How Johnny (and Janie) Can Learn to Read

One of the most serious issues in American education today is how to teach effectively those children who have difficulty with learning to read. As a key to successful education, the most tested subject -- along with math -- in the present "accountability" craze, it is vital for reading specialists to be up to date on the latest research to know the best way to teach young learners how to become fluent readers. But according to an article published a year ago by Louisa Moats in the Journal of Learning Disabilities:

In our classrooms, workshops, and research studies, we find that teachers often feel unprepared to address the instructional needs of students with language, reading, and writing problems, although these groups compose the large majority of those in remedial and special education... Although the quality of implementation of an instructional program has everything to do with its success, poor implementation is a major reason why students at risk fail to progress.

Although I will always maintain that there is a significant correlation between poverty and inadequate schooling and learning, I realize that many students with learning disabilities are not necessarily that way solely because of poverty. Those who come from privileged families get the benefit of intensive therapy from private sources as well as their well-funded schools to improve their reading, while many poorer students don't have that opportunity. Yet, if the best practices are not being used to help young learners overcome their disabilities, then even the most intensive interventions could prove inadequate.

Based on surveys on course content at teacher's colleges Moats concludes:

Special education in teacher licensing programs are often insufficient in content and design to enable students to learn the subject matter and apply it to the teaching of reading.

In a forthcoming book that provides a guide to best practices in teaching reading, Equipped for Reading Success, David Kilpatrick, Assistant Professor of psychology at SUNY, Cortland, observes that: "Nearly one third of elementary school children are substantially behind grade level in reading." Kilpatrick notes that "many children who display school behavior problems are poor readers" and "a disproportionate number of high school dropouts are poor readers." Yet in a SUNY at Albany study "researchers were able to reduce the number of children who require ongoing remediation from the national average of 30% down to about 2%!" Although Kilpatrick adds that this study "included daily one-on-one tutoring, which is not possible in most schools." He has received reports from schools that have implemented the practice used in the Albany study and in what is called the Assured Readiness for Learning (ARL) program with the result that "some schools have reduced the remedial reading population by 70% or more."

I am often skeptical of a "magic bullet" when in comes to solutions to educational issues as I have shown in my criticism of charter schools and high-stakes testing, but I believe that if there is proven results in these methods of improving student reading, they should be widely implemented. According to Kilpatrick:

These [findings] are based upon a body of research published in scientific journals (largely inaccessible to classroom teachers) that has resulted from countless millions of federal and state dollars in research grants by those in the finest universities here and abroad.

Yet, according to Moats' study, these methods are not being frequently used by reading teachers.

A clear obstacle to improvement of the disciplinary knowledge base for reading instruction is the dearth of good textbooks and teaching material for teacher preparation and professional development

as well as more thorough instruction for teachers who are studying this vital part of the profession. She cites the Texas Higher Education Collaborative as a model in which

student teachers prepared by faculty members in the collaborative have been shown to obtain better student outcomes than instructors from nonparticipating programs. This model could be beneficial if replicated throughout the nation.

But it should be made clear that using these practices for teaching reading to students with learning problems isn't easy. The method being used by these more successful reading specialists is a complex, demanding and intensive procedure that, according to Kilpatrick, involves students in "word mapping," a term he coined. Word mapping enables children to read via orthographic [a clear recollection for the specific letter-sequence in written words] memory rather than through simple word memorization, the traditional way of teaching reading. Word mapping is Kilpatrick's term

for what scientists discovered about the mental process children use to store words for instant and effortless retrieval. While phonics appears to be an essential skill for learning to read, at some point children see a word and instantly identify it without sounding out the word. Word mapping describes how this transition happens.

Average to above average readers are good at this process. Poor readers are weak at this process.

This major finding... is literally unknown to 99.9% of our educators that we now have a good understanding of this process, and it should drive our instructional efforts... Most teachers work from the assumption that we store words through visual memory. That's totally intuitive--it feels that way. But it is patently incorrect, as countless studies have shown.

These methods are not the same as either phonics or whole word methodologies which turned into "reading wars" in previous decades but it is the product of thirty years of trial and error. Yet, some

fairly discouraging research has emerged in recent years that classroom teachers, as well as the education professors that train them, tend to have very little working knowledge..." of this method of teaching reading.

I am not going to lend my voice to "teacher-bashing" as so many uninformed and frankly ignorant critics are doing. I believe that most teachers in schools with a disproportionate number of poor readers are doing the best they know how. As Kilpatrick observes: "

Like every other field, [our reading teachers] are teaching what they were taught and have learned since receiving their advanced degrees. The problem is that despite the millions of dollars poured into this research and the reputable scientific journals reporting these findings, this still represents a relatively small niche in the vast arena of academia, with countless of thousands of scientific journal in many areas--hundreds in education and literacy alone. So it is an issue of getting the right people in touch with the right research to ignite a revolution in literacy education. Bashing teachers or the professors who train them is not only overly simplistic and uninformed but likely counterproductive. Everyone along the educational pipeline wants the best for students."

If there are best practices in this vital area of instruction that are available, they should be commonly taught in teaching programs and applied as extensively as possible in our schools . If there is resistance to change, then that must be dealt with but not confrontationally as is being done today with high-stakes testing. For one of the most important remedies in Kilpatrick's and Moat's findings is that teachers must be given the time and instructional support to adopt unfamiliar techniques in order to be more successful in their methods of teaching children with reading disabilities. The present trend of "accountability" diminishes their opportunities and motivations to become, if not "great" teachers, as effective as they possibly can be and that, I am certain, is the common goal of most all those who enter and practice this difficult and often misunderstood profession.