The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Experiences in Teaching Reading and Being a Member of the National Reading Panel

After posting a video I loved  about how children learn to read  I decided to be completely open with readers and describe my experiences with teaching reading and being a member of The Nation Reading Panel.

I began my career by teaching first grade in an elementary school near my home in New Jersey. My only training was a summer–long course in the basics of education that I took just after graduating from college where I had majored in “The arts”. Although I was far from knowing what and how to teach anything but drama, I had strong opinions about what should be happening in a primary grade classroom,

The text book I used for my beginning readers was “Fun with Dick and Jane”, a very popular choice in 1952. It told a simple story about the activities of a boy, his younger sister, their parents and their dog. Each page had a large picture of one or more of the characters in action. The written story below was just two or three sentences that described what was pictured above.

Although “Fun with Dick and Jane” was widely criticized by many experts, and finally abandoned by schools, it seemed to work for my students. I kept our reading lessons short and tried to make them enjoyable. I also read aloud other books from our school library and had the children learn to recite poems and sing songs that I knew. As I remember things, in my first year of teaching my students presented three plays in the school auditorium. The first one was a song. accompanied by movement: “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go”; the second a dramatization of “The Little Red Hen” and the third was a student produced version of “Hansel and Gretel”.  I will never forget the girl who played Gretel having trouble pushing the witch into the paper furnace and shouting, “Get in there you Battard”!

Above all, my students saw most of the pieces I read to them as gifts they could sing, recite, turn into a puppet show or read again on their own. Although I still did formal teaching of reading throughout the year, and my students still filled out the usual workbook pages, I saw their learning as the result of their pleasure in literature. At the end of the year I felt confident about promoting all of them to second grade. All of them could read!

Much later– almost fifty years later–as the superintendent and principal of a small rural school district, I was invited to be a member of the “National Reading Panel”, a group of 15 people who had been selected to judge the best pratices in the teaching of reading in order to set standards for good teaching throughout our country. Some members of the Panel were reading researchers, others were university professors in a variety of fields, and two were parents of children with reading difficulties. However, I was the only member of the Panel who had experience teaching reading to young children. The panel’s job was to examine reputable studies on reading and produce a report that would identify the most effective teaching practices. The only assistance we received were lists of the most popular studies, drawn from more than the 100,000 studies published between 1966 and 1998.

Less than a year from when we began our investigation, Congress requested that we submit our report. Explaining our difficulties we begged for more time, and one more year was granted. Still, it was clear to us that we would have to cut our consideration of many studies. What the majority of the panel voted to do was to examine only the studies selected previously by “The National Research Panel” and published in their book,  “Preventing Reading difficulties in Young Children”. Although their selections were relevant to our task, they certainly did not cover the entire field of teaching reading. I and some other members objected to that limited review, but the majority disagreed.

I emphasize this decision because the work of the NRC clearly limited and re-directed our original intention to examine the entire research field which included types of studies beyond what the NRC had used. Although that fact was significant, it was not mentioned in our final report, giving the impression that we had examined a much broader field of research than we did.

It was this decision to narrow our field of study that moved me to write a minority report and request that it be included in the the final report of the National Reading Panel.  Most of the members of the panel were not pleased with my decision, but they consented.

Although the National Reading Panel’s report was released by the federal government in 2000, and its recommendations have influenced teaching practices in countless schools since then, it has not managed to raise the level of reading competence for ordinary students or helped teachers to improve the reading skills of those students who are struggling. I still believe that our recommendations were too narrow.


How Children Learn to Read

Rather than produce something on my own today I am offering you a powerful and well done video created by Debbie Stone Bruell and sent to me by Steve Krashen.  I send it on to my audience because we all need to know the truth about how young children learn to read. On Sunday (or Monday) I will write about my own experience in learning to read and watching my own children learn.

Here is the link:


How Children Learn to Read

Instead of writing something of my own today I am offering a great video about how children learn to read that was created by Debbie Stone Bruell and sent to me by Stephen Krashen. 

I am very sorry that the video failed.  I will try to fix the problem

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Getting Things Right in Oregon’s High Schools


When I opened our local newspaper, The Oregonian, yesterday I was thrilled that at last there was some good news for me to write about. I was especially pleased because the news was about Oregon’s public high schools, which  I feel close to because I taught some of their teachers, and also  because those schools have had a bad reputation for a long time. I will give you the details below.

Over the past several years Oregon’s high school graduation rates have been the third worst in the nation. But in 2017 those schools produced their biggest improvement since the measurement system began eight years ago. In addition, they are doing a far better job of helping Latino, high poverty, and special education students to graduate on time.

