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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How to kill the bad-teaching monster: Don't forget the garlic

To kill a vampire permanently dead, you'll need to hammer a wooden stake in its heart, shoot it with a silver bullet melted down from a crucifix or cut off its head, ideally with a silver knife or axe, then burn the body. Go heavy on the garlic and the holy water.

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in the 1931 movie.

Killing bad teaching practices is even harder, writes Robert Pondiscio in Getting Reading Right in Commentary. They just don't stay dead.

In the 1990s, "balanced literacy" emerged as a compromise between teaching phonics explicitly and immersing students in"whole language" with little help in decoding. Lucy Calkins, a Columbia professor, promoted "Units of Study," which urged teachers to use teaching methods "for which research evidence is thin," writes Pondiscio.

For example, struggling readers were urged to look for clues, such as pictures or the first letter of the word or to guess at what word might make sense. They read -- or pretended to read -- books they chose themselves.

Decades of research shows that most children need to be taught phonics, systematically and explicitly, and discouraged from guessing at words. They also need to be taught background knowledge and vocabulary to understand what they decode.

The evidence for what's now called "the science of reading" is so strong that Columbia announced in September it "was cutting ties with Calkins and 'dissolving' her multimillion-dollar Teachers College Reading and Writing Project," writes Pondiscio. New York City schools, which were heavy users of her project, are switching to phonics-heavy reading programs and banning Units of Study.

Pondiscio started teaching fifth grade in a South Bronx school in 2002. His classroom was filled with struggling readers, all black and Hispanic children from low-income families. The school spent most of the day trying to teach reading, cutting time for science, social studies, art and music. Students didn't develop the background knowledge that might help build comprehension -- and few mastered reading.

But he wasn't supposed to teach, his Calkins-trained "literacy coach" told him. Explicit explanations and directions were "giving instructions," not teaching, she said.

He was supposed to "model" the habits of good readers, then send them off to read on their own. Students were called "readers" and "authors," as though "this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy," he recalls.

"Calkins’s greatest sin against literacy is what can only be described as the Tinkerbell Effect: the sense that children will become good readers if their teachers would only believe with sufficient fervor," Pondiscio writes. The secret, teachers were told, is to get kids "to love books and stories — not so much teaching reading as selling it to children."

But, if reading is a struggle, lovers of stories can watch videos.

Pondiscio worries that the monster isn't really dead. Some teachers will resist learning new ways to teach. Others will go too far, teaching all phonics all the time and forgetting about the need to develop students' knowledge and vocabulary.

"Phonics, while critical, is just the starting line," he concludes. "Reading comprehension is the long game."

"Three-cueing" chart at VOICE school in New York City.

One third of students at VOICE school in Queens are recent migrants living in shelters or hotel rooms, reports Marianna McMurdock on The 74. Most speak Spanish, but some come from Pakistan, Egypt and other countries. The K-8 school is scrambling to teach them before they're moved on. A reading chart on "tricky words" urges them to guess by looking at the picture and skip difficult words.

The move to explicit, systematic, research-based reading instruction will take time and require retraining teachers, writes Pamela Snow, a cognitive scientist in Australia. There's no excuse for continuing low-impact strategies, she argues, "It is the job of schools, not parents, to teach children how to read, and schools can do this successfully, even in disadvantaged communities, if they apply rigorous evidence in their approach to reading instruction."

Balanced literacy makes life easier for teachers, she concludes, but not for students.

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