Hope, Help and a Bright Future for Students Learning, Reading, Writing

Note: In a session at Impact Florida’s 2019 Summit, panelist Sue Pimentel was asked about instructional  practices and challenges that kept her up at night when it comes to literacy instruction in our schools. Here she reflects on the thoughts she shared at the summit. 

There is hope for literacy instruction.

I am encouraged about growing students’ literacy and promoting the joy of teaching reading and writing, particularly today, with the wealth of new curricula on the market. We’re in the middle of a “curriculum renaissance.” These new materials work because they include strong foundational skills instruction, close reading with complex texts to get students ready for college, and anchor literacy instruction in knowledge building.

But I also have a real concern, and it’s the scarcity of foundational skills instruction in many classrooms, particularly those using older materials.

This is a festering problem that continues to plague us nationwide. Way too many students get to third grade unable to read or unable to read as well as they should. Not being able to read by the time they enter the upper elementary years is catastrophic for students and disastrous for us as a country. It leads to a downward spiral for too many children: from falling behind in learning to dropping out of school to not being able to earn enough to support themselves upon graduation.

What can we do? We can make sure teachers learn what they didn’t learn in their teacher preparation classes (through no fault of their own), namely the science of reading and phonics.

It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that if we provide children with lots of books, that somehow—like through osmosis—students will learn to read. But that doesn’t always happen, or happen as quickly as we expect, especially for students who arrive at school more isolated from texts than others. Explicit, daily, systematic foundational skills instruction—45 minutes to an hour a day— is critical to these students’ success.

I want to emphasize that there is a troubling social-emotional aspect at work here too. Too often we equate struggling readers with being “dumb’’ and we treat these students like they don’t have the cognitive chops to handle grade-level work. Students know when we think their brain isn’t worth much and it can be debilitating. They are not dumb; they just haven’t cracked the code yet and deserve more instruction and assistance.

What I’m describing is not ‘drill and kill.’ Learning how to read need not be tedious. As I found with my six-year-old grandson recently, it was like magic to him when he finally ‘cracked the code’ and could read a sentence on his own. As part of direct instruction, whole group reading instruction can be chock full of games, movement and music. Added to that, students can practice, enrich, and enhance their phonics learning through other interesting activities (including reading decodable texts) in small groups or classroom learning centers.

I believe in challenging students – all students. You know what I say to questions about the research behind matching students to books? I say, “There isn’t any!” Leveled reading theory can be traced back to one doctoral dissertation in 1946 without any study or follow-up research.

There are plenty of studies, however, that show that when students gain regular access to complex, content-rich texts, they read better and learn more. When students are interested and engaged in the topic they are reading about, research shows they read better and learn more. Knowledge of the topic has a more significant impact on students’ comprehension than does their generalized reading ability.

That means students need to have access to a lot of content-rich texts connected to the topics and themes of the grade-level complex texts they are reading. And these texts should be made available at a range of complexity levels because a student doesn’t have one reading level; each student has many levels depending on her existing knowledge base and interest. Offering less complex texts on a topic supports a student’s access to more complex texts by building her knowledge and vocabulary.

I’m often asked, “How can we best support teachers?’’ Teachers are professionals and they deserve our admiration. The work they do in classrooms is hard, good, and vital work. When we ask teachers to change the way they do things, they deserve to understand why! They need the research and the evidence behind the necessary instructional changes. That way, we can recommit to teaching students to be literate, but also to love reading and the knowledge they can acquire in this world. To the well-settled research on learning to read, we need to add a measure of time, a dose of grit, and a dash of joy to teaching so no child is ever left behind or made to feel a failure.

Sue Pimentel is a Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners. She is also a co-founder of StandardsWork, a nonprofit leading the Knowledge Matters campaign.

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