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February 1, 2020

One to Grow On / Invitations to Read

For reading, especially, one-size-fits-all fits no one.
Instructional Strategies
One to Grow On / Invitations to Read thumbnail
Some years ago, I was working with some teachers in Idaho on ways to make their instruction a better fit for the full range of their students. My host, a Boise Schools administrator named Jo Henderson, and I went out for lunch on one of those days, and a woman who looked to be in her 80s waved as she saw Jo enter the restaurant. As Jo introduced me to her long-time colleague, she told her I was working with teachers on differentiation. Her friend responded, "What's that?" As I explained the concept, she cocked her head and said, "I think maybe I did that, but I didn't have a name for it."
She went on to explain that she had taught 1st graders and that helping her students become readers was very important to her. "During my first year," she said, "I worked diligently to teach them all in the way I'd learned to teach reading at the university. Many of them were reading confidently at the end of that year—but some weren't. So, during the summer after my first year of teaching, I thought about where those students were 'stuck' and developed a second way of teaching reading to target those areas of need. The next year, when a student wasn't learning to read with my first approach, I changed to the second one for that child. More students learned to read that year, but some still did not."
This teacher recounted following the same pattern over the course of the next three years and summers, and concluded with, "By the time I retired, I had about eight approaches to teaching reading. I studied students' strengths and challenges to select an approach that seemed a match for that student. Over time, virtually all my students went on to 2nd grade as confident readers."
I think Jo's colleague did, in fact, understand differentiation—and reading, and human beings. We humans are an assorted lot. We develop complex skills in varied ways along varying timetables and for an array of reasons.

Individual Differences Matter

The "Reading Wars" aside, there is general agreement that developing as a reader requires the ability to hear, recognize, and manipulate individual sounds in words (phonemic awareness), grasping the relationship between sounds and letters (phonics), understanding word meaning (vocabulary), reading naturally and quickly (fluency), and understanding what a text is saying (comprehension). While those are elements that most students need to master in order to be recognized as "readers," it's trickier to predict the order in which a student will need to encounter the elements, the amount of initial and follow-up practice that would best serve a particular student, or the mixture of elements most advantageous to a given learner at a given time. The more rigid our teaching protocols are, the more likely they are to fail some students.
Reading is more than mechanics, of course. It's a venture of the heart and spirit as well. The wrong mix, proportion, or order of attention to brain, heart, and spirit will, for some learners, make things go awry.
I have seen children who were fluent and eager readers when they entered school shut down when they were told they could not read because they "hadn't mastered phonics"—meaning they hadn't gone through an explicit sequence of phonics-learning activities. In some cases, it took years before a student read again with confidence or joy. Likewise, I've seen some students who found phonics exercises to be so meaningless that they became "behavior problems" as a means of escape. Conversely, I observed students who were largely dysfunctional as readers in middle school because they had never learned to unlock the sound-symbol codes.
I have watched students who "couldn't read" basic elementary text be captivated by a Harry Potter book that they devoured almost non-stop—joy seemingly becoming a pathway to greater proficiency with mechanics. Similarly, I have worked with secondary students who insisted they were non-readers because school-based reading seemed so wholly pointless that they could not stick with it. At home, however, those same students regularly read directions for complex games or absorbed magazines on motorcycles.
I've observed children who sank to the bottom of the reading continuum and remained there despite receiving explicit, sequential instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary—until community volunteers came to the school to regularly do "rocking chair reading" with them. They would take these readers one by one, sitting with the child as they rocked and read in an area of the school foyer set aside for the activity. As the child's need for human connection with a book began to be met, he or she found connection in the act of reading and "signed on" to reading work that had previously felt alien.
I have watched "non-readers" begin to read when a teacher focused on what a student could do rather than what they seemed unable to do. Released from the weight of daily fear and failure, those students began to develop a level of self-efficacy that enabled them to once again risk learning to read. I've seen secondary students extricated from endless struggles with reading by a teacher or specialist who discovered and built on student strengths (while addressing background gaps in reading). That individualized attention and flexibility made the difference: Students in that same age range can lose all connection with "doing school" because well-meaning reading specialists continued year after year to "teach the students to read" using exactly the same approaches that had failed them in a string of previous years.
I've seen middle grade and high school students who were weak readers lose themselves in books for the first time when they finally had the opportunity to read a book that spoke to them of their lives and the world they sought to understand. Those of us who have the opportunity to help shape a young person's identity as a reader would do well to attend to mastery of mechanics, hunger for connection, and the power of joy as inseparable. For many students, they are.

What We Know, What We Need to Know

We know a great deal more about teaching reading than we did just two decades ago—and all indications are that we are not yet finished learning. Like the retired teacher in Idaho, we are likely to be more successful educators—and our students more successful readers—when we continually seek to understand both teaching methods and the human beings to whom we apply those methods.
I'm a fan of John Hattie's (2009) admonition that asking "what works?" can be barren. A wiser, more caring approach is to ask what works best, compared to what alternatives, and for whom.
End Notes

1 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

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