X-Files – Tales of the Unexplained in Reading Instruction

We have all seen some instructional practices that are just a bit on the odd side. They reflect a belief about the way children learn to read, but sometimes the underlying belief is a bit skewed. This is the place to describe some of the more curious instructional approaches you’ve encountered in your career. Send in your stories on our feedback page — names will be withheld unless you specify that you want your name included.

I was attending a professional development session on Guided Reading, and we came to the section on the Three Cueing Systems. The facilitator claimed that children who struggle to sound out words are paying too much attention to the words and not enough to the context (contrary to what research has shown). She described a trick that she used to force children to “guess” at words to enhance their ability to use the “primary” cues (semantics and syntax). She used removable tape to cover up selected words in the passage — children had to read the passage and fill in the missing words without being able to see them! She cautioned people that children will try to “read through” the tape, and that sometimes it is necessary to double the thickness of the tape so the children can’t see the words underneath. The rest of the teachers really seemed to like this strategy, so I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out the stupidity of preventing children from making use of the best information available for word identification — I was clearly in the minority in that room. So a lot of teachers went back to their classrooms and taught children that the way we learn to read is by “guessing.”

I was observing our Reading Recovery teacher doing a short Guided Reading session with a student (I was there for my professional development, not her’s), and I noticed that after every word, the child looked at the teacher for confirmation. And every time the child looked at the teacher, the teacher either confirmed or corrected and told her to keep going. Nearly every word went like this. Afterwards, I asked the teacher if that’s okay, and she said she was trying to build the child’s confidence. I think this would have the opposite effect. It’s teaching the child to always ask for help.

If you ask me, nothing could be weirder than the Irlen Method of teaching dyslexic children to read. Helen Irlen is the author of “Reading by the Colors” which suggests that children who can’t read may be suffering from Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). She says that “millions” of reading disabled children could be taught to read by looking through lenses of the right color. She says that for people with SSS, the text is blurry, or it jumps around on the page, but by looking at it through colored lenses or through colored acetate, the text comes into focus, and they are allowed to see the text normally. And if you believe that, I’m selling some aluminum foil “thinking caps.”

(Read reactions from readers to this comment)
Speed reading. Every year at my university, they put out all these flyers advertising speed reading courses. And now I see an advertisement on television for something that’s FASTER than speed reading — PHOTO reading. This guy on television is saying that his reading speed is limited only by how fast he can turn the pages, because he has released the hidden powers of his brain and has learned how to consume a whole page in a glance. Apparently, he set up his computer to show him a book one page at a time, so he wouldn’t be slowed down by the need to turn pages… he found that he could “read” as fast as the computer could show him the text. Claims about speed reading always remind me of the old joke, “I took a speed reading course and it was great. I read Moby Dick in two minutes — It’s about a fish…” When you read faster, you comprehend less, and people who are trained in speed reading courses do not comprehend any better than a normal reader who “skims” the text.

How about those machines that are supposed to train children to move their eyes correctly? It’s a machine that keeps track of where children are looking, and helps them to learn to move their eyes more efficiently. I guess they think that the reason children cannot read is because their eyes are not looking where they are suppsed to.

Editor’s note: This is a case of the rooster’s crow causing the sun to rise. It’s just backwards — it has been shown that poor readers do not efficiently move their eyes from word to word the way good readers do, but that is not the cause of their reading difficulty. Rather, that is the result of their reading difficulty. Researchers have shown that when good readers are given extremely difficult text to read (text that is way beyond their comprehension level), their eye movements look very much like those of poor readers. The poor reading is not a result of poor eye movements — the poor eye movements are a result of the poor reading.