The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

One Way to Teach Reading

on June 30, 2016

In a piece I posted a few days ago I promised to write something about the teaching of reading in the schools where we didn’t use any commercial materials.  I have tried to do that below without too much self-aggrandizement, but I’m afraid it leaked through.  What I don’t mention here is that I had taught elementary and middle school grades for several years before I taught high school English or became a principal, and what I learned through those experiences are now my beliefs about the teaching of reading.

In 1966 I left my job as a middle school teacher in Wisconsin to become the English Department Chair at a new high school in the same school district. During my first year on the job the school district administration selected new high school English textbooks and authorized schools to order them for their students. However, it was not a mandate.  A school could decide not to purchase the designated texts and continue to use older texts or buy “supplementary materials” of their own choosing.

Given that opportunity for freedom, I told my teachers to choose works of fiction and non-fiction that they believed would be right for their students, and we would spend our money allotment on them rather than textbooks.  We could always use our old texts for classic poetry and short stories and to find information about famous authors of the past to supplement our chosen materials.

Eight years later I changed jobs again, this time to become an elementary school principal. But I did not change my policy of spending the allotted funds on modern fiction and non-fiction. Like the high school teachers, our elementary grade teachers bought paperback copies of modern works of fiction and non-fiction that they believed were appropriate for their students’ ages, interests, and abilities.  This time, however, we bought more titles in smaller numbers because reading instruction was done in small groups.

Teachers made their own choices of books they thought most appropriate for their grade levels, plus a few others for students who were advanced or behind in their reading competence.  After the first year of purchasing books, we had such a large variety of titles that teachers felt completely free to go beyond their original choices as long as they did not select books that were designated for other grades.

Over the 12 years that I was principal at that school we amassed a book collection that filled an entire storage room. We repaired worn book covers with masking tape, gave away a few books that had proved unpopular, and bought some new titles each year.

In 1988 I moved to Oregon and found a job as the superintendent/principal in a rural district with only one elementary school and one middle school. Teachers in both schools were tired of the commercial materials recommended by the state, and again, we had the freedom to spend our funds as we saw fit. The path teachers chose was the same as the one in Wisconsin. The only difference was that as often as possible teachers chose some books aligned with other subjects they taught besides reading. They easily found works of fiction that were based on American history and a few about life in other parts of the world or ones about famous scientists and their work.

As the official observer and evaluator of teaching and student learning at all my schools, I was pleased by what I saw in classrooms, and even more so as time passed. It was clear to me that students liked the books assigned and were learning about history, geography, and human behavior through their reading.  Because we gathered so many different titles and types of books over time, teachers were able to offer students choices of books to read and to abandon the few books that did not work well in their classes.

If readers are wondering how we taught phonics, vocabulary, spelling, fluency, and close reading without textbooks, worksheets, or tests, the truth is that we didn’t teach any of those things as separate skills.  They were all integrated–and only when needed– into the reading and discussions of the books we had. One thing that several teachers chose to include when teaching fiction was asking students to keep a diary for a character of their choice. In that way they used and improved their abilities in text analysis and writing. More important, however, was their ability to understand the complexities of the world and the behavior of human beings–and, sometimes–animals–through reading.

2 responses to “One Way to Teach Reading

  1. Sue Berthouex says:

    Joanne, it’s good you are sharing this in your blog. I can vouch for teaching reading with modern fiction and non-fiction. I taught in the Madison elementary school when Joanne was principal. The books supported social studies and science and the students were enthusiastic about their reading.


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