The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What is The Best Way to Teach Reading?






Today’s post is a copy of the comments I made in response to phonics supporters statements in Dianne Ravitch’s blog. I’m repeating them here (revised) in order to be clear about my beliefs

In response to Michael Petrelli’s recent article, which recommended phonics based teaching, I believe that phonics is more difficult for young students to learn than becoming familiar with written words and acquiring the ability to name them. 

Unfortunately, Michael Petrilli is not the expert we can trust when it comes to determining the best way to teach reading. Continually, he denies the reality of readers’ instant word recognition, and maintains his own belief in the necessity to blend letter sounds together until they become a word. Then, he suggests repeating that process until the words grouped together become a sentence, and then all sentences become a message. 

As a successful teacher of reading in four elementary schools, and later, a school principal in two states, I am disturbed by Petrilli’s descriptions of the reading process and his claims of successful instruction using phonics. Even though teaching phonics has never been prominent in our public schools, its supporters have consistently claimed that it is the right way to teach reading there. 

In phonics based teaching, students are expected to sound out letters, which are grouped together and translate them into a single word. In contrast, the whole language approach teaches students the pronunciation of words, not their spelling. Thus, these students are able to make sense of many written words quickly and to remember them without sounding out their letters. The latter system system turns out to be much easier for teachers to use, and far more successful for students to learn than the former.

What good teachers in regular classrooms do is take students through the process of recognizing and remembering new words.  In addition, steady and pleasurable practice with poems, songs, and games provide them with the ease and satisfaction of recognizing and remembering words when they see them again. 

Although learning to read may take more time for children who are not familiar with the pleasure of books or have not been read to regularly, they can become readers by remembering the appearance of written words that were earlier heard, understood and liked. That is the normal way all children ultimately learn to read and write. 

Ultimately, I believe that students of all ages and abilities must recognize that neither spoken nor written English is what it used to be. 

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My Suggestions for a Happier School Year


To be absolutely honest I must tell you that the piece below is a replicate of one I posted long ago. Why? Because the folks in charge of education didn’t listen to me the first time, and now they need even more to do so. Be advised that my proposals are not only significant but also cheaper than the test-drenched activities now in place.!

Move Our Best Principals and Teachers Into Our Struggling Schools 

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into struggling schoolsby offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and students’ parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, experience, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities. Those who take them on should be given additional planning time during the school day, and their accomplishments should count toward future salary increases

Cut Back on Standardized Testing

Not only is standardized testing extremely expensive, it also allows tested subjects to crowd out other subjects, and test preparation to become almost a subject in itself. Moreover, tests influence teaching style, making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice format. Both students and schools would be better served if such tests were given only at a few grade levels  and classroom teachers wrote their own tests based on the school curriculum.

Evaluate Teachers on Their Performances, Not Those of Students

Because too many factors beyond a teacher’s control affect students’ test scores, a teacher’s performance should not be judged on those scores.  What students learn comes as much from home and neighborhood, the state of their health, and personal interactions as from classroom instruction.  Moreover, each student makes daily choices about what to work hard at, what to give lip service to, and what to ignore completely.

Convert Schools in High Poverty Areas into Full-Time Community Centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into a school building and making them available in the evenings and on weekends year round, schools could provide necessary social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and alsoinclude recreational and self-improvement activities which are now in short supply.

Provide High-Poverty Children With The Background Knowledge They May Have Missed

What makes a school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but the meagerness of social, cultural and literary experience. What many of them have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities

Provide Social Support For Poor Families

By moving as many community services as possible into a school building and making them available in the evenings and on weekends year round, schools could provide necessary social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also include recreational and self-improvement activities which are now in short supply.

Offer Early Retirement to Burned-Out Teachers and Incentives for Ineffective Teachers to Resign or Transfer To Non-teaching Positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher is a long and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step in any school district is to insure systematic evaluations of all teachers with prompt feedback and plans of assistance. Ultimately, any teacher marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, suggestions of alternative careers, and a dignified resignation process. Older teachers who have become worn out should be offered monetary incentives to retire early.  The school district would benefit by having the opportunity to hire new teachers at much lower salaries.

 
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Phooey on Phonics!


I am sorry to have to say it, but Michael Petrilli is not the expert we can trust when it comes to determining the best way to teach reading. Continually, he denies the reality of readers’ instant word recognition, and maintains his belief in the necessity to blend letter sounds together until they become a word. Then, he suggests repeating the process until all the words grouped together become a sentence, and all sentences become a message. As a successful teacher of reading in four elementary schools, and later, a school principal in two states, I am disturbed by Petrilli’s descriptions of the reading process, and his frequent claims of successful instruction using phonics. Even though teaching phonics has never been prominent in our public schools, its supporters have consistently claimed that it is the right way to teach reading there. 

What is expected of students who are being taught phonics is the ability to sound out letters grouped together and to translate them into a single word. In contrast, students in public schools are taught the pronunciation of a word, not it’s spelling. Thus they become able to make sense of many written words quickly, and to remember them without sounding out their letters. That system turns out to be much easier for teachers to use, and far more successful for students to learn than phonics. 

