The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Why Not Let Teachers Rather than Publishers and Experts Teach Reading?

on June 5, 2016

Having dutifully waited a week for The Oregonian to publish my letter criticizing a new decision in the Portland (OR) public schools on how to teach reading, it appears that the only topic worthy of attention is the argument about teaching climate change.  For that reason I am posting the major parts of the original newspaper article, leaving out only the opinions of various consultants and school district employees, and my letter in response.  

Unfortunately, I had to be more brief than I wanted to be because of word limits specified by the newspaper. What I would have liked to add was that in both elementary schools where I was principal we used no commercial reading programs or work sheets.  Our teachers knew how to teach reading from their own training and experience, and  they used only high quality literature that they believed was developmentally appropriate and appealing for their students.  In addition to group reading assignments and discussions, students were expected to read books of their own choice in their down time at school and for homework.  

During the 12 years of my tenure at a high poverty school in Oregon the state authorized a 3rd to 5th grade progress test in reading and math for all schools.  A report in The Oregonian noted: ” Only one school in the region, Cottrell GradeSchool  (our school) showed high gains in both math and reading.” At another time when both math and reading tests were given, the newspaper observed  that” Fifth-grade students in the tiny Cottrell School District scored highest in math tests among 44 elementary schools in North Clacamas and East Multnomah counties.” and “Cottrell, along with Damascus and West Orient tied for second place in reading.”


Portland Public Schools, searching for a new way to teach young students to read and write after years of struggle, has decided to go it alone.

At the strong urging of teachers and other educators who’ve sampled various reading series, Oregon’s largest district on Tuesday rejected offerings from every major publisher. Instead, it decided to buy six components from five companies and combine them into a unique reading and writing curriculum of its own.

Beaverton schools have already made a similar shift and will add the same main reading program that Portland picked, Units of Study in Reading, to all 33 of its elementary and K-8 schools this summer.

Portland picked teachers from about three dozen schools who tried the six components it plans to adopt, plus a seventh program it didn’t pick up, for much of this winter and spring. District officials measured some of the results, but so far have declined to release the findings.

Mainstream reading programs, which contain scripted lessons designed to teach phonics, fluent reading, accuracy, comprehension and vocabulary, are called comprehensive core reading programs. Research into how young readers learn, along with a big nudge from the federal No Child Left Behind law, enshrined them as standard in nearly all U.S. schools over the past decade and half.

But after Portland Public Schools’ current reading series, Scott Foresman’s Reading Street, didn’t pan out well, district officials were open to novel options. A district selection committee eventually suggested forgoing any mainstream reading series until at least 2023.

In 2014, the last year Oregon’s old state tests were given, 27 percent of the district’s third-graders failed the reading exam. In 2015, using the more challenging Smarter Balanced tests, 43 percent of Portland third-graders, including about 70 percent of blacks and Latinos, fell short of the national proficiency standard

This fall, the new approach will be fully implemented in all Beaverton elementary schools and in 10 of Portland’s 56 elementary and K-8 schools. Portland plans to provide the new materials to its remaining 46 schools over the next two years.

Both districts plan to rely heavily on teachers’ judgment to interpret test results and customize lessons, small group work and independent assignments to match the needs of individual readers, said Portland’s Martin and Beaverton’s Nicole Will, administrator for elementary curriculum, instruction and assessment

Both Portland and Beaverton plan three full days of training in August for K-5 teachers in schools adopting the new programs. The districts also plan to offer whole and partial days of training during the year. Portland will also pay eight full-time coaches for the 10 schools that get the books this year: Arleta, Bridger, Forest Park, Grout, Laurelhurst, Lewis, Sitton, Vernon, Vestal and Whitman.

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools were still tied to commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several programs to create a new program. By this time experienced educators and their superiors should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

One response to “Why Not Let Teachers Rather than Publishers and Experts Teach Reading?

  1. Shaari Hlebechuk says:

    I wish you were our superintendent. No one seems to make decisions based on what is right for the child anymore, rather what is best for improved test scores. It is so very sad and frustrating as an educator of young children.


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