I spend a good deal of time reading about, watching, and listening to resources that address effective literacy instruction. Almost every one of these resources has a strong connection to the Science of Reading, “…a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based* research about reading and issues related to reading and writing,” as defined by The Reading League’s, “The Science of Reading, A Defining Movement.” Recently, I listened to an interview with Jessica Pasik, a New York State reading specialist, on Teaching, Reading & Learning: The Reading League Podcast, Episode 6. During the interview, Jessica mentioned this quote, “You don’t have to be bad to get better.”
Now let’s just think about that phrase for a minute. You don’t have to be bad to get better. Wowza – it’s a doozy! Of course, I’m going to reflect on its implications around reading instruction, but it sure does have implications for any practice we participate in.
In reflecting on this powerhouse statement, I’ve arrived at three approaches or thought patterns that might develop from this phrase: 1) I’m a great teacher (coach, mechanic, boss, waitress, lawyer, blogger, runner, mom, dad…), so I don’t need to improve OR 2) I’m a terrible teacher; I keep hearing about different approaches to instruction that don’t match up with what I’ve always done, so I must be bad OR 3) I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’m willing to learn and improve my practice to do what is best for students.
A Running Analogy
As a runner, I can adopt any of the three thought patterns: 1) I’m great at running and there is nothing I need to do to improve OR 2) I am such a terrible runner that I’m going to quit even trying OR 3) I’m pretty good at running, but there is always room for improvement. I think we can agree that the third approach is the best approach, no matter the practice we are referring to. Honestly, I have probably adopted all three thought patterns throughout my running “career.” I work hard to land in that third area. I am a pretty decent runner: I’ve been at it since I was in junior high; I’m committed enough to it that I run four times a week, almost without fail; I’ve trained for and completed two half-marathons, as well as many 5K and 10K races. I’m not exactly a speed demon (nor do I strive to be), but I reap the benefits, both mentally and physically, of regular cardiovascular exercise. And I know I can improve, particularly when it comes to running form, so as to prevent injury. My knees are a wreck; there are practices that I can put into place to improve their condition. So I continue to read about those practices. I continue to remind myself in those early, early morning hours when it’s so tough to get out of bed, that it’s worth it every time: I will be in a MUCH better mental state for the day if I get out and go for that run (and practice good form while I’m at it to protect those knees!).
As it Applies to Teaching
As teachers, if we get stuck in one of the first two thought patterns (I’m a great teacher and don’t need to improve OR I’m a terrible teacher and nothing I do will ever be good enough), we are performing a terrible disservice to those who matter most in our profession: our students. In my experience, the vast majority of teachers hover closest to the third thought pattern (I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’m willing to learn and improve). The second thought pattern creeps in when we are confronted with change around instruction, and aren’t ready to embrace the change, often because it has come at us without a “Why“… or we weren’t ready to hear the “Why.”
As it Applies to Effective Reading Instruction (Aligned with the Science of Reading)
In The Reading League’s interview with Jessica Pasik, she references the phrase, “You don’t have to be bad to get better,” when she is speculating on the reason for teachers’ resistance to aligning reading instruction with the Science of Reading. She explains (brilliantly!) that it is very scary to change, because it implies that what I was doing before was bad. But what if we could instead recognize that what we were previously doing with reading instruction wasn’t bad: it was the best we knew at the time? As we build our knowledge base, we will continue to do better. “Know Better, Do Better,” is a liberating mindset to adopt, and is also the title of a terrific book (especially for Preschool – third grade teachers), by David Liben and Meredith Liben.
If you are new to the Science of Reading (SOR), there are so many fabulous places to begin your journey to a place of understanding! The first step toward understanding might be an analysis of the Simple View of Reading, as explained in this graphic:
Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope further expands on the Simple View of Reading (I think of Scarborough’s Rope as the Simple View on steroids):
My own journey actually didn’t begin with either of these graphics. It was sparked by an article written by the amazing APM journalist, Emily Hanford: Hard Words, September 2018, and further ignited by her two subsequent articles: At a Loss for Words, August 2019, and What the Words Say, August 2020. Knowledge about the Science of Reading has been around for 40+ years, but it is finally gaining it’s long overdue attention because of the work of folks like Emily Hanford and the Reading League’s founders, Maria Murray and Jorene Cook. Dr. Murray and Dr. Cook describe part of their journey (Teaching, Reading & Learning: The Reading League Podcast, Episode 5) in establishing The Reading League: their first challenge was to understand the Science of Reading; their current challenge is to protect the Science of Reading. As it has gained momentum, it can often be misunderstood and/or misused, in an effort to push efforts that don’t actually align with the Science of Reading. I frequently find myself getting nervous about that very thing (the misuse or misunderstanding of SOR), so am comforted in knowing that the right people are on a mission to preserve its integrity.
No matter where you are at in your journey to improve your own literacy instruction (or any other practice), remember what Drs. Murray and Cook, have to say: “There is no shame in not knowing; the shame is in not doing anything about it.”