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Sink or Swim: The Appearance of Reading

When my two oldest boys were in swimming lessons, I remember watching them, amused, as they'd literally walk back and forth between the width of the pool while making big swim strokes with their arms.  I'd see other kids in the class actually swimming...but my boys? They were walking.  They were going through the motions of swimming, without actually swimming.

This is often what we see in classrooms today.  Students appear to be reading...some even become quite expert at keeping up the appearance.  Their arms are doing their strokes perfectly...but if you look under the water?  They're only walking.   Let me explain.
I had a student one year who severely struggled in school.   By the end of her kindergarten year, she only knew a handful of letters.  I remember placing a book in front of her as I administered our state-mandated end-of-year kindergarten test.  She vaguely looked at the words on the page and then studied the picture.  She looked back down and found the sight word "I."  Then she looked at the picture again and said, "I like the dog." She turned the page and continued in the same fashion. She "read" the whole book perfectly.  -But she only knew a few letters, and barely any sight words, so did she really read it or was she just an expert guesser? She certainly gave the appearance of reading.
Unfortunately, so many of the reading methods that teachers are taught give students the appearance of reading instead of giving them the skills they need to decode words.  We are taught to teach context cues and pictures to figure out words.  We are told to play games like, "Guess the Covered Word" and "Be a Mind Reader."  We make super cute strategy posters that teach our students to skip over a word and come back to it like "Skippy the Frog" or we say to use your "Eagle Eye" to look for clues in the pictures.  We give our brand new readers predictable texts.  Once they know the pattern, they can then "read" through that book effortlessly.  They are going through the motions, but they are WALKING through that swimming pool.  I don't want my students to walk, I want them boldly doing the front crawl and the breaststroke. I want them confidently doing flutter kicks and diving into the deep end.
The reality is that not only are we not giving our students the essential skills they need, we are also creating damaging habits that are hard to break.  What happens when students are given harder text where context cues are not as simple and where there are no pictures?  What happens when relying on "Skippy Frog" and "Eagle Eye" no longer help?  What happens when their expert guessing skills no longer keep them afloat?  They drown.  They hit 3rd or 4th grade and their lack of skills becomes hugely apparent.  The text is more challenging and we then discover that these students can't read.
It's painful to admit this and it's painful to write.  I mean, I was "Balanced Literacy's" biggest fan!  I happily played "Guess the Covered Word" and similar games in my 2nd grade classroom.  I confidently told parents that when their child looked at the picture and guessed the word, that that was a great strategy good readers use.  I actively listened to professional development classes on running records and analyzing miscues with an M, S, or V.   I eagerly did all these things, because that's how I was taught.  Why would I question it? My students appeared to be reading...I didn't realize they were only going through the motions. I never realized that they actually couldn't swim.

Then my own son was diagnosed with dyslexia.  Then my lowest student, without knowledge of the alphabetic code, read her end of year text assessment perfectly.  I thought about previous students in my classroom who struggled.  And I thought about the ones who didn't seem to. And I began to realize...something's not quite right. I've been teaching my students how to walk through a pool. I've been teaching them to wave their arms around like they're swimming. But I haven't looked deep enough.  I haven't looked under the water to see if they are actually swimming.  I haven't explicitly taught them the skills they need.
As I began researching what helps dyslexics learn, I became angry.  Why was I never taught about dyslexia?  Why was I never taught about the National Reading Panel (2000)?  Why was I never taught about structured literacy? Why was I never taught about explicit, systematic phonics and phonemic awareness?  Why wasn't I told that there was a method that would reach ALL learners and not just the top 40%? Why aren't teachers given this vital information?  I felt betrayed.  I felt misled.  Who are the proponents of Balanced Literacy and why are they promoting it?  Why is the science of reading being largely ignored?

It takes a lot of courage to take a hard look at your teaching and determine if the way you are teaching is effective for all students.  The problem with Balanced Literacy is that students often do appear to be reading their leveled text. So, unless a teacher looks deeply, she/he won't realize the child actually cannot decode words.
Fellow teachers, I love and admire you! You work tirelessly and would do anything for your students. Impossible pressures are put upon you, but there you are, day after day, giving it your all! I am constantly learning from and am inspired by teachers all around the world. However, today I am pleading with you! Do not be afraid to look deeply into your reading instruction.  Ask the hard questions, carefully analyze the strategies you are teaching, and research the science of reading. Are you teaching your students to swim?


  1. Great metaphor and solid warning for teachers and parents.....
    -teaching students how to decode a text is extemely challenging - there is NO substitute for direct instruction of phonics!
    I have taught for 12+ years private and public school...certified in reading tutoring through Wilson Reading and Language...phonics must be explicitly and systematically taught...Thank you for your post!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! Yes, completely agree about explicit phonics!

  2. Keep this going please, great job!

  3. This past year I taught phonics, and phonemic awareness to my 5th grade pull out low readers. I also had spelling games the last 2 months - most of them jumped from not able to read to reading chapter books at 3rd grade level and with good comprehension.

    Your post is spot on. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Thank you so much! I'm so glad you had so much success!

  4. Could not agree more! Direct, explicitly and systematically taught phonics works EVERY TIME. It’s crazy to me that most of our public schools don’t embrace or teach this.

  5. Brilliantly said Lindsay. You've encompassed the whole sad sorry tale in this one piece. It is exactly the same here in Australia. As a teacher, my story is very similar to yours. I think we, the enlightened ones, have just got to keep harping until every one gets the message.

  6. I really need to know how to help my 15 year old son who struggles with reading. He has severe dyslexia as well as many other learning challenges. He can only red simple sentences. Are their any links to strategies of how O can help him? Thanks

    1. Hi Violets, your son needs explicit, systematic, and multisensory reading instruction. Look for a tutor who is trained in Orton-Gillingham. There are several good programs that use this methodology: Barton, Spire, Brainspring Phonics First, Wilson, and more. This website has some great info for parents:

    2. You may also want to look at the Nardagani program. I came across it from a TED talk. It's super fast! My 6yr old was starting to struggle due to "guessing" strategies. I did this program with him and not only did he find it fun and quite easy, he just (maybe 2 months later) read his first kids chapter book.

  7. Again, excellent article. A fantastic analogy, and again wonderful acknowledgement of the challenges but a call to step up. Thank you!


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