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
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.
next obstacle is the
difficulty in helping classroom teachers to get high-quality
development. Good professional development requires time and
It is said that teaching reading IS rocket science, and it is
to expect teachers to become rocket scientists over night.
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
leader on the campus or it may come from peers, but in order to provide
for coaching and classroom support, there are systemic concerns that
and district administrators must address. There are many models
can be quite effective, but each raises issues that must be
For example, many districts are now hiring reading specialists to
ongoing professional development for campus teachers. This model
be quite effective, but implementing this model raises issues of
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
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.
To learn more about the
folly of looking for the quick-fix solution to school improvement, download
this short article Daniel H. Kim called "Fixes that Fail: Why
Faster is Slower."