To script or not to script?

What do you think of when you hear the word “scripted” pop up in conversations about teaching reading?

For some teachers, the associations are negative. They may think of mindless robotic lesson delivery that strips teachers of their autonomy and creativity and turns them into zombies. The word can trigger worries about limitations in the ability to adapt teaching to the individual needs of students. However, some teachers who understand the benefit of explicit, systematic instruction may embrace a program that lays everything out in a step-by-step recipe.

At the same time, proponents of structured literacy approaches may also take pains to explain that explicit, systematic instruction does not necessarily mean “teaching from a script”. As is often the case, the issue is nuanced. There are several aspects and components of teaching reading that might be scripted, from phonics to vocabulary to comprehension; from the exact words that a teacher speaks to the exact amounts of time allotted to various parts of a lesson, to the precise day-to-day sequence of lessons. The benefits or drawbacks of “scripting” these various components may differ.

Follow a scope and sequence but be responsive to students

We know how important it is to follow a well-designed scope and sequence when teaching phonic correspondences and skills. This ensures we don’t leave anything to chance, and it is part of the very definition of systematic instruction. However, I think it’s worth being wary of programs that provide a highly detailed day-by-day sequence of lessons. We need to be responsive to our students and there should be built-in flexibility that allows us to adjust pacing and tailor our choices of particular instructional routines or word lists to our students while maintaining the logic and design of a systematic program. What we do in tomorrow’s lesson should certainly be informed by how our students did in today’s lesson. A good curriculum provides teachers with clear and explicit guidelines and considerations for making these choices.

The type of scripting that often elicits the most discomfort involves the word-for-word precise language that teachers are asked to say in some programs. Yet, I think it is actually this kind of scripting that can be most be most valuable, particularly for phonics. The language we use with our students can be a powerful lever for directing their attention and driving their learning. With repetition, they can also begin to internalize the simple and clear language we use and it can help foster their independence. If the language is overly wordy or unclear or inconsistent, we run the risk of confusing our students. We may understand what we want them to do, but do they?

Of course, there are good scripts and not-so-good scripts. After all, in many balanced literacy approaches, teachers are directed to ask their students specific questions using specific wording such as, “Look at the picture”, “Does it sound right?”, “Does it look right?”. This, too, is scripted language, but I would argue, not the helpful kind. Provided the language is carefully and thoughtfully designed, sticking to a script can be the opposite of “mindless”; it can be a conscious choice to use a powerful instructional tool.

#phonics #teachingphonics #scopeandsequence #structuredliteracy #systematicinstruction


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. 

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