Dear Newspaper Editors,
This letter is for you if your paper has published anything about the resurgence of the so-called Reading Wars, which many of us who actually teach in classrooms choose not to engage in. Frankly, we’re too busy teaching children of varying strengths and needs to get caught up in this unfortunate debate steeped in misunderstanding. However, the record needs to be set straight about what works for children. I agree in that not all children are getting what they need. All children need responsive teachers who take the time to learn their individual strengths and needs and then know how to respond accordingly. And, to be clear, the onus of this falls on more people than the teacher in the classroom– I’ll get to that later in this letter. Thank you for reading.
Years ago when I taught third grade during this one particular school year, most of my class entered my classroom as fluent readers. In this third grade class of 24 students, three of my students at the time still needed more focused, intentional instruction in decoding. I learned this rather quickly through conferring with these students within the first two weeks of school. Luckily, I had access to great curricular materials to use at my discretion that specifically focused on phonics instruction in small chunks each day.
Over a four-month period, I met with these three students in a small group during supported independent reading time for 7-15 minutes four to five days each week to give them the decoding lessons that the rest of the class simply did not need. Because these three students needed the lessons, they found them highly engaging. After each lesson, they spent time reading books they chose that they could read and wanted to read to transfer the decoding skills they just learned to their actual reading.
This is an example of responsive teaching. I used ongoing formative assessment to figure out my students’ individual strengths and needs so I could respond accordingly.
Now, imagine if I gave my entire class of 24 readers these lessons as a whole group. The 21 kids who simply did not need the lessons would have been completely bored and quickly disengaged. If you’ve ever taught in a classroom with children who become disengaged (I’ve been there– all classroom teachers have!), you know how disruptive it can be for the children who desperately need the lesson at hand. It is simply ineffective teaching for everyone in the room. Additionally, valuable reading time for the disengaged children would have been wasted on something they didn’t need.
Think about the reverse now. If I chose not to give those three students the lessons, or if didn’t know it was an option to deviate from “grade-level” instruction, and only taught from one set of materials, those three children would not have fully learned to read that year. They would have left third grade as non-readers who likely would have either developed coping mechanisms to painfully survive in school or different behaviors to self-sooth and deal with their frustration.
Responsive teaching, or providing students with what they individually need in order to thrive, was the answer then. It still is the answer today, nearly 15 years later.
It’s simply untrue to say that all kids need the same thing at the same time in order to thrive. It’s also wrong to say teachers must use this method or that approach in order to be successful. Now, it is safe to say that many or most kindergarteners will benefit from intentionally planned lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics. Also, it’s fair to say that many or most fifth graders will benefit from well developed lessons on how to use text evidence to back-up claims about their reading. Statements like these about teaching and learning can be made with nearly every age group. However, to say all kids learn a certain way or that all teachers must follow a script, a program, or a specific methodology in order to be effective is simply false. It’s easy to say and do, thus the widespread appeal. But, it’s just downright ineffective when teaching a classroom of different learners who deserve to be seen and known and loved by their teachers.
Being a responsive literacy teacher is what works. A responsive literacy teacher spends time getting to know students and responds accordingly. A responsive literacy teacher deviates from the plan when they realize said plan won’t work for some students. However, being a responsive literacy teacher is not easy. Herein lies the issue. Many people are looking for easy fixes or the one right program to teach reading and writing. These things simply don’t exist. If school systems truly care about literacy education, they would put all of their resources into developing their teaching force to be truly responsive to all students. It takes five main things to achieve this: Belief, curricular materials, on-going professional learning, time, and class size.
To be a responsive literacy teacher, one needs to believe that all students want to read and will learn to read. No exceptions here. As teachers, we simply must believe with our whole hearts in all of our students. Without this belief, nothing else matters.
When I say curricular materials, I do not mean a specific program developed by a for-profit company (who are making loads of money right now due to their misleading marketing capitalizing on the resurgence of the so-called Reading Wars). When I say curricular materials, I mean that teachers need to have access to a wide variety of classroom library books that represent all children in the classroom and community, small group books, lessons, and other various materials to support their instructional decision making. A new teacher walking into an empty classroom with no guidance or materials for decision making will have an incredibly challenging time being a responsive literacy teacher. School systems need to ensure teachers have access to a wide variety of materials from which to choose. States need to equitably and properly fund school systems in order for them to be able to do this. Teachers should not be expected to pay out of pocket for their own teaching materials.
On-Going Professional Learning
This is a huge missing piece in most school systems. It takes on-going professional learning to be a responsive literacy teacher. It is incredibly difficult for teachers to be responsive if they have never learned how. On-going professional learning does not refer to trainings on how to use a program. To the contrary, teachers need to know what to do when the plan and program don’t work for some students.
On-going professional learning takes place with colleagues to learn and collaborate around how to best teach students by building on their individual strengths and pinpointing their specific needs to then address them. It doesn’t take place once or twice a year, nor does it happen on a computer. The best professional learning I ever engaged in was delivered by staff developers who worked alongside my colleagues and me inside our classrooms on an ongoing basis. We watched our staff developers teach, tried out the modeled methods ourselves, received coaching feedback, and reflected on the lessons and most importantly, how students responded to the lessons. The best professional learning is done in the classroom with a literacy coach or staff developer who has an ongoing relationship with both teachers and students. I’ve seen it work. I’ve been both the coach who delivers this type of professional learning and the teacher who receives the coaching. It is powerful and highly impactful! I am a responsive teacher because I have the know-how of years and years of benefitting from solid professional learning.
Curricular materials and professional learning won’t go very far if teachers are not provided ample time to think, collaborate, rethink, and plan with their colleagues. Consider it this way: I can have the best ingredients and cooking lessons from a Michelin-rated chef, but they will do me no good in preparing a world class meal for friends and family unless I have ample time and space to practice the cooking methods it takes to make the meal. Teachers need time. Like world-class chefs, responsive teachers need time and space to practice and process with their materials and learning.
Simply put, and this does not require much explanation, class size greatly matters. It is reasonable for a teacher with 20 students to be responsive to students’ strengths and needs. It is completely unreasonable to expect this of a teacher in a classroom packed with close to 30 students. Most teachers I know will still try, but it will not be likely that all kids’ needs will be met in an over-packed classroom. If you disagree with me, I suspect you have never actually worked as an elementary school classroom teacher.
To be completely honest, there are likely some things I’m not considering right now that also play a role in responsive teaching. Also, responsive teaching is what can be done inside the classroom. Many other factors also play a role in a child’s literacy development outside the classroom. Did the child have access to a preschool that emphasized oral language and cooperative, imaginative play? Does the child have access to books at home– to build on to this, does the child’s community of residence support families by having systems in place to provide accessible early literacy experiences like a community library with books in languages spoken within the community?
Teaching literacy is a beautiful blend of art, science, resources, time, and much more. I’m a very different teacher than I was 10 years ago. I know I will be a very different teacher 10 years from now.
The next time a reporter is tasked with writing about literacy education, please encourage them to dig a little deeper. If they say the answer is simple and can’t understand why teachers aren’t using the magic solution, be wary. Be very wary and ask that reporter to go back and research a bit more. The answer is not simple. Being a responsive teacher is incredibly challenging work that requires a great deal of systemic support. Frankly, the system as a whole just isn’t there yet, though it should be.
-24 year elementary educator
-Certificated reading specialist
-Author of two books on the teaching of reading
-Classroom teacher who is continually learning and growing