The following is in response to Pat Smith’s piece in the Columbus Dispatch, which I highly recommend. http://goo.gl/UA26f
With gratitude and respect, a couple of points:
1) A lot more than 1/3 of our kids are in danger. Every child that is reading below the proficiency level assumed by the written materials in his or her classes – who is reading below the level required for the brain work of reading to be transparent to the mind-work or learning from what they are reading – is in danger. It may not be as severe but they are still, to various degrees: a) struggling more with learning at their grade levels than they would be if their reading was transparent b) susceptible to blaming themselves for their reading compounded difficulties and developing mind-shame. According to NAEP about 2/3 of our children are below proficiency. Yes, it’s debatable but not the inclusion of a lot more than 1/3 of our children when considering the scope and impact of learning to read difficulties.
2) Yes, it would be helpful if teachers better understood the neuroscience and if they learned to employ some of the better methods out there. However, I think, the root of the teaching side of the problem has less to do with scientifically persuading teachers ‘what to believe’ and/or ‘what to use’ and more to do with how they, 1st person, learn about reading through their own experience as readers and through their experience with their struggling readers. How do teachers connect their daily ‘learning through teaching’ with their models and understandings of what reading is, how and why it’s difficult, and where to ‘read’ their readers so as to meet them with what they need? Perhaps the most amazing thing to me, in my interviews with the ‘experts’ in this space is how impoverished their conceptions of reading can be. What I think reading is.
Do we want teachers to be robotic extensions of protocols (that machines can do better) or do we want them to be continually 1st person learning into stewarding the learning of their students? So, rather than stressing ‘what to believe’ or ‘what to do’ I think we have to start more basically and get teachers to authentically ask ‘what is reading?’ ‘what’s at stake?’ ‘what’s involved in learning to read’. There’s just no substitute for their learning. So, my point: we need to focus on how to ignite and resource teacher’s appetites and interests in learning into reading (not just having disconnected abstract knowledge about ‘it’).
3) I think we need to upgrade our understanding of what’s at stake. It’s not just the absence of the ability to read, it’s the collateral damage to the general health of learning. The reason reading difficulties have such a high correspondence with so many negative life outcomes is much more than the absence of the skill and what gets learned through it – it’s what the struggling learner learns about themselves. The entire system conspires (unintentionally but nonetheless pervasively) to cause them to blame themselves for their difficulties. This is a major source of mind-shame. Just as surely as people who are ashamed of their teeth tend to avoid smiling, people who become ashamed of their minds – ashamed of learning – tend to avoid learning.