Every teacher has students who keep you up at night, because you want and know you can do more. You want to help each student reach his or her fullest potential – you want your vision of what you know the student is capable of to materialize. How do you shake your frustration and actually accomplish this well-meaning, yet daunting task? How do you get “unstuck” and actually move the needle in helping the student to learn the skills that have thus far evaded you?
During my first years of teaching, I lost many nights of sleep thinking about how I could be a better reading teacher for my students. In my naivete as a new teacher with a few weeks of alternative certification training, I did not understand how difficult teaching literacy skills to students who struggle with dyslexia was. This is especially true for teachers like myself who felt that learning to read was intuitive and do not remember the various and often contradictory phonics rules. (Side note: I’ve witnessed teachers, who had their own struggles with dyselxia, excel at teaching students to read). I used materials that were “too childish” for older students with abnormally large colorful text and illustrations. Lacking the necessary training, I would try to implement a boxed curriculum that was clearly not resulting in the sufficient progress the students deserved.
I asked for help to little avail and felt severely unqualified to help my students. After these experiences, I took classes, read countless books and attended trainings such as Orton Gillingham. I vowed I would do better for my students, and I would not let another student fall through the cracks.
I would give anything to have the opportunity to go back and teach some of my students – especially knowing the statistics surrounding illiteracy that paint a stark picture for longitudinal outcomes. According to an Education Week article citing a study by the American Education Research Association: “A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer (Sparks, 2011, p. 1).” The oft cited statistic that prison wardens look at third grade reading levels to predict future numbers of prison beds is actually an urban myth (Hudson, 2012). However, any third grade teacher will tell you anecdotally there is an enormous leap in rigor, length of text, and exposure to non-fiction in this grade that can make a break or break a child’s experience, which is why studies use this grade as a predictor of future success. According to a University of Chicago study, third grade is where students are no longer learning to read but to reading to learn (Lesnick, 2010, p. 2). If students are not reading on grade level by this age, students will face more difficulty understanding the content in class, which could in turn cause more frustration, lack of attention, and/or anxiety. Of course, our efforts must transcend third grade; however, this demarcation reminds us of that reading is the key to unlock content after 3rd grade, and we must find resources to help students access their education while also providing foundational reading instruction.
Wiring of the brain
The fact that your brain is allowing you to read this website right now is a prodigious task. Your brain is multi-tasking and leveraging different parts simultaneously including synthesizing visual information, relying on working memory to apply phonics rules seamlessly, and accessing how you interpret language. How all these functions and brain activities seamlessly can tie together is truly a feat. The brain’s ability to read is a newer phenomenon in terms of the development of the human race; reading has only been around for 4 thousand years while speaking has been hard-wired into the human brain for four million years (Sprenger, 2013, p. 39).
When there is a hiccup in this robust limbic system, students can struggle with the reading process.
According to brain scans, Sprenger in 2013 wrote that struggling readers:
- Use different parts of their brain to read.
- Are working harder than non-struggling readers.
- There are different language pathways for novice vs. skilled readers. Beginning readers rely on the parieto-temporal lobe when reading to slowly sound out a word. On the other hand, more advanced readers rely on the occipitotemporal lobe, where information can be quickly accessed. (Sprenger, 2013, p. 42). Therefore, novice readers become skilled readers when word recognition is more automatic and can rely more on the occipitotemporal lobe. In contrast, students with Dyslexia rely more heavily on the Broca’s area that connects letters to sounds and are not accessing either of the temporal lobes.
Source for image and link to accompanying blog post
The great news is that brain scans also show that various interventions can help rewire the brains of students with dyslexia (Sprenger, 2013, p. 32), which involves explicit instruction of reading skills and practice applying these skills to instill automaticity with word recognition, develop neural pathways and distribute the cognitive load to other parts of the brain such as the occipitotemporal lobe.
The Big Five Reading Skills:
As special education teachers, we are called to this profession to leverage every resource available to change or enhance the life trajectories for our students. We know each student is more than a statistic, and with the appropriate supports, we can help our students reach their fullest potential. I don’t need to convince you of the value of teaching students this life skill. If you had similar experiences with teaching reading, you know the hard part is the actual instruction. Were you ever handed a reading curriculum with no training or manual? I know I have been put in that situation, and I felt ill equipped to implement the curriculum with fidelity and best support the students. Of course, training for any reading curriculum is essential for quality reading instruction.
Also, I believe there is no “magic” reading curriculum that will be the be all end all for all students. Recently, Lucy Calkin’s Reader’s Workshop came under fire for not following evidence-based reading practices by incorporating all of the necessary reading skills. This was shocking news to many, since this curriculum seemed synonymous with educational common sense. To me, this controversy, underscores how the educational echo chamber will embrace blindly the latest de rigueur curriculum. Curricula will come and go – teachers are always the ones left to toe the line between implementing a flurry of reforms and meeting the needs of their students by leveraging every resource possible. That being said, I personally see Reader’s Workshop – like many other curricula – as a great jumping off point. Explicit teaching of reading skills and providing students with independent time to read within their Zone of Proximal Development are all useful endeavors. For Reader’s Workshop to actually work for all students, teachers must be well versed and be able to augment the curriculum by including all of the five explicit skills that are part of a balanced literacy diet.
The book Reading Instruction That Works defines the five skills that are part of a balanced literacy diet as: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension (Allington & Pressley, 2010, p. 2). I also created a separate section for sight words, which is a huge part of fluency, since automaticity with these words will help students access most texts. Each of these skills build upon each other for the ultimate goal of reading comprehension. Since there is no one size fits all curriculum, I will detail different teaching strategies, instructional tools, assessments and potential Sample IEP Goals and Sample Sample Accommodations if necessary to help provide well-rounded and skills-based reading instruction. I would love to add to this list, so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your own recommendations for teaching reading!
Cultural Competence Note:
Have you ever heard the argument that teaching a student to read in their first language, also known as the L1, is a waste of time, since standardized testing will be in English? This argument assumes that time teaching a student to read in their non-English L1 would be better served by the student jumping directly to reading in a second language – their L2. Asking a struggling reader without a strong reading foundation in their L1 to learn how to read in their L2 is akin to you learning nuclear physics in a different language – it is already a difficult task and adding the language barrier only further complicates the learning process.
There are not always resources to teach a student in their L1; not every school will have a teacher who can speak, read, or write in a specific L1. (I once taught at a school with over 30 languages spoken!) However, when possible, finding ways to strengthen a student’s L1 is not only evidence based practice – it is also speaks to the core of IDEA, which is creating an “individualized” plan for the student. Incorporating metacognitive teaching strategies to teach students the difference between their L1 and L2 will help bolster success. A metacognitive teaching opportunity could be discussing the difference in common syllables for Spanish (cv – lo, la, le, li) vs. English (cvc – cat, hat, mat) or creating a t-chart for vowels and corresponding visuals in the student’s L1 and L2 to point to if a student is confusing application of these sounds.
Where did I find this cool stuff?
University of Oregon. Big ideas in beginning reading (n.d.). Retrieved on October 19th, 2019 from http://reading.uoregon.edu/big_ideas/
Allington, R. & Pressley, M. (2015). Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching. (4th ed., p.2). New York, NY and London, UK: The Guilford Press.
Guo, L. (2018). Modeling the relationship of metacognitive knowledge, L1 reading ability, L2 reading ability, L2 language proficiency and L2 reading. Reading in a Foreign Language. (30) 2, 209 – 231.
Hudson, J. (2012, July 12). An urban myth that should be true. The Atlantic. Retrieved on October 19th, 2019 from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/07/an-urban-myth-that-should-be-true/259329/
Lesnick, J., Goerge, R., Smithgall, C., & Gwynne J. (2010). Reading on grade level in third grade: How is it related to high school performance and college enrollment? A report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Sparks, S. (2011, April 8). Study: Third grade reading predicts later high school graduation. Education Week. Retrieved on October 19th, 2019 from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/inside-school-research/2011/04/the_disquieting_side_effect_of.html
Sprenger, M. (2013). Wiring the Brain for Reading: Brain-based Teaching Strategies for Teaching Literacy. San Francisco: Wiley & Sons.
Vaughn, S. & Linan-Thompson, S. (2004). Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction, Grades K-3. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.