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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

'It's heartbreaking to realize I never taught my students to read'

Hoping to share her love of reading, Bridget Scanlan became an "intervention" teacher working with struggling readers and special-ed students in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Children love books, she writes on Chalkbeat. But "so many kids can't read."


Kindergarteners in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Photo: Emily Hanford/APM Reports

For most of her eight-year career, teaching in low- and high-performing schools, teachers relied on "the whole language approach, which has prioritized sight words and finding meaning in rich texts, instead of the research-backed phonics-based efforts that teach letter-sound connections to decode words," Scanlan writes.

In her first year, she used a guided reading program from Fountas and Pinnell. Students read silently for 30 to 40 minutes, while she rotated around the room listening to them "whisper-read" one at a time. "We discussed the books before and after reading, and I pointed out unknown words (like prehistoric)," writes Scanlan.


Students were encouraged to guess words using context and picture clues "If the word starts with 't' and there’s a picture of a tree," the child will say "tree."


Students liked the books, she recalls. They seemed to improve. But only one student out of eight became a fluent reader. Looking back, "it’s heartbreaking to realize that despite my best intentions, I never actually taught them how to read."


Then Emily Hanford's “Sold a Story” podcast revealed that "reading research has long shown the whole word approach doesn’t work," writes Scanlan. Guessing isn't the same as reading.


After the pandemic, Scanlan switched schools. She now uses "a phonics-based reading program that’s built on repetition and reading words with patterns they can sound out."

Repeating “a—apple—ah” and using your fingers to tap out the sounds in “cat” aren’t exactly riveting. But to a second grader who knows he can’t read (and tells me all the time), it’s a lifeline. It works. A boy who couldn’t read “the” at the beginning can now read “shrimp” and “dreams.”

What comes after phonics? Natalie Wexler is launching a Knowledge Matters podcast that will talk about the next steps in building comprehension.


FutureEd's Lynn Olson looks at how states are scaling literacy reform in The Reading Revolution.


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