Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Bane of Beginning Reading Instruction: Phony Rigor

I’m pro rigor. And I believe my bona fides are in order on that one. I’ve argued for teaching children to read very early for more than 40 years; even teaching my own kids to read before they entered school (and, yes, I’m working on the grandchildren already; their ages range from 5 months to 3-years-old). The time to teach young kids to read is when you become responsible for the child and not a moment earlier.

I’m not a big fan of some of programs like “Teach Your Baby to Read,” but only because I don’t think their designs match what we know about teaching young’uns. I admire their enthusiasm, however.
I’ve also have long argued for reading challenging books to little kids. Like everybody, I love picture books, too, yet I ‘m a bigger fan of sharing chapter books with preschoolers. The day my youngest came home from the hospital, I began reading “Through the Looking Glass” to her. By the time, my daughters entered kindergarten they new books like “The Odyssey,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Yearling,” and Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” (my daughter who is now an engineer picked that one out herself).

As should be clear to any reader of these pages, I also support Common Core, specifically because those standards are higher than past standards. They are ramping up the rigor for kids and I’m on board. (I even believe in Algebra for most 8th graders though I know nothing about the teaching of math). 

Given all of that, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I think beginning reading instruction (Grades K-1) is going off the rails, specifically because of attempts to impose rigor on those grades that goes beyond anything that makes sense.

This phony rigor—phony because it appears to be demanding, though it would be unlikely to actually elevate children’s learning in any productive way.

Some examples may help.

One example of this kind of phony rigor is the first-grade teachers who have told me that they are going to teach with complex text. They have looked at the second-grade Lexile demands of Common Core and they want to ensure that the kids will be able to handle those text demands when they get there.

That enthusiasm is admirable, but it would be wrong headed for most kids. Instead of helping them to progress faster, it would make text less transparent (harder to figure out the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships). That’s why CCSS didn’t raise text levels for beginners; the standards recognize that would appear to be more demanding, but it would be phony because it would just make us adults look tougher when we were actually slowing down the kids’ learning progress (in the end lower achievement, but we rigor-demanding adults could feel better about ourselves).

Another example is how fast some people are trying to teach phonics. It’s apparently clear to them that if they teach enough phonic elements to 5-year-olds, they’ll be seen as rigorous. But displays of rigor aren’t what we are looking for. “What’s more important, teaching lots of phonic elements in a brief time or ensuring kids become effective decoders?”

Part of the problem with introducing phonic elements that quickly initially is that you reduce their decoding progress. Studies, for example, have shown the foolishness of teaching complex patterns (like long vowel spelling patterns) before kids have effectively digested short vowels. It is not just that they don’t learn the long vowel patterns very well, but those patterns can mislead kids into thinking that reading is about reading the letter names—it is not; it is about matching sounds and letters, quite a different (and more abstract) idea.

Or, what about the crazy number of sight words some programs are striving for? I’m a big sight word and flash card guy (that was certainly part of my teaching approach in Grade 1, in various reading clinics, and with my own kids), but is the point to memorize a long list of words or to become readers as early as possible?

I remember vividly teaching my oldest daughter to read. I was teaching a group of pre-service teacher candidates at the same time and I’d tell them about her progress. At that point, my four-year-old daughter knew her consonant sounds and had managed to memorize about 25 sight words… but she still couldn’t read (by reading I mean being able to make sense of a written message from nothing but the words on the page).

My students asked a really good question: How many words does it take to make someone a reader?

The answer, of course, is that knowing lots of words will eventually be helpful, but there is no particular number of words that have to be known before a child crosses the line to being a reader. The smartest people in the field, after carefully and thoroughly reviewing the research literature on this issue decided that kindergartners should probably master a small number of sight words—certainly much less than the dozens being espoused by some programs. 
One gets the sense they want to pile up big numbers only to impress their rigor-seeking customers, but these schemes aren’t based on research, the demands of the new standards, or even the experience of those who have most successfully taught young children to read. 

The reason for the high numbers: It's a kind of selfie. Teachers and administrators stung by the charges that they have been too soft and sloppy in the past want to look rigorous. They sincerely hope to do good, but have nary a clue about what good might be. If someone tells you 5-year-olds need to master 92 sight words to become readers, grab your wallet and run. 

Pointless learning goals won’t help kids more if they appear to be rigorous and demanding. They're still pointless. Remember, the real goal is to teach kids to be wise readers--not to see how fast we can introduce particular lists of skills. Such lists, no matter how quickly, introduced don't make kids readers. 




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