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(#48)  The Problem with Literacy Programs [facts from Edweek.com]

Greetings, SLP!

Teachers in my last elementary school were unhappy with their reading curriculum and were doggedly focused on finding something better.
Turns out, this is not an uncommon occurrence in many schools. Maybe even yours.
I recently read a no-holds-barred commentary inEdWeek.com on this very subject, called, “The Problem with Literacy Programs,” by Mike Schmoker (February 20, 2019). Very interesting reading.
I do believe, for us school SLPs this topic is something we need be aware of. We need to be prepared to chime in to support the inclusion of the language-piece (among other things) when teachers and administrators are shopping reading programs.
I’ll summarize the salient points of Mike’s commentary and share a few of my thoughts (in italics).
Mike hits the ground running. In an unnamed school district, his job was to assist in the review of a prominently endorsed literacy program. They discovered “…profound shortcomings: The program abounded in minutiae, low-level worksheets, and excessive skills instruction, leaving little time for reading, discussion, and writing.”
The lessons were scripted, and “the content and assessments were misaligned with the unfocused, haphazardly assembled array of (so-called) ‘learning objectives.’ The lessons lacked obvious elements of good teaching[which he describes below]. For all this, the program’s visiting consultants had recently doubled down on their insistence that the program had to be followed to the letter.”
My first thought was, I sure hope Mike still has a job! I’m not a classroom teacher, but I’ve read several reading curricula and talked with a lot of teachers and I can’t disagree with any of the above.
The reviewers discussed their concerns with the reading program’s highest-ranking official and a prominent endorser. To the official’s credit, point by point, they conceded that Mike’s perceptions were accurate. They suggested that teachers include “more purposeful reading, high-quality books, discussion, and explicit writing instruction.”
Ah, they recognize their deficiencies. I’m wondering when the new updated version comes out? I also wonder why the obvious reading instruction components weren’t included in their program in the first place. Back to Mike.
Apparently, this is not an isolated case. He continues, “Over the years, my colleagues and I have made similarly damning discoveries about other nationally prominent literacy and curricular products. When pressed, many of their creators would admit to the inadequacies. One highly respected expert told me that not one of these literacy programs meets the criteria most essential to English/language arts and literacy curricula.”
He tells it like it is: “We must reckon with the fact that even popular, highly praised commercial programs often lack a robust evidence base. …They abound in busywork.”

Mike’s suggestions

Explicit literacy instruction:
He says that the following efforts will raise students’ ability to comprehend challenging text.
  • Routinely scaffold embedded vocabulary and background knowledge prior to every reading.
  • Do step-by-step modeling of purposeful, analytic reading.
  • Monitor and adjust instruction to insure comprehension.
  • Must be taught how to read increasing amounts of grade-level text in each discipline.
  • Practice analytic reading, followed by checks of understanding by the teacher.
The above suggestions, while good, could be implemented no matter the type of reading program used. However, if teachers are obligated to explicitly follow the guidelines of the program, actual modifying and teaching time would be limited. As Mike indicated, many of the current reading programs emphasize “busy work” and don’t allow for ample personalization. It may also have something to do with the quality and philosophy of the education departments in universities, as well.
In the meantime, some kids are not learning.
For beginning readers:
  • Start with an intensive phonics regimen. He also cautions that phonics can be overemphasized at the expense of the “lifeblood” of literacy—abundant amounts of reading, speaking, and writing.
  • Even prior to mastering phonics, students should be reading—and listening to—large amounts of fiction and nonfiction.
  • Students should read along as the teacher reads aloud.
For students that can read:
  • Students should read at least an hour each day.
  • He says that we’re not even close to this target in most schools and that students may never acquire the knowledge and vocabulary essential to fluency and reading comprehension.
I would love to see the addition of phonemic awareness tasks, done strictly auditorily with no print referents, to train and transition from the auditory-verbal aspect of language to print language.
  • Starting in the early grades, students should engage in whole-class discussions and debates.
  • They need regular, explicit instruction in how to speak clearly, audibly, and with civility in every subject and grade level. “When I do demonstration lessons, it is often apparent that students aren’t being taught these vital communication skills.”
I smiled when I read this. I’m glad he included and emphasized good verbal communication skills for all. We certainly need it.
However, this may just be me, but aren’t these suggestions characteristic of just plain “good teaching?” Do some teachers require the above recommendations to be written into a reading program so they include them into their teaching regimen? Oh, boy. Well, maybe, it’s the ‘time” issue again.
On a daily basis, for higher-order purposes, students need to write about what they read. They need to analyze, compare, explain, make arguments, and justify their interpretations. This should be the basis for longer, more formal papers.
He concludes with comments about the rise in “small group instruction” or “centers.” He (and others) feel that many small-group lessons could be taught just as effectively to an entire class, with an exponential increase in teacher contact time.
He says that the value of centers is greatly inflated and he cites Ford and Opitz’s findings that “students spend record amounts of time on cut, color, and past activities.” They estimate that only about one-third of the elementary “literacy block” has any academic value.
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And we wonder why some kids are not competent readers and communicators.
Following are two facts (there are many others) taken from the Children’s Literacy Foundation:
  • 65% of America's fourth graders do not read at a proficient level, and
  • One out of six children who do not read at age level by the end of third grade will not graduate from high school.
As much as I hate to say it—mainly because ofourtimelimitations--SLPs need to be more involved in the field of reading. Many of us have skirted the issue for many years; I think it’s time to get involved. To their credit, some SLPs have already become involved in reading and are doing their part—thank you.
And, thankyou for all you do with your therapy-kids.
Hug a kid and have a great week!

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