There are so many times in education when we seek the “one thing” that will ensure all of our students can read/can learn at high levels. I reflected on this notion in a recent blogpost titled The Mythical Silver Bullet, at the end of which I concluded, “…which is all to say that the business of education is hard work.” It sure is!
Something that makes the work easier… and tougher… is remaining open to learning about instructional practices that are backed by evidence. Educators are both blessed and cursed to have so much access to information about such practices. My own attempts to finding the (non-existent) one clear answer have led me to many knowledgeable folks who continue to contribute to the field so that all children can read.
In a recent Reading Horizons Literacy Talks podcast episode, “The Trifecta” (a term I have reverently assigned to Donell Pons, Stacy Hurst, and Lindsay Kemeny), addresses the idea that there is not one clear answer when it comes to reading instruction. The title of the episode, “Being Intentional about the ‘Why‘” does give listeners a clue that although there is not one clear answer, we can rely on brain science to limit our approaches to reading instruction. We do know what is happening in the brain with skilled readers and what is happening in the brain with unskilled readers. As Donell Pons states, “That is powerful information!”
As we try to implement that mythical “one thing” in our classrooms, we can feel confident that when we base our practice on evidence and brain science rather than personal philosophy, we will get the results we so greatly desire. If I were still operating the way I did five years ago, I would be leaning on personal philosophy, which at that time sounded something like this, “If we just surround kids with quality literature and continue to find the ‘just right’ book for each reader, they will read.” It’s embarrassing to admit that I held tight to that philosophy for the majority of my 23 years in the classroom, before taking on the role of our district literacy coach.
I now know that instruction must occur systematically and explicitly to significantly increase the likelihood that students will even be able to read. It’s awfully tough to enjoy reading if you don’t know how! Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope is a perfect illustration of the fact that there is not one clear answer to reading instruction. There are many pieces that need to be in place to ensure skilled reading.
There is concern that educators may tip the scales of reading instruction toward the “Word Recognition” strands of the Reading Rope. Stacy Hurst reminds us, “We need to be more intentional about how we address those upper stands on Scarborough’s Reading Rope.” Both upper and lower strands need to be addressed and, “There is no fast route to this…” as Donell Pons reminds us. Stacy Hurst adds, “It is that balance between knowledge and practice… knowing only really happens when we apply it,” as Lindsay Kemeny is doing successfully in her first grade classroom!
Timothy Shanahan, whose biography is impressive to say the least, and contributions to the field are invaluable, maintains a heavy focus on research because, “…it’s the only one that explicitly bases the judgment on student learning.” In a recent blogpost, “It Works” and Other Myths of the Science of Reading Era, Shanahan states, “…Our instructional methods don’t have automatic effects. We, as teachers, make these methods work.”
We can utilize a program that has been proven to have positive impacts on learning, but it’s not as easy as just having the right program/curriculum. Teacher effort and efficacy come into play. “Lackadaisical implementation of instruction is never likely to have good results. The teacher who thinks passive implementation of a science-based program is what works is in for a sad awakening… But teacher buy-in, teacher effort, and teacher desire to see a program work for the kids are all ingredients in success.” Shanahan’s blogpost speaks directly to the point Rivet Education made in a recent blogpost:
There is not one clear answer. Ho hum.
Natalie Wexler, journalist and author, was a recent guest on Amplify’s Science of Reading: The Podcast. This special episode, hosted by the amazing Susan Lambert, was made even more special by the fact that Natalie Wexler was the very first guest on the podcast in 2019. “Now—more than three years and three million downloads later—Science of Reading: The Podcast welcomes Natalie back on the show.” Special indeed.
Wexler hit on some of the very points made in the Literacy Talks podcast: phonics is not enough. We have to be careful of the pendulum swing: some people, who have a gross misunderstanding of the Science of Reading, think that if we just add more phonics, we will solve the illiteracy problem. Again, there is not one clear answer.
In The Knowledge Gap and in most of her “Minding the Gap” newsletters, also featured in Forbes magazine, Wexler places a strong emphasis on the importance of knowledge-building. She points out that using materials/curricula aligned with building content knowledge is a giant step toward fixing “America’s broken education system.”
Some might question the advantage of utilizing a knowledge-building curriculum with the following argument, “But you can’t possibly teach all the topics in the world, so how does a knowledge-building curriculum help?” Wexler points out that it builds their general academic knowledge and vocabulary and their familiarity with complex syntax. We know that increased general vocabulary knowledge correlates with better reading comprehension. “The way to that general knowledge is through knowledge of specific topics.”
Wexler adds that a critical component of a knowledge-building curriculum is solid writing instruction, which must first begin at the sentence level. This idea is brilliantly explained in the Writing Revolution, a book that Wexler co-authored with Judith Hochman. In order for knowledge to “stick,” students must be afforded the opportunity to process the knowledge through reading, thinking, writing, and speaking. Wexler is essentially describing the Read, Think, Talk, Write cycle – a central tenet of the EL Education curriculum. This same approach is present in other knowledge-building curriculums like Core Knowledge Language Arts, Wit and Wisdom, Bookworms, and American Reading Company.
Keeping it Simple
Many teachers are overwhelmed. Some are feeling ill-equipped to address the varying needs of our students. Earlier this week, a teacher in our district said, “We need to remove things from our plates before adding more to them.” I couldn’t agree more. And I think that removal begins with a careful inspection of everything that is on our own plate. Are there items on that over-flowing plate that I am holding onto, but nobody has asked me to? In other words, am I holding on to old practices, relying on my personal philosophy, while trying to pile on those items that my administration is requiring. A personal audit might just go a long way in removing items that I have not intentionally reviewed.
Our work with Solution Tree consultant Kim Cano has led to the development of clear district and building goals. In addition to these goals, district administration has outlined action steps to meet those goals. One action steps includes a focus on three instructional expectations:
#1 – Teacher uses total participation techniques to engage a variety of learners.
#2 – Students do the majority of thinking or questioning to clarify or build on each others’ thinking.
#3 – Teachers use frequent checks for understanding to assess student learning.
Our instructional coaching staff has developed a tool to assist in collecting data around usage of these three high-leverage practices. The tool itself has not been received warmly, as it is seen as “one more thing.” At the end of the day, it’s not about the tool as much as the end goal: high levels of learning for all students. Whether teachers use the tool or not is beside the point; the point is this: are we intentionally making use of those practices that are known to improve student learning?
Again, there is not one clear answer to ensuring all students can read (can learn). I am firmly convinced, however, that narrowing our focus – limiting items on our plate – will lead to greater teacher efficacy which, in turn, will lead to high levels of learning for all students.
The closest this educator can get to the mythical one right answer is this: Be open to learning and be brave enough to adjust instruction based on evidence.