What’s the best way to teach children to read? The answers can spark heated debates.
That’s what happened in New York City when Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña called for “more schools to adopt aspects of balanced literacy, including its emphasis on allowing students to choose many of the books they read,” according to the New York Times. Balanced literacy programs use both phonics and whole language techniques to teach reading.
Addressing the debate, CUNY’s Institute for Education Policy hosted a discussion last month (now posted on YouTube) called “Teaching Children to Read: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.” It featured both Catherine Snow, an esteemed expert on children’s language and literacy development and currently a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Susan Neuman, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Primary and Secondary Education and an education professor at New York University.
Snow’s work focuses in part on developing a consensus among educators and others about what children need to learn how to read — from their earliest years to middle school and beyond. She has long worked at the intersection of research, policy, and practice.
Neuman specializes in early literacy. She established “the Early Reading First program, developed the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program, and was responsible for all activities in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act.”
The discussion between Snow and Neuman covered the history and current practice of reading instruction and was moderated by David Steiner, dean of the Hunter College School of Education.
“It isn’t about the labels,” Snow says referring to terms applied to instructional practices, such as “balanced literacy,” that often end up being misinterpreted. “It’s about what happens Monday mornings in the first grade classroom,” Snow explains in the video. The challenge is to fill in the labels with sufficient support and guidance for teachers so that they know that what they are doing “is helpful to kids.”
“If we’re going to have a motto, if we’re going to have a slogan, it shouldn’t be ‘balanced,’ it should be ‘integration.’” Snow says, integrating various aspects of developmentally appropriate reading instruction with content-rich experiences instead of teaching reading in “chunks.”
“Good reading instruction starts with interesting things to read about and to talk about. Talk is part of reading instruction. Talking about topics, being read to about topics, then reading appropriate level texts about those same topics,” Snow said in the CUNY video.
In other words, teaching reading well isn’t focusing on one area or another, rather it requires integrating instructional strategies with appealing content to boost literacy by improving a range of children’s speaking and reading skills.
As Snow explained in an interview with Scholastic’s “Early Childhood Today,” “The three crucial sets of skills good readers have are an understanding of the alphabetic principle, an awareness that reading is about meaning, and sufficient fluency in reading.”
Snow adds that while some children arrive at school with many of these skills, those who don’t “need to be taught about the relationship of letters, the fact that letters represent small sounds in words, and the relationship of specific letters to specific sounds. In many cases, we also need to help children understand that the reason they read is to uncover a message. Obviously, these skills don’t have to be taught by drill. The most important thing is to provide children with a language-rich environment.”
How have public policy and reading instruction mix?
“I recognize the overreach of No Child Left Behind,” Neuman says of the 2001 federal law. “We should get out of teacher evaluation. We should get out of people’s way so they can begin to teach and again.”
“I want to see less policy and more opportunities for our teachers to do the right thing,” Neuman said, lamenting the fact that teachers are often too focused on standardized tests.
“Sometimes in the city, when I see teacher training, I feel like our notion of training is more of mandating rather than actually having teachers in a rigorous discussion of what is good instruction for our students here in New York. Our children here are different than in other places. We’re blessed with enormous diversity, enormous language challenges and interests. And what we should be developing is a strategy for teaching that takes into account our blessings and recognizes that we are not like other places.”
So knowing the research and lessons learned from implementation, how should policymakers and educators proceed? Snow and Neuman offer several observations including:
- Children need reading skills and rich content to read about.
- Snow says children should be engaged in (and by) language so they can talk about worms, volcanoes, emotions, and interactions.
- Neuman emphasizes the importance of phonics, but says it’s one of many necessary reading skills. She explains more in an article she co-authored called, “Best Practices in Reading: A 21st Century Skill Update.”
- Teachers need high-quality training and professional development in reading instruction.
- And Neuman calls for an open forum that promotes teacher discussions.
But as Neuman notes in her Best Practices article, this list of strategies can’t be static. It has to be “dynamic, ever-growing, and based on powerful evidence of children’s achievement” as the reading community continues to grapple with and improve “reading instruction for all in the 21st century.”