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Changing Classroom Reading Instruction

A discussion about the challenges of classroom-level reading instruction led by four superintendents of large districts and one education publisher has the potential to be a rhetorical dance at 30,000 feet (Head, meet Wall!). But at a gathering held Tuesday by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, the panelists thankfully hovered closer to the ground, touching on teachers' practical instructional concerns as well as more general problems associated with school leadership, professional development, and curriculum.

At the two-hour event, titled "The Literacy Challenge: Getting Reading Right in More Classrooms," Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools, spoke about the nuances of reading instruction and the obstacles to selecting an effective program, drawing frequently on her own teaching experience. Reading instruction is typically broken into four basic areas, she noted: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension (including vocabulary development). Most reading programs tend to do a deep dive into just one of those categories, said Anderson—and "almost no program is good at all of those."

On top of that, Anderson said, the individual research-based programs are often cost prohibitive. For instance, the Wilson Reading System has proven effective for students struggling with decoding. (Anderson even contended that "the core concepts of Wilson should be in every classroom and transparent to every teacher.") But the materials are expensive and require extensive training for teachers, making the program infeasible in many places.

Further, said Anderson, most reading programs "are aimed at students and bypass teachers." They fail to "teach teachers the very fundamentals of reading," and those that do make an attempt fall short of helping teachers understand the complexity of how the four areas of reading interrelate. "Teaching reading and writing at really high levels is kind of rocket science," she said. "We need to change the conversation ... and acknowledge it's a complex process."

Mark Vineis, founder and president of Mondo Publishing, a vendor for literacy materials and professional development, said literacy instruction is equally about great tools and great teacher support. "Sometimes boxes of books land in classrooms and are not opened," he said. "We need to help teachers understand why they're doing what they're doing everyday."

Preservice teacher training has contributed to subpar reading instruction as well, according to John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. New teachers are "by and large nowhere remotely near prepared to come in and do the task," he said. In part, that's because "we train [secondary] teachers to have subject-matter competency first as opposed having every teacher learn how to have students read texts first. ... After 5th grade, our teacher corps doesn't know how to teach reading."

Ten years ago, in an attempt to improve reading instruction, the San Juan Unified School District turned to a strict basal reading program, added Glynn Thompson, who became the district's interim superintendent for the 2011-2012 school year. Thompson railed against the approach, saying it "turned teachers into textbooks" and "reinforced compliance over innovation and what's right for students." These days, he said, teachers in San Juan are involved in discussions around literacy and there's a focus on professional development rather than a particular program.

The panelists also discussed the issue of "curricular coherence," offering vaguely different definitions of what that entails. Anderson said that curricular coherence can be a polarizing topic when viewed as adherence to one program, and that she thinks the best teaching comes out of the "messy middle." Some of the most impressive reading teachers she's seen have created their own materials from a hodgepodge of reading programs' best practices, she said in an interview after the event.

Vineis responded that coherence is less polarizing—and even appreciated—when teachers are confident they will be supported in their implementation. Deasy argued that, to him, coherence does not mean "uniformity," or a "scripted method," but rather that students end up with a particular skillset, regardless of the vehicle for getting there.

Jean-Claude Brizard, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said coherence in classroom instruction is essential so that school instructional leaders can stay apprised of what's going on with students. In high-performing schools, instructional leaders "understand where the kids are, how the 1st grade assessment works. ...[They] really understand the everyday life of a teacher," he said. That way they can implement job-embedded professional development rather than in-and-out two hour assemblies. The Common Core standards, Brizard added, "will give us quite a bit of leverage to work with."

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