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Reading Group Plugs Effective Teacher-Prep Strategies

In literacy circles, today's a day worth noting: International Literacy Day. So the folks at the International Reading Association, which cosponsors the consciousness-raising day, put on a symposium here in Washington about the effective teaching of reading.

Well, it was more like a symposium about good teacher education, with a bit of the reading stuff thrown in. IRA President Vicki Risko gave the audience a tour of recent research about the importance of highly engaged, mentored, field experience for aspiring teachers, and making explicit connections between the stuff they learn in their methods courses and the work they are doing in classrooms.

"The thing that keeps coming up in the research is this explicit, prolonged, guided engagement," she said.

The focus on teaching reading was supplied by Peggy McCardle, the branch chief of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, which studies, among other things, how people learn. Good reading teachers, she said, "know their subject thoroughly," which includes teaching the National Reading Panel's "big five"—phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary—as well as writing and spelling/morphology, she said.

They must know the structure of the English language and how students learn it, and that explicit, systematic instruction is important, but "doesn't need to be boring." They have to know how to monitor student progress and adjust their teaching accordingly, and keep up with emerging research on teaching reading, and how to incorporate it in their classrooms. Finally, good teachers have to be "cognitively flexible," knowing when to stick to the script, and when to dump it, McCardle said.

The audience also got a quick overview of a major reading-research project, the Institute for Education Science's Reading for Understanding initiative. (See here and here for our earlier blog posts about this project.) It's a massive project aimed at unearthing more about how children learn to comprehend what they read, an area that's thinner, from a research standpoint, than how children decode, or sound out words.

The IES' Karen Douglas, a lead program officer on that initiative, said that the five teams have a lot to do, and quickly: They are researching how children at all grade levels learn to comprehend, and then they've got to design and test interventions based on their research. They've got five years to do this, and they've already finished up one year. The timeline is, as Douglas delicately put it, "a very accelerated trajectory."

"We just don't have time to spend 20 more years to figure this out," she said.

An interesting tidbit I didn't know about Reading for Understanding: All the teams are looking at reading across the content areas, not just literary reading, Douglas said. That means they're trying to figure out how learning to comprehend science materials is different from learning to understand history books, and how understanding informational text is different from understanding literary text.

Sounds familiar. More and more folks are talking about building literacy skills across the disciplines and about the importance of reading more informational text, two things that are echoed in the new common standards.

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