CAPE ELIZABETH – In response to several items I read recently, I would like to inform everyone that — as far as primary classroom teachers are concerned — the Reading Wars are over. It is not an either/or argument — we have to do it all!

The problem with the “wars” argument is the old familiar pendulum effect which we see every 20 years: The phonics proponents are perceived as being on one end of the pendulum’s arc drilling children on a letter a week and not offering anything but worksheets until children know the alphabet.

The whole language/literature-based proponents are perceived as believing that if you just give children fine literature and let them write, they will break the code on their own. It has always been an either/or decision for schools: Either all phonics all the time or just surround children with books and pencils.

Over the past 20 years, something else has emerged — a middle way. Teachers who combined the best of each method — while adding a third component — have been making good progress teaching children to read without killing their enthusiasm.

That third component is small-group instruction based on children’s needs. These small groups are the glue that hold the other parts together.

The day starts out with reading aloud of good literature with lots of discussion to develop children’s vocabulary and appreciation of literature.

There is whole-group phonics or word study instruction in mini-lessons often lasting only 5 minutes. Children compose a message while the teacher writes, sounding out the words. Children then move to literacy centers where they write, sort rhyming words, practice letter formation or read.

Students are immediately applying the lessons they just learned. One of the most important parts of this method is the guided reading group. While the class is working at centers, groups of children are meeting with the teacher for guided instruction.

In the small group some children are just working with rhyming words, some are working on letter sounds, some children are beginning to read and others are discussing the story they’ve read.

The point is that children arrive at school at very different levels, and guided reading groups support each child as she progresses. Most children need the same instruction, but some children move very quickly through each stage while others need more time.

Each child works at his or her own pace. This is not possible with whole-class instruction.

In addition, what makes this different than the reading groups of the ’50s and ’60s is the books. Rather than Dick and Jane, there are many wonderful, engaging fiction and non-fiction books now available to support children at all levels.

Teachers can share multiple copies of these books for instruction, but each classroom needs a library that includes leveled books so children can practice reading at their level throughout the day.

A word about testing. Certainly end-of-the year testing is important for reporting. However, the real aim of testing is to inform instruction. In small guided reading groups, teachers are constantly assessing the students’ progress either by observation or individual reading assessments.

The teacher does not need a test to know if a child needs more time and attention before moving to the next level. Reading groups are flexible so that children can move to a new group as they progress without waiting for a test.

Since the Obama administration seems to be committed to early childhood education, this is a good time to take a hard look at where we’re headed so Maine will be positioned to receive federal funding.

We are now teaching a first grade curriculum in kindergarten because of high-stakes testing. Most children are capable of the new goals, but teachers need 21st century tools. They need small classes. They need word study games. They need books — lots of books.

They also need the knowledge to differentiate instruction so that talented children are not held back and strugglers are able to catch up.

In order to achieve this last goal — because most primary teachers are not reading teachers — they need good professional development in order to develop the methods and tools they need in this changed environment.

What teachers and students do not need is expensive, highly scripted reading programs that teach to tests. Let’s call a truce and put together the best of each method and make our goal that 100 percent of Maine’s children will be strong readers!

Don’t fall for the either/or argument. Hold schools accountable for explaining why they aren’t providing the professional development and tools needed for 21st century reading instruction.

 

– Special to the Press Herald