The success of reading programs for the early grades is often determined by how well children do on oral tests of basic skills: letter naming, word and non-word reading, paragraph reading, and questions on the text.
This focus on basic skills aligns with our knowledge that foundational literacy skills are crucial for later school success. However, the choices we make about what to measure and what to leave unmeasured can have implications for the nature of education programming.
Clinical approaches to education
Given finite resources to increase children’s outcomes on oral tests of reading skills, there is a tendency to take a clinical view to educating children, one that seeks the minimum inputs that will increase children’s basic literacy skills.
While these inputs might indeed have this result, are we paying enough attention to the holistic needs of our stakeholders and to long-term systemic change? The danger to taking an expedient approach to education is that it does not account for the complexity of meaningful learning and sustained change.
For teachers, learning to teach is more than implementing a program
It is possible, however, to learn how to implement a program without developing the sustained knowledge and skills that can outlive any project cycle or shifting government policies. I have spoken to teachers in early grade reading programs who knew what to do but could not explain why they were doing it; they could implement the reading program they were trained on but were not developing general skills like lesson planning and classroom management.
For students, learning to read is more than skills and strategies
To increase children’s scores on tests of basic skills in the most efficient way, the complex, creative act of teaching is commonly reduced to simple, systematic routines focused on basic skills and strategies.
While routines certainly have a place in classrooms, instructional routines that are overly simplistic and strictly followed do little to move away from the call-and-response interaction between teachers and students that is prevalent in low-resourced contexts.
The argument that children need to learn the basics of decoding before they can engage in rich content and higher order thinking incorrectly assumes a linear progression that most adversely affects disadvantaged children. The comprehension of text, which is the goal of reading, requires knowledge and critical thinking in addition to decoding skills, and both kinds of learning can and should happen in parallel.
Children from economically disadvantaged communities start school with fewer experiences and a more limited knowledge base than their more affluent peers. To reduce this knowledge gap, children need to be engaged in knowledge-building activities (Neuman, 2006) while simultaneously learning basic skills.
Expanding indicators of success
Assessments of basic skills are easy to administer reliably, even by people who may not have expertise in education. However, assessments that are easy to administer tend to be limited in what they can tell us (Afflerbach, 2018) and drive equally limiting programmatic interventions.
Expanding our indicators of success so that improvements in basic literacy skills, while necessary, are not considered sufficient, would deepen and extend education programming to enrich the learning of children and educators.
This is more challenging, of course, and would require a much larger investment. Imagine what a literacy program would look like if, to be considered successful, it needed to demonstrate increases in the following sample of indicators in addition to improving children’s basic skills:
- Number of teachers who independently plan a lesson in which meaningful activities and assessments support a learning objective
- Number of teachers who effectively manage a classroom (children, materials, activities and time)
- Number of teachers who skillfully engage a class with an interactive read aloud of a book
- Number of teachers who ask questions that invite ideas, opinions, and critical thought from children
- Number of teachers who engage children in knowledge-building activities (to help them understand the world around them and grow their vocabularies).
- Number of diverse, high quality, appropriate books children have access to
- Number of books children borrow to read
- Number of opportunities children have to choose what they read
- Number of opportunities children have to express independent thoughts in a lesson (in contrast to copying, dictation exercises, reciting or mimicking the teacher)
- Number of questions asked by children in a lesson that other children and/or the teacher respond to.
These types of indicators can be difficult to even define, let alone measure reliably, but they express a vision of a classroom that aspires for more than the rote drilling of basic literacy skills.
Toward content-rich education programs
What we choose to measure is ultimately a reflection of what we value most. I value children learning basic literacy skills. I equally value children developing a love of reading and having a voice that matters in the classroom, and teachers developing core skills that make them stronger professionals for the long term.
We have a choice to make: “Exposed to a language-rich, content-rich setting, children begin to acquire the broad array of knowledge, skills, and dispositions that build a foundation for literacy. Exposed to a literacy curriculum reduced to a set of narrow, largely procedural skills, children learn to please others by mimicking, reciting, and repeating. They learn how to react, not how to think” (Neuman, 2006).
Let us support a new generation of thinkers and, while doing so, inject a dose of joy into the learning process.
Afflerbach, P. (2018). Teaching Readers, Not Reading. Annual Jeanne Chall lecture at Harvard University. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/18/09/watch-live-annual-jeanne-s-chall-lecture
Neuman, S. (2006). N is for Nonsensical. Educational Leadership, 64(2), 28-31