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Time to Try a Different Way to Teach Reading

Published in ChicagoNow, April 23, 2018

The only volunteer job I ever quit was being a reading fluency tutor shortly after I retired. The job was simple enough. I took fourth grade students whose reading skills were deemed below grade level, one at a time, to a quiet area in the hallway and asked them to read a passage three times. My job was to time how long each reading took, count how many errors the student made, and plot the results on a graph. Theoretically, the child’s score would improve with each reading.

I failed miserably because I couldn’t bear to follow the directions. The readings were incredibly boring and I knew the children didn’t comprehend what they had read. When they stumbled over unfamiliar words, I took time between readings to explain what they meant. When the task was finished, I tried to explain the content of what they had read. I also cheated. I wanted the child to see improvement by the third reading of passages that included material like this:

Eskimos are a people who live near the Arctic. It is very cold there. For thousands of years, the Eskimos found ways to live in the cold. Most of them lived near the sea. The sea gave them food. They hunted seals and whales. They caught fish. On land, they hunted a kind of deer called the caribou. The Eskimos made clothing from the skins of animals they hunted. In summer most Eskimos made tents of animal skins…”

Here’s the thing. I was tutoring urban children who had never been taught geography, so the Arctic meant nothing to them. Many had never heard of Eskimos. They struggled to read words about something that had nothing to do with their lives or anything they had learned yet. When a girl pointed out that her score had actually gone down from the previous week, I reassured her that she was reading a different passage this time. This was no reflection on her or how hard she was trying. And then I quit.

I’m not proud of that, but this task was so alien to what I believed in as a parent, grandparent, and retired educator. If I had been told to read a high interest book with her and stop periodically to be sure she understood its content, I would have stayed. Reciting words without any interest in comprehending them was not my thing.

Despite efforts to “leave no child behind” under President Bush and trying to “race to the top” under President Obama, reading scores in the United States have remained flat for 20 years. And the performance gap between low income kids and their affluent peers has stubbornly remained considerable. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine how teaching kids to read without teaching them the historical or scientific background behind what they are reading or exposing them to literature that resonates with their interests is a mistake. Reading for the sake of reading words without understanding the ideas behind them makes no sense to me. This is why I was such a flop with teaching fluency when the kids I was tutoring demonstrated little interest in or understanding of the passages they had to read.

According to an article by Natalie Wexler in The Atlantic,

“the root of the problem is the way schools teach reading. The current instructional approach, they agreed, is based on assumptions about how children learn that have been disproven by research over the last several decades—research that the education world has largely failed to heed.”

The first several years of elementary school these days are devoted to teaching reading separate from exposing children to history, science, and the arts. For example, one of my granddaughters, who is an excellent reader, found reading at school extremely boring. And one of my grandsons, who a math and engineering whiz, has struggled with leveled readers that don’t tap into anything that interests him.

For my granddaughter, it wasn’t until middle school that she was finally exposed to much history, science, or art education. The narrow school curriculum focused on reading and math didn’t harm her in that she comes from a book-filled home where she was encouraged to read things that interested her and write just for fun. If she didn’t understand the context of what she read, her parents were able to provide background knowledge. But what about her peers who don’t have that kind of support at home and haven’t visited museums to gain background knowledge? What about kids like my grandson who could be motivated to be better readers if given material that held their interest? Like the students I attempted to tutor in reading fluency, they may learn to decode the words without comprehending the content of what they are reading.

Wexler states that,

“The curriculum in many elementary schools has narrowed to little more than a steady diet of reading and math. And when test scores fail to rise after third grade—as they often do, especially in high-poverty schools—subjects like history and science may continue to be relegated to the far back burner through middle school… educators have also treated the other component of reading—comprehension—as a set of skills, when in fact it depends primarily on what readers already know.”

Rather than giving students good literature to read or books they can relate to, students often receive leveled non-fiction readings on topics that do not relate to one another. Wexler cites Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, who believes students’ ability to comprehend depends on their background knowledge and vocabulary about a topic. Thus, reading the same passage three times in a row will not help them discern the main idea of a reading about something totally alien to what they know.

This is especially true for students with learning disabilities and other special needs. I have experienced first-hand helping another of my grandkids with her reading homework. She’s a fluent reader but struggles with comprehension. Her ability to answer questions about the random leveled readings she brings home varies greatly depending on her interest in and familiarity with the topic. On the other hand, reading a book that interests her and stopping after each chapter to talk about what happened will elicit answers that reflect a better understanding of the text.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered in 2017,

“Show no change at all for 4th grade in either subject [math or reading] or for 8th graders… [the] meager gain in reading was driven entirely by the top 25 percent of students… Over the past decade, the results for students with special needs have been grimmer. Students with disabilities nationwide had an average scale score of 214 out of 500 in 4th grade reading in 2017, right at the cutoff for NAEP’s ‘basic’ level of performance. That’s the lowest average performance for this group since 2003… Similarly, 8th grade English-language learners have not improved significantly in reading since 2003.”

I understand the idea behind the focus on teaching reading as a discrete skill separate from knowledge of its content. If a child becomes a fluent reader with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, that child will be better able to understand content. And yet, I have seen for myself how this doesn’t work for many children. I’ll confess I’m not a reading teacher, just someone who loves to read to and with children. Yet I can’t help wondering why, after twenty-some years of trying the same approach while tests scores remain flat and the gap between the haves and the have-nots remains stubbornly wide, it isn’t time to try a different approach.

In 1955, Rudolph Flesch wrote the book Why Johnny Can’t Read which advocated teaching phonics. By the 90s, whole language was in vogue. In many schools today, kids still memorize lists of sight words and bring home spelling lists with the objective of memorizing twenty words, taking a test, and getting a new list the next week. It doesn’t seem to matter if they know what the words mean or how they can be used in their writing. Perhaps if Johnny were given a high-interest, well written book at his reading level or just above, he would be motivated to google the words he doesn’t understand and could actually explain the meaning of what he read.


by Laurie Levy
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