As summer vacation draws to a close and thoughts turn to the coming school year, you may be interested in a unique (and free) opportunity for professional development.
Reading researcher Mark Seidenberg, author of Language at the Speed of Sight, and Molly Farry-Thorn, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been hosting “Reading Meetings” throughout the spring of 2021. These are not typical webinar-style slide presentations followed by Q&A. They are informal, somewhat loose conversations with a number of knowledgeable and experienced researchers and practitioners. The recorded talks involve a wide-ranging back and forth between Seidenberg and guests, with Seidenberg thinking aloud about issues that have been on his mind and posing questions that challenge both his guests and listeners.
The talks are partly motivated by a concern that current enthusiasm for the Science of Reading may backfire if the science is oversimplified and the ways in which research can connect to practice are not well understood. If it is reduced to “a few sayings you could put on a poster in a classroom,” it simply won’t deliver the necessary impact on student outcomes.
Seidenberg suggests we need answers to questions such as, “How much do teachers need to know and how much do kids need to be taught?” and “What is the level at which research is actually helpful for practice?” He stresses that we need better guidelines for teachers and there is a sense of urgency in his voice as he reminds us that “we need to do a better job with more kids.”
Highlighted below are a few recurring themes, and in Part Two I spotlight a few interesting points made about specific topics such as early screening, dialect, phonemic awareness and syllables.
How does change happen? How do teachers improve their reading instruction?
These discussions often touch on the question of whether change happens in a top-down or bottom-up manner. Participants discuss the roles of administrators, policy makers, and individual teachers. They stress the power of sharing examples of success in order to bring people on board and of sharing videos of teaching to bridge conceptual understanding with the necessary procedural knowledge of how to teach. In Deb Glaser’s professional development courses, she finds that when the administration has mandated participation and the teachers do not want to be there, there is ultimately little she can do and little they will learn. People tend to resist or simply not respond to top-down mandates. At the same time, bottom up is not enough. Margie Gillis notes that administrators are rarely knowledgeable about early reading, and yet we do desperately need them to be so they can provide the necessary leadership.
Often, teachers are not the decision makers about curriculum in their schools, and they need to work with what they are provided. Margaret Goldberg speaks about how to understand the model of reading that your curriculum is based on (read the front matter!) and how it’s possible to adapt and tweak it. On the other hand, teachers who are new to science-informed practices could learn quite a bit about how to teach explicitly and systematically from simply following a high quality, scripted program, if they are provided with one. Marnie Ginsberg also describes how her online academy is designed to simplify the learning for teachers as they jump right in and implement the powerful activities she recommends.
Keep the ultimate goal in mind
Seidenberg frequently emphasizes that everything we teach needs to be in the service of reading. We cannot allow ourselves to get lost in the tasks or in the weeds and forget that it is all a means to the end of real reading and writing. We therefore need to use the most efficient and impactful activities and routines to get to this goal. This topic comes into sharp focus in the discussion with Marnie Ginsberg. Deb Glaser also advises people to “find just a few good powerful routines that you can use over and over again, for example for phoneme grapheme mapping. You don’t need a gazillion activities. If they’re effective, kids don’t get tired of them.”
Margaret Goldberg recommends taking a close and critical look at the curriculum and “cutting the fluff”. When she did just that, she found activities like mixing different color paints to illustrate the concept of blending consonant sounds! This was messy and time consuming. She took time away from these activities and used it for the purposes of reading and writing. “The amount of student practice, the amount of opportunities to apply what they were learning…all of that was the heart of high-quality instruction and what we noticed was that in most of the materials, we had a whole lot of fluff”.
Julie Washington notes that in urban schools in particular, she has observed so much instruction in isolated components and not nearly enough practice reading. She explains that children need to be building syntax, vocabulary and comprehension, and they can do this while reading decodable texts with feedback. She implores, “They need to practice reading! With feedback!”
Put things together in the service of reading
Related to keeping the goal always in mind, is the recurring theme of reciprocity, interactivity, and synthesis. Nell Duke tells us that the science suggests “that in kindergarten to grade 3, we can fruitfully teach a lot of literacy in social studies and science. We need to think of literacy as something we do throughout the day. There’s a synergy.”
Rebecca Treiman speaks about how learning to spell a word helps you learn how to read it because reading and spelling are part of the same system.
Seidenberg frequently stresses that phonemic awareness and phonics are intimately linked and should be taught in an integrated fashion (more on this in Part Two).
We clearly need materials that work on more than one thing at a time, and Seidenberg is particularly enthusiastic when Marnie Ginsberg describes the way she encourages teachers to use a handful of activities that integrate multiple subskills and processes. For example, students do not memorize letter sounds in isolation but always in context of words. As soon as they have sufficient phonemic awareness, sufficient phonics knowledge, and a decoding strategy, they can spend most of their time learning from reading with immediate feedback and error correction.
A caution is issued however, because teachers might think they are integrating as they implement certain familiar guided reading practices, but in fact, these may not be sufficiently effective. It is a nuanced issue, and Seidenberg thinks more should be done to spell out for teachers the activities that do meaningfully and productively integrate various components.
Seidenberg often brings up the question of how much teachers actually need to know and how much they need to teach. He sees “both too little, but also too much or overuse of certain ideas.” He suggests that we have a problem with both underteaching some things and perhaps over teaching others, and he stresses the need to “titrate” the teaching. He cautions that, “you don’t need to teach kids to be linguists or scientists. You do need to structure their experiences. If you set up the experiences correctly you can get them where they need to go.”
These “Reading Meetings” are an attempt to, as they say in the first meeting, “pull back the curtain” on the discussions taking place in the field. The issues they raise are important for all of us-parents, classroom teachers, reading specialists, coaches and administrators- to ponder and discuss, so that all our well-intentioned efforts pay off. You can find the recordings here. They are available both as videos and as podcasts and include links to further resources.
This is a guest blog by Miriam Fein. Miriam is a speech-language pathologist and licensed reading specialist. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and supports students from early elementary through high school with reading, spelling, writing, and language skills. She believes in the power of evidence-informed, systematic, and compassionate teaching for all learners.