There are many beliefs and a great deal of philosophies associated with reading acquisition (learning how to read). I often see teachers and parents reluctant to change despite the research. This is very normal; however I have to encourage all our Book Oblivion readers to give the evidence a chance. Here are 3 common reading myths that influence reading education today.
Myth #1: Reading programs are “successful”
Ever heard someone say “anyone can be a teacher” or “teaching is so easy, I don’t know why they all complain”? I feel a cold and dark sensation each time I hear someone speak that way about my profession. It has brought me to tears at times to hear people talk so flippantly about the teaching profession. Let the record show that teachers are some of the most talented and effective (and simply magical) professionals in the world. A good teacher is a ninja, an artist, a storyteller, a scientist, an anthropologist, a nurse, a psychiatrist, and so much more… and that is all before 9am.
When it comes to reading instruction, the most expensive and culturally diverse reading program in the world WILL NOT WORK if a knowledgeable and talented teacher is not the one implementing the program. There is no replacement for a qualified and sophisticated instructor. Chickering’s and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” outline habits of excellent teachers. For more details, you can read 7 Habits of an Excellent Teacher written by one of the best teachers I know. All the money spent on a new reading program when state testing assessments are not up to par will simply do no good if districts and principles are not willing to invest money into teacher development and training for implementing the reading curriculum.
As a teacher, I have been handed many reading curricula with little or no instruction on how to use it. I trip and fall through the first couple months of school doing my absolute best, but it simply takes time. Think of a chef being handed a cookbook from a cuisine they have no experience with. The chef will certainly use their skills and expertise to figure out how to cook with a new cuisine, but how much better would their food be in a shorter amount of time if another chef who was experienced in that cuisine was cooking alongside them as they learned.
While reading programs can be “useful,” no reading program has ever been proven to be “successful” with all children, all teachers, and all cultures. Studies also show that there has never been a reading program that accelerates reading performance levels with children. In low-performing schools with high numbers of English language learners, there have been a few programs to improve overall reading scores, (such as Wilson Fundations)., but as far as being a “success” the numbers are still not enough.
If 80% of the students in a school are performing below grade level in reading assessments, moving that number to 50% is a great improvement. However, if half of the students at your school are not reading at grade level, this is still an unacceptable number for “success”. A reading program is no replacement for a knowledgeable, diagnostically trained teacher to adequately meet the varied and rapidly evolving learning needs of each individual child.
Myth #2: Reading is a natural process
Learning to understand speech can be qualified as a natural process. Beginning from birth, children can tune into their environment for language acquisition (learning to speak). As soon as babies are able, most will actively begin to speak a language they hear. There is no doubt that if children are given the opportunity, they will naturally develop language comprehension skills. There is no need for formal instruction.
By contrast, reading acquisition (learning to read), is not at all natural. While the ability to understand speech has evolved over thousands of years, reading and writing were invented by man. Using hieroglyphics and cave drawings used to be standard whereas now, we have formal written language. Still to this day, there are cultures that have a spoken language, but without a written form. In fact, of the 7,000 forms of spoken language around the world, only half of those have a written form.
When I lived in the country of Mauritania (in West Africa), most people in the city spoke a language called Hassaniya which has no written form. If they children were fortunate enough to go to school, they had to learned to write in classical Arabic even though teachers orally taught in Hassaniya. Dr. David Harrison at Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages did a very interesting study on languages around the world. You can more from Dr. Harrison HERE.
Clearly, if reading was “natural”, every child and adult could easily do it. When you look at the literacy crisis here in American and around the world, you can see the evidence is staggering. According to the National Institute for Literacy and the Center for Education Statistics, over 40 million adults in the United States alone are illiterate. The literacy gap continues to widen despite the best educational efforts. Approximately 40% of fourth graders lack even the most basic reading skills in the US.
Reading is a skill that is quite unnatural and can be a difficult achievement to master. The foundation of a literacy rich environment should be paramount from Age 0-5 to ensure reading acquisition comes more easily when they begin school. However, it is not simply an insufficient technique to continue developing adequate literacy skills as the child gets older. Reading fluently requires focused and effective instruction from knowledgeable and skilled teachers.
Myth #3: All children will eventually learn to read
Michael Pressley wrote the very thought-provoking book called “Reading Instruction that Works:The Case for Balanced Teaching (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy)”. Pressley concluded his book with a discussion of “Ten Dumb and Dangerous Claims About Reading Instruction.” One of these included the claim that a reading program in and of itself would make long-lasting changes in a reader being successful. There is a popular parable in the Bible that states “the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer”. In sociology circles, this phenomenon is referred to as the “Matthew effect”; a phrase coined by Robert K. Merton in the 60’s. This term is used to literally refer to cumulative advantage when it comes to economics (or money). I believe it can be applied to reading as well.
Children who begin school who are behind in their literacy skills (whether it be language, vocabulary, etc..) have the potential to fall further and further behind. This gap can be closed with focused instruction and effective teachers in lower elementary grades. However, if a child is absent frequently or does not have effective specialists and educators to help meet their needs, the gap widens dramatically. Now to bridge the literacy gap takes massive remediation and becomes costly and frustrating for both teachers and students.
The gap reaches the point of being insurmountable in only the 4th grade. Research will show that if a child is not reading grade-appropriate materials by the time they are in 4th grade (or 10 years old), the odds become very slim for that child ever developing good reading skills. A 4th grade child who is not reading at grade level becomes extremely challenging for even the most effective teachers as their motivation becomes their greatest obstacle. The Matthew Effect is simply tragic when it is applied to a child becoming a reader.
In my upcoming course “Teaching Kids to Read Ages 0-5”, I advocate for the natural process of reading, and for parents to allow children to develop their reading skills at their own pace. However, this philosophy is appropriate before a child reaches school age. Once a child is developmentally ready for reading acquisition (instruction), the teacher or parent should be addressing a child’s zone of proximal development. For example, in Finland where formal reading instruction does not begin until age 7; students are still scoring among the top readers in the world by the time they are 10 years old. It is dangerous to simply wait for children to develop reading skills in their own time. A child who is not developing reading skills along with his or her peers is concerning and should be addressed proactively by teachers and parents long before they are 10 years old.
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