Reading Instruction Today: What’s Missing, and How to Fill in the Gaps

A Report from the Field

By Catherine Schmidt

 

Despite a lot of other national news dominating headlines, reading instruction in the early grades has been getting plenty of attention from major outlets lately. Natalie Wexler’s article in Forbes, along with Emily Hanford’s podcast, Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?, shine a spotlight on this stark statistic: According to the NAEP report, The Condition of Education 2018, only about a third of 4th  graders are proficient in reading, with a disproportionate number of low-income students failing to meet grade-level targets for proficiency. That leaves two-thirds of our students at a disadvantage, with little chance of ever catching up. Additional research reveals that a lack of vocabulary or decoding ability compounds as reading demands increase across grades. What can be done to ensure students leaving the primary grades are equipped to read well in school and beyond?

Early literacy instruction requires an intentional focus on developing two competencies. This Harvard Lead for Literacy Memo illustrates why sound early childhood pedagogy should include both systematic, explicit instruction in mastering the code of our language system and continuous expansion of vocabulary and scientific, historical, and technical knowledge. According to cognitive science and reading research summarized in the Report of the National Reading Panel, students, especially those entering our schools with language deficits, need high-quality general education in both.Close up of kid thinking

Yet for many years, philosophical Reading Wars have caused pendulum swings in education, and phonics has fallen in and out of vogue. Schools of education do not engage pre-service teachers in the most current reading research, leaving them with gaps in their own knowledge of how best to teach reading. Moreover, in many cases classroom teachers are not provided with a comprehensive English language arts curriculum. They are left to develop materials themselves or search websites like Teachers Pay Teachers for resources to teach students to read, which is far too complex for a DIY website.   

When schools do provide elementary teachers with basal reading programs to teach reading, the programs have serious limitations. Those published right after the release of the National Reading Panel Report two decades ago practically eliminated rich science and social studies content from reading-related curriculum in the early grades. Teachers using these programs focused on discrete skills and the strategies of reading and often neglected content knowledge and vocabulary. As a result, understanding gained from reading became inconsequential, and the use of “leveled” books to practice reading skills only proliferated. Many of those basals are still in use, and even newer editions continue the focus on teaching reading as a set of skills that can be applied to any text.

To picture all this clearly, contrast the learning opportunities in two first-grade classrooms. In one, the teacher reads aloud and discusses a rich non-fiction text about the circulatory system. The students make a circle motion with their hands and repeat, “circulatory system.” They place their hands over their hearts after running in place to feel the change in their heartbeat. In the second classroom, the teacher reads aloud a simple, repetitive sequence book. The focus of the lesson is to identify cause and effect. After reading two pages, the students sit knee to knee, calling out the only right answer to the question about why the dog was thirsty. 

classroom-shelfThere is no question as to which students are building knowledge. The students in one classroom are learning words such as circulatory, and blood vessels, and chambers. They are learning about the impact of exercise on the body.  And, although there is a place for simple, fun, reading, if we are to improve reading outcomes for students, precious instructional minutes must be used judiciously to teach foundational reading skills and build vocabulary and content knowledge. This can be done with high-quality fiction and non-fiction. Unfortunately, this is not a common practice in many classrooms across the country.

It is against this backdrop that we find teachers scrambling to find reading resources that allow students to practice decoding and build knowledge on substantive topics and help align instruction with the demands of relatively new college and career-ready standards that reflect the priorities shown to improve early literacy.

For years, the choice in curriculum and student reading materials was limited. It has been either/or—either educators could have simple, often silly books that only offered decoding practice, or engaging, rich texts that were too challenging for students to read on their own. Students missed opportunities to practice with accessible texts, to build knowledge of the world, to engage with worthy topics and to grow their vocabulary.

Students reading withGeodes

It is with great enthusiasm that Great Minds introduces Geodes™, a collection of student readers designed to give classroom teachers and students what they need and deserve. Developed in collaboration with Wilson Language Training, Geodes are the books educators have been waiting for—highly engaging, beautifully written, carefully designed to be accessible by reinforcing learned phonics patterns, all the while engaging students in learning valuable content and growing vocabulary.

Explore Geodes

Level 1 contains 64 books; module sets of 16 books are grouped to strategically build knowledge and vocabulary on topics such as “Creature Features”, giving students rich experiences with animal adaptations, and “Powerful Forces”, exploring how wind shapes our world. “Cinderella Stories” and “A World of Books” modules feature books that allow students to travel around the globe as they learn about hieroglyphics, Sergei Prokofiev, and the Grimm brothers. Through informational and literary texts, art history, science, and historical concepts come to life.

Educators are no longer faced with the either/or—option when it comes to choosing readers for primary students -- they can have both, content that grows knowledge and vocabulary and accessible language. To offer our students anything less would be a disservice. Let’s provide what research shows they need and change the headlines with good news from the field.  

  

 

catherine schmidt

Catherine Schmidt Geodes Title Editor and Author, Great Minds

Catherine Schmidt supports districts, states, and partners in implementing college and career-ready standards in ELA and Literacy in the elementary grades. She also serves as a Title Editor and Author on the Great Minds® Geodes team and is grateful to be a teacher on special assignment.