There’s a wrong way to teach reading and, unfortunately, it’s also the most popular way. So, if you’ve ever committed these teaching errors, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve been there, too. I was shocked when I realized that many teacher prep courses and even professional development classes are teaching reading methods not supported by science. If you’re reading this blog and find yourself surprised or even defensive at these “errors,” please take a moment to step back, take a deep breath, and use it as a springboard to start your journey into learning more about the science of reading. Instead of feeling denial, guilt, or anger…I encourage you to simply learn more and do better.
Deadly Error #1: 3-Cueing Strategies (aka the Beanie Baby Reading Strategies)
I know they’re cute and cuddly. I know everyone uses them. I know you’ve scoured dozens of thrift stores to finally complete your set. But there is actually no research to support these “Beanie Baby Strategies.” You heard that right. No research to support them. In fact, what the research does tell us, is that these are strategies that poor readers use, NOT good readers. So, if you’d like to teach your students to read like a struggling reader, by all means...use these reading cues. Otherwise, I’d steer clear.
Deadly Error #2: Using Predictable Texts
I’m not talking about beautiful, authentic books like The Napping House. I’m talking about those contrived, early readers with repetitive patterns such as, “We cleaned the garage. We cleaned the house. We cleaned the school, etc.” The ONLY way for brand new readers to get through these texts is by memorizing the patterns and using the 3-cueing strategies I warned about above. This is not reading! This is guessing and memorizing. It creates damaging habits that are extremely tough to break.
Deadly Error #3: Heavy Emphasis on Sight Words
I visited another kindergarten classroom the very first week of school. The teacher was attempting to teach the sight word “from.” After quite a bit of labored instruction and activities, she excitedly exclaimed, “So what’s our sight word of the day?” The bewildered students simply stared at her, until one excitedly shouted, “F!” Young students are still learning the difference between a letter and word, and yet, many insist on teaching them a certain number of “high-frequency words.” I am disheartened when I see the pressures some districts place on their kindergarten students (and teachers!), demanding 50, 75, even over 100 sight words memorized. Instead of focusing our efforts on getting these students to memorize words, we need to intensify our focus on phonemes and the morphemes that represent them. There is a limit to how many sight words a child can memorize. But if they learn to “orthographically map” these words, the number is endless.
Deadly Error #4: Not Teaching Phonemic Awareness to Mastery
Many educators think of phonemic awareness as a “kindergarten skill,” but it goes much beyond that. David Kilpatrick states that phonemic awareness should be explicitly taught to ALL students until at least the second grade, and then beyond for those who haven’t mastered it yet. Older, struggling readers almost always have weaknesses in this area that were never addressed. And because the most common source of reading difficulties is phonemic awareness, every teacher needs to make this a priority. Teach it to the whole class through 2nd grade, and in small groups for those who need it in all other grades. A student is never too old to learn this skill and studies show that as phonemic awareness improves, reading ability improves as well.
Deadly Error #5: Incidental Phonics
The National Reading Panel does not only advocate for phonics, but for systematic phonics. Some reading approaches encourage the teacher to teach phonics incidentally, only when an opportunity presents itself. For example, a child stumbles upon a word he/she doesn’t know in a text, and then the teacher decides to teach that particular grapheme. In contrast, systematic phonics is much more explicit. The teacher follows a planned sequence of phonics skills. This ensures students will have a strong foundation, without holes or the need to rely on guessing strategies.
Deadly Error #6: Phonics in Isolation
Teaching systematic and explicit phonics is very effective, as long as it is not taught in isolation. Most of the instruction time should be spent applying the phonics skill you are teaching in authentic reading and writing experiences.
Deadly Error #7: Neglecting Vocabulary and Background Knowledge
Sometimes we work so hard teaching our students basic decoding skills, that it can be easy to neglect vocabulary and background knowledge. But it’s important not to forget the other side of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Many curriculum programs neglect these areas by focusing too much on “skills” and not enough on actual content. Natalie Wexler talks about this in her book, The Knowledge Gap. Teaching comprehension skills such as “finding the main idea” and “text features” do not necessarily lead to improved comprehension. Teaching a student to find the main idea in one text, will not lead to being able to find the main idea in other text. Cognitive scientists have known for years that the most important factor in good reading comprehension, is how much vocabulary and content knowledge you have of the subject. Instead of focusing so much of our attention on these comprehension “skills,” we need to make sure we build their vocabulary and background knowledge.
Using the science of reading to provide students with the most effective reading instruction is the greatest gift we can give them. There is a right and wrong way to teach reading and the sooner we can come to grips with that fact, the sooner our nation’s reading proficiency rates will improve. We, as educators, have a moral obligation to teach our students to read. The ability to read will open up countless opportunities for them. I feel strongly that teachers do the very best with the knowledge they have. It is unfortunate that most of us have not had access to this knowledge. And worse, have been taught ways that are not in line with what cognitive scientists have learned about reading and the brain. If some of these things are surprising or new to you, I beg you to dig deeper and begin your learning journey today. Our students deserve it.