Back in the saddle again

Hi there. We are back. Did we miss anything? Molly and I have been recharging ourselves and the website, which is now focused on blog posts and a few other resources (talks, articles, our Reading Meetings). We have a lot of issues on our minds and hope to discuss them here. Consider this a (re)start.

If you’re reading this you probably believe, as I do, that literacy outcomes can be improved by using instructional practices and materials that incorporate findings from research on reading, language, learning, development and related topics. Many people are pursuing this goal under the rubric of “the science of reading.” 

As it has developed over the past several years, the First Principle in this approach is that learning to read requires instruction about print and the relations between print and oral language (speech).This idea has strong research support. The growing acceptance of this point is itself a big advance over what came before. Putting this insight into educational practice requires going further: deciding what to teach, when, how to teach it, for how long, taking into account differences among children (e.g., in language background, temperament), and environments (e.g., access to resources in home and community). Many people are laboring hard on these crucial issues. 

In the meantime, teachers have to teach. They need answers. This reality has resulted in the adoption of practices based on a few key ideas derived from reading research. For example, reading is treated as a set of teachable components as in the National Reading Panel report. Print skills and language skills are treated as distinct as in the Simple View of Reading. There is a lot of focus on instruction about spelling (orthography), sound (phonology), and the mappings between them (phonics). Then there is the issue of how children can learn enough “high frequency” words to get reading off the ground. Finally, assumptions are made about learning. For example, that components should be taught in sequence with mastery of one (e.g., all letter names) the prerequisite for moving to the next (e.g., letter-sound mappings). There is heavy reliance on explicit instruction and on assessments of student progress. 

There are many variants on these basic ideas, and others I won’t get into here. Details vary. The general approach is appealing to teachers because it addresses their questions about what to teach, when, how, and for how long. 

I view these practices as interim solutions. They can be justified on the basis of filling an immediate need; they can’t be justified on the basis of fidelity to reading research. They raise questions for me about efficacy (are the practices effective), efficiency (can they be implemented in reasonable time), and equity (do they work for all children regardless of background). There seems to be a misplaced emphasis on mastering components of reading rather than reading itself. 

In my view, we need to continue using research to identify questionable practices and develop alternatives that have as strong an empirical and theoretical basis as possible. This doesn’t require waiting until someone has a bolt of insight about what to do. It requires incorporating more of what has been learned from reading research. 

The great neglected topic is learning: How do children learn? What is the optimal balance between explicit instruction and implicit learning? Which types of knowledge are best learned by which procedures? Given the limits on instruction time and a clock that is ticking, how can children’s experiences be structured to facilitate rapid progress? How does learning change as the child develops? I’m not posing these questions to be philosophical. We know a great deal about these topics and can use that knowledge to create approaches that are more effective, more efficient, and more equitable. 

To be continued.

One thought on “Back in the saddle again”

  1. “What is the optimal balance between explicit instruction and implicit learning?” I believe this balance is crucial to teaching reading. I’ve just finished listening to episode two of Emily Hanford’s ‘Sold a Story’. What we need to guard against is making up new stories.

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