Learning to Read

When educators talk about the Reading Wars, they’re not overexaggerating.

With the possible exception of the