VOICES OF BANK STREET
Reading Instruction Does Not Fit All
“How can you say there isn’t ONE best way to teach reading?”
asked my interviewer.
“Because children learn in many different ways,” I replied. A good teacher
tailors her teaching to the particular needs and abilities of the students in
her class. I wanted my interviewer to know that the “one size fits all”
instruction I’ve observed in some public and private schools gravely concerns
me as a Literacy Teacher Educator. The “one size” approach dictates a single
program for all students without considering which students benefit, which
benefit somewhat, and which benefit not at all.
What gave me pause was that my interviewer was a college educator; my response
had alarmed her.
With the pressure of the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate
that teachers adopt scientifically proven programs, this interviewer had
expected I would tell her the exact programs that worked best.
Instead, I spent some time informing her of what teachers needed to know about
literacy and what they had to do so that their students became successful
readers and writers. To be effective, I said, teachers need to carefully
observe the speaking, listening, reading, and writing practices their students
bring with them. Armed with this knowledge of individual students’ skills and
strategies, a teacher can then design reading programs that meet these
students’ needs: a program for the whole group, others for small groups and for
individual students. Richard Allington, a literacy educator and researcher,
University of Tennessee, noted at Bank Street’s latest John Niemeyer lecture,
“Doing only whole class instruction is the least effective way to teach.” Usually,
such an approach ensures that the curriculum is over the heads of 80 percent of
the students. He added that personalized side-by-side and individualized
teaching works with more than 60 percent of classes. Small groups also foster
collaboration, as students help each other.
The teacher must also assess what students know about the processes involved in
reading, and then model ways they can develop more productive strategies. After
thoughtful observation, the teacher determines how best to teach students to
figure out unknown words. This process involves an instruction style that uses
knowledge of phonics, visual cues, and contextual cues. A teacher might also
demonstrate how readers can activate their background knowledge to predict and
prepare before they start to read a text. Or a teacher can instruct students to
monitor their reading ability by asking themselves questions as they read. Also
helpful to a teacher is to watch how readers discuss with others a text they
have just read.
At the start of the graduate reading course I teach, I caution teachers that
they won’t learn any “magic method” of teaching. Rather, they will learn to
observe students’ literacy practices while they examine methods that work with
specific children. The best teaching tool is a knowledgeable and thoughtful
teacher who observes students and matches his/her instruction to their needs.