What teachers in regular classrooms do is to take students through the process of recognizing and remembering new words.  Steady and pleasurable practice with poems, songs, and games will provide them with the ease and satisfaction of recognizing and remembering words when they see them again. 

Today most respected reading specialists believe that children with difficulty learning to read will not do any better by undergoing phonics instruction. They are more likely to become more confused and dismayed than they were before.

Finally, I don’t know of any university professor who claims that phonics will work when the ordinary teaching of reading has not yet succeeded. Only phonics teachers and their supporters have maintained that belief.  Moreover, all the law suitthat have attempted to push phonics into public schools have been unsuccessful thus far.

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There’s More to Education than Reading,Writing, and Math


Last week I read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that seemed to be a copy of others I had read before. It told the story of a teenage boy shooting and killing a school classmate because he had insulted him. As you might expect, the results were family heartache, the shooters’ arrest, and his punishment. Although most people think that restricting gun ownership is the only way to prevent more of such tragedies, I see other ways to stop kids from shooting each other and instead work happily together. And so, I will describe some of them here today. *****************************************************************************************************************

Basically, I believe that schools should be places where students feel safe and see themselves as successful and likable human beings. If things don’t go right many of them may be headed for trouble instead. Only when schools recognize students’ personal needs, along with their learning needs, and aim to meet both of them, will there be educational success. Students will see their schoolwork as reasonable and beneficial, themselves as winners, their teachers and classmates as friends, and education as a good time in their lives.

What kinds of learning activities do I suggest for schools? Well, where I was principal we chose ones that were beyond the classroom but appropriate for the ages, interests, and abilities of students. In our lower grade classrooms we provided plants, flowers, and small animals that needed regular attention, and gave students the responsibility to take care of them. For our middle school students the opportunity to learn adult jobs seemed appropriate, so many of them were tought to serve school lunches, clean up and re-organize the school gym after games, and collect daily classroom trash. Our upper school students were assigned to work inside and outside the school. A few of the smartest ones went through classroom trashcans every week in order to take out any articles that were re-salable. Because of their efforts the school earned enough money to buy worthy school materials every year. As a result of their out-of-cllasroom activities most of our students felt successful inside and outside the classroom, and learned skills and adult behavior that would benefit them in the future. I hope with all my heart that all of them succeeded.

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Teach Reading as Pleasure, Not Punishment


Although I don’t usually remember or quote aphorisms, I’m haunted by one written by John Holt in How Children Fail: “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” Watching children in classrooms struggle with flashcards, workbooks, and other paraphernalia for reading instruction, I can’t help thinking that we’ve trapped them in a forest of systems, diagnoses, and prescriptions that keep them from “seeing the trees”–which in life are reading and writing! Of all the things we expect children to learn in school, reading has the strongest motivating power because it’s a useful and pleasurable activity. Yet many of our young children are still stuck in the mud of being unable to read much beyond their own names. How can we help them

Formal school instruction turns kids off to reading by taking enjoyment, adventure, and usefulness out of it. Mainly, it regiments the reading process so that learning is allowed only in a proscribed and measured sequence. For instance, reading is taught by barring most of the significant forms of print, such as comic books, cereal boxes, and advertisements. When occasionally, the real print world does creep inside a classroom, many teachers act as the literate interpreters of words so that children don’t have to face the need to read.

Also, by emphasizing “decoding skills” in the classroom we divert children from reading real stories and messages, and instead have them work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and strange words. We ask questions about symbols, rather than stories. We expect them to decode a page of print on which they recognize only a fraction of the words. We have them practice identifying words on flashcards that have no context. We may even give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true, such as: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (How ironic that the only word in that rule has two vowels together–“does”–is an exception). We divert children from reading real stories and messages in order to work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, messages and large words. We make them interrupt their understanding of a story to sound-out unfamiliar words that remain meaningless afterword. And finally, we expect them to decode a page of print where they recognize only a few of the words. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers forget–even though many children need to discover– that every printed page is supposed to make sense! Instead we should write messages to each child from time to time and expect them to write back to us, their classmates, and their parents.

In addition we use formal instruction that turns ease into drudgery with reading tasks that are boring, meaningless, and painful. We divert children from reading real stories and messages to working out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and words: Write in the missing letters in the words below so that each one rhymes with “game.” We ask questions about styles rather than stories: “which word in that sentence begins with a consonant blend? We give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (but the only word in that rule that has two vowels together –Does– is an exception to that rule.

Actually, learning to read is easy– certainly more so than learning the grammar of one’s native language, which almost all children have done by the time they enter school. It’s just a matter of cracking a 26-symbol code that corresponds to the language they already speak. If kids can recite nursery rhymes, figure out what Mom and Dad are spelling at the dinner table and put together a jigsaw puzzle in 30 seconds; reading should also be a cinch for them. Why then are so many of our schools unable to turn children’s natural motivation, speaking experience, and learning ability into reading competence? The answer is that most schools use the hard way to teach what is really very simple. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers may forget, and children never discover, that a printed page is supposed to make sense!

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