it most definitely makes a difference when it comes to comprehension.
There is a serious need for students, especially English language learners, to gain as much background knowledge and vocabulary as possible.
All kids must have a solid foundation that includes phonics and phonemic awareness so that solid decoding will lead to fluency which opens the door to greater comprehension and vocabulary. The goal is to not only teach kids how to read, but to instill the desire to want to read. The science is there but the art is achieved by inspiring kids to develop a love of reading.