Although last year’s graduation rate of 77 percent  is only one point higher than that of the previous year, there is considerable evidence that schools are moving in the right direction. The State Schools officer, Colt Gill, declared that “Oregon schools have made impressive strides at making instruction far more culturally relevant for students of color, tracking students’ individual progress, and honoring bilingual students for their skill.’’

Many of the educators from the schools and districts that achieved high graduation rates are eager to talk about their role in helping students succeed. One school in a rural area had top graduation rates, even though one third of its students were from low-income homes. Another school, where 25 percent of the students are Latino and 50 percent are from low-income families, produced a graduation rate of 92 percent that was better than the rates of schools with much wealthier student populations.

In addition several high schools have adopted a number of programs aimed at catching students before they get into serious trouble. For example, one school gives individualized support to those kids who are showing signs of problems at home, slipping in their school attendance, or not caring much about their classroom performance. Detailed records of those students’ progress are kept in the school office and given close attention by the principal. As one said, “We chase kids down and we let them know we really believe in them.”

Students with disabilities have also received increased attention and assistance. As a result, their graduation rates have risen markedly. One high school assigned a special education teacher to work with regular teachers in all the important classes that have a number of special education students. As a result, 81 percent of those students earned diplomas on time last year. Four other high schools that also had large numbers of disabled students were only slightly behind in their graduation rates.

Although Oregon still has a way to go to match the graduation rates of such states  as Iowa and New Jersey, that are currently graduating 90 percent of their students on time, it is on the right track and determined to get even better results each year from now on.

What impressed me most about the actions of Oregon’s high schools was their emphasis on giving understanding and support to students who needed them instead of threats or punishment.  In every other article I’ve read about efforts to improve student behavior in low performing schools, the actions of school leaders were always some form of tightening the screws on students and teachers. Oregon’s school leaders have taken the high road in choosing to improve the lives of students, and in so doing improved their reputation and their own lives.


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 The Other Purpose of Education

Again, this past week I found nothing in my regular sources to write about. Not only have the questions of what to do with immigrants who came as children and whether or not to build a wall taken over our newspapers and television talk shows. They have also aroused in us powerless citizens the question of “why can’t our powerful and experienced leaders get along?”

Far too many politicians and ordinary citizens have forgotten that the purpose of American education is as much to support a democratic society, as it is to make students “college and career ready.” They have also forgotten that the proof of the pudding is not how well our students’ test scores compare with those of other countries but the proportion of American citizens who are leading intelligent, productive, and caring lives.

Ideally, civic learning begins and continues for children at home, mostly by watching, listening, and imitating what good parents do. But not all homes are wise and harmonious, and even the best ones cannot offer the full range of experiences that civic maturity requires.

Traditionally, schools were expected to reinforce civic actions as children grew older, such as developing friendships with students of different backgrounds and taking responsibility for their own behavior. But now the pressure to raise test scores and increase graduation rates has forced most schools to abandon those responsibilities. In enacting harsh discipline policies and expecting academic achievement beyond what is normal, the demands for better test scores have all but wiped out the opportunities for teachers to teach and students to learn the basics of good citizenship. In addition, schools have been forced to reduce or eliminate recesses, and cut back on classes such as art, music, and physical education, where students are most likely to interact positively.

Although teachers do not have the power to change the school curricula or the emphasis on testing, they can eliminate some of the harsh practices that have come with them.  Teachers may still set up processes in the classroom that allow students to have power and work together, such as selecting books to read, planning projects, and developing classroom rules. When students feel that “this is our classroom” rather than the teacher’s personal domain, they will learn how to be responsible citizens in their own school community.

At the school-wide level it is up to administrators to establish policies that respect students’ rights and personal dignity, even when they have broken the rules. One common practice should be giving students a fair hearing before setting any punishment. That means a private meeting with the adults involved after everyone’s temper has cooled. In really serious matters, a hearing before a committee made up of the principal, a few teachers, and one or two community members is the best choice. As for consequences, schools should reconsider suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses by older students and any errors  by young children.

The next step in civic education is having students share decision making with adults in ways that are age-appropriate.  For instance, elementary grade students can work with teachers to choose new playground games and set the rules of participation, while high school students should serve on groups that make decisions about what is best for them, such as curriculum committees and even the local School Board.

In their free time students of all ages should be encouraged to join with adults on local projects such as planting a community garden, adopting a road, or building a playground in a neighborhood that has none.

Once more, I remind you that giving all this attention to student citizenship is not an unreasonable expectation. Until high stakes testing took over our schools, demanding that every school day and every bit of student and teacher effort be dedicated to raising test scores, public support for character building in schools was common. But now, the legislators concerned about school “accountability” have no interest in how students treat each other or how schools treat their students.

Concern for the growth of responsibility and humanity in our children should never be out of style.









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