As a school system, I believe we are getting better at differentiating our instruction. I’ve just spent the first week of school in discussion with many colleagues about the importance of getting to know our students, their learning style, and their interests. Students have completed sensory checklists, multiple intelligence surveys, “get to know you” activities, etc. We understand that students do better when they are allowed to show what they know in a format that best suits them; some may prefer an oral presentation, some a report, and some might create a video outlining their understanding of a given unit. We understand that student choice does make a difference; students are more engaged if they can follow their own interests. Concepts like “Genius Hour” are gaining momentum and students are loving this “self-directed” time at school.

I do believe, however, that there is one area that we are falling behind in our differentiation journey – reading instruction for struggling readers. Our schools are filled with knowledgeable teachers who have been trained use a whole language approach within a balanced literacy block to shape their instruction. Our book rooms are filled with leveled readers that cover the interests and capture the imagination of readers of all ages and abilities. Instruction includes a word study component that is often phonics based, encouraging students to explore word parts and sounds.  The trouble is that we have a selection of students in each class that are not thriving with this approach. They are not able to take what they are learning in word study and apply it t0 the vast vocabulary they are exposed to in leveled readers. They struggle to hear the sounds in the English Language (phonological awareness). They struggle to learn and remember the high frequency words that are the basis for leveled readers. Once they do pick up enough of these words to get by, they struggle to solve new words that they come across and fail to progress. They have not, for lack of a better description, managed to learn how to break “the code” of the English Language. Teachers often recognize that students are not thriving, but the truth is, they are simply not aware of, or not trained in, alternative methods for teaching reading.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not anti a whole language approach. Many students do incredibly well with this style of teaching. They seem wired to thrive; their brains pick up the patterns in the English Language, often subconsciously, and can focus their attention on gaining meaning from the rich texts they are exposed to. They can use what they know to figure out what they don’t know. The word study component of the balanced literacy program provides reinforcement and some targeted practice throughout the year that helps solidify trickier concepts as they arise. As an education system, we adopted this method of teaching because it helped students understand that reading is about gaining meaning, and that understanding should always be the number one goal when we pick up any form of text.

The difficulty is that this approach is leaving some students behind; approximately 10 – 15 percent of students, as indicated by research. What tends to happen is that these students are flagged in early primary as students requiring assessment. They are not learning with the method we are teaching, so there must be an issue. We complete academic assessments and/or full psychoeducational assessments to learn more about a student’s strengths and difficulties. Often, these students are identified as having a Learning Disability (or Dyslexia, depending on who completes the assessment). Recommendations are made (extra time for tests, study notes given, allow alternate methods of showing understanding, etc.) and students are often given assistive technology to support them in the classroom. These are all good steps and most certainly help to support these students, but we are often missing the fundamental most critical step; these students still need to be taught to read and write. They can be taught to read and write. They deserve to be taught to read and write.

This is where phonological awareness, systematic phonics instruction, and decodable books can come into play. Many struggling readers benefit from explicit, systematic instruction (a bottom up approach) of the building blocks in the English Language. They need to be taught how to hear the sounds in the English Language and how we represent those sounds on paper. They need to learn how to blend sounds together to read words. They need to be taught the patterns prevalent in the English Language. Then, logically, they need materials and resources to practice these skills. Decodable books have traditionally not been used by teachers using a whole language approach because of the lack of rich stories and natural language structures. Ideally, we want students to learn right from the beginning stages that reading is about gaining meaning. This makes sense, but we also need to keep in mind that students will not be able to independently gain meaning from a text if they are not able to decode it first. If the process needs to happen in two stages (first, learn to decode – second, learn to comprehend), so be it.

So what “next steps” should teachers of literacy be working on? First, we need to acknowledge that there are some students in our system who are not succeeding with our usual approach to teaching literacy. When we find students who are struggling, we need to be prepared to offer a different type of instruction. Second, we need to educate ourselves. Many teachers themselves learned to read with a whole language approach. If we don’t know the fundamental building blocks of the English language ourselves, then it becomes virtually impossible to help our students who might benefit from that form of instruction. Finally, we need to make sure that every book room in every school has a selection of decodable books. It is essential for struggling readers to have the opportunity to practice their their developing literacy skills with controlled texts that only include taught patterns. Not providing alternate instruction and instructional materials creates an inequity for students that will only continue to grow as they progress through our system.

Over the next few months, I plan on delving deeper into some of these next steps. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned along my own journey, and offer resources and ideas that will hopefully help you along yours.

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