Quick Fixes: There Are None

Effective reading instruction addresses the relationship between what children need to learn and what teachers are teaching. And because individual children have varied and diverse backgrounds, skills, and learning needs, effective instruction depends upon two things: First, the teacher must be able to assess each child’s reading-related skills in an on-going manner, and second, the teacher must be adept at using that assessment information to customize instruction to the needs of the individual children. Effective instruction depends upon teachers having a sophisticated and formal understanding of what is involved in learning to read so that they can be diagnostic in their assessment and deliberate in their treatment. Teachers should be able to set clear instructional goals for each of their students, and they should be adept at supporting children in achieving those individualized goals.
It should be made clear at the outset that reading is a skill and that instruction in reading is different from instruction in a content area such as history or mathematics. While all teachers are adept at reading, most teachers do not adequately understand what is involved in learning how to read. Enhancing a teacher’s knowledge about how children learn to read should always be kept as a fundamental goal when developing an effective reading program.

There are no Quick Fixes

It should also be made very clear that developing an effective reading program is not something that happens overnight. While campus and district leaders are under considerable pressure to make changes that show immediate results, experience tells us that the search for the “quick fix” is actually an obstacle to developing an effective reading program. The typical “off-the-shelf” reading program offers very little in the way of professional development that actually enhances a teacher’s understanding of the process of learning to read. Further, most reading programs are fairly scripted and standardized, and they inflexibly adhere to a reading curriculum that does not accommodate the individual learning needs of the students. There is no way an off-the-shelf reading program can assess and address the learning needs of individual students — only a sophisticated teacher who really knows how to be diagnostic in her instruction can do that.

As has already been stated, enhancing each teacher’s knowledge about the process of learning to read and enhancing every teacher’s ability to apply that knowledge in the classroom should be the primary focus of any initiative to develop an effective reading program. There is no reading program that can be purchased that can quickly and effectively enhance teachers’ core knowledge about what is involved in learning to read. There is no quick fix. If professional development is to be effective, it must be long-term and fully supported by campus and district leaders. Teachers need a great deal of consistent, individualized support in developing and applying new knowledge about reading acquisition and reading instruction.

What are the obstacles and how can they be addressed?

The major obstacles for developing an effective reading program are the same as for any major initiative: money, time, and good information. Campus and district leaders should understand that developing an effective reading program is no small endeavor.

The first concern is the professional development of the campus and district leaders. While they may not need to know exactly the same information about how children learn to read, they should at least be familiar with what has and what has not been supported by good, replicated, trustworthy research. Campus and district leaders are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to funding and supporting effective reading programs, and they should be able to make well-informed decisions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to reading education, there is quite a bit of misinformation that has the appearance of being grounded in good, replicated research. Part of the campus and district administrator’s task is to seek out only the most reliable and trustworthy information, and to adopt a healthy level of skepticism about information related to reading and reading instruction.

The next obstacle is the difficulty in helping classroom teachers to get high-quality professional development. Good professional development requires time and support. It is said that teaching reading IS rocket science, and it is unrealistic to expect teachers to become rocket scientists over night. Teachers need to be fed a consistent, healthy diet of good, research-based information. They need to understand how to discriminate good information from unfounded and unreliable information. And most importantly, they need coaching and support in the classroom so they can most effectively translate good information into effective instruction. That coaching may come from an instructional leader on the campus or it may come from peers, but in order to provide opportunities for coaching and classroom support, there are systemic concerns that campus and district administrators must address. There are many models that can be quite effective, but each raises issues that must be addressed. For example, many districts are now hiring reading specialists to provide ongoing professional development for campus teachers. This model can be quite effective, but implementing this model raises issues of staffing, scheduling, management structure, and authority.

Whatever model is adopted, throughout the professional development initiative, campus and district administrators can help by sending a clear message that the professional development initiative will be supported over a long period of time, and that reading instruction is something that the administrators are going to pay primary attention to. Teachers by-and-large will focus on the things that they know are important to their administration. If reading instruction is a primary focus for an extended period of time, then teachers will focus more on implementing what they learn from their professional development.

The next obstacle is time. There is, unfortunately, no way to add hours to the day. Educators at all levels are strapped for time, and always will be. That makes it hard to create pockets of time when teachers can engage in professional development activities, communicate with their colleagues, observe other classrooms, and reflect on their own practice. It is not easy, but it is necessary to create pockets of time when these things can happen, and it is usually up to the campus and district leaders to work systemically to make that possible.

It is also important to note that while it is important to create pockets of time for professional development, collaboration, and reflection, it is just as important to insure that time is used as efficiently as possible. If half an hour is created once or twice a week for teachers to conduct staff meetings focused on reading instruction, then a facilitator should be present to make sure that every minute of that meeting time is used wisely. It is very easy to get off-topic in staff meetings, and if time during these meetings is not used effectively, then teachers will stop valuing them.

Ultimately, for significant instructional change to occur, the culture of the school and/or district must change. District and campus leaders can play a central role in initiating and guiding changes to the school culture, so the decisions and priorities of these decision-makers, must be well informed and thoughtful.

Where to begin

Start small and start successful. Developing an effective reading program takes years, and attempting to revolutionize the entire system overnight can lead to frustration and failure. Begin with small, manageable goals such as creating an instructional resource library. Have the teachers pool their individual classroom resources (big books, leveled texts, manipulatives, etc.) into one centralized location where they can check out what they need. Focus on sharing reading assessment materials across classrooms, and have teachers discuss how to interpret and use assessment information to inform their instructional decisions. That gets the ball rolling and opens the channels of communication.

It is also helpful to create a common language about reading on a campus or in a district. Through my work at SEDL I have found that teachers who study and use my cognitive framework of reading acquisition have a common frame of reference to discuss reading instruction — they find it easier to communicate with each other, with their administration, and with parents about reading. Introducing some study materials such as SEDL’s framework or some of the professional books that have been published (such as “Classrooms that Work” by Allington and Cunningham, “Beginning to Read” by Marilyn Jager Adams, or “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children” by the National Research Council) can help teachers to develop a common core knowledge about reading acquisition and reading instruction, and that common core knowledge can be a foundation upon which the rest of your effective reading program can be built.

What are the benefits?

You should understand that developing an effective, research-based reading program will not result in instant improvements in student test scores. The scores will gradually rise as teachers become more adept at using assessment information to cater their instruction to the individual needs of their students, and students will achieve more success as teachers become more thoughtful about what is involved in learning how to read — about what is happening in the child’s head and what the teacher can do to scaffold that child’s learning. But these things take time.

Classroom teachers will not radically change their instruction in a short period of time, nor will they immediately internalize and understand what they need to know about how children learn to read. But while the changes may not be instant, they will be significant and profound. When teachers change their practice without changing their understanding, as often happens when they participate in an “off-the-shelf” reading program, the change is somewhat haphazard and not very long lasting. By contrast, when teachers change their practice based on a change in their core understanding of what needs to be taught, the change is permanent, and the teachers develop a great deal of confidence in their instructional decisions.

The benefits over the long term for individual children are substantial. Teachers following an “off-the-shelf” reading program may leave a sizeable percentage of children behind because they do not understand how to address their individual learning needs. But teachers who really understand reading and who base their instructional decisions on that understanding do not leave any of their children behind.

Teachers that are provided with good, long-term, research-based professional development about reading acquisition understand how to assess each child’s reading abilities, and use that assessment data to provide deliberate, focused instruction tailored to each child’s needs. With thoughtful, well-informed, and most importantly long-term support from campus and district administrators, an effective reading program can be developed that will help all children to achieve reading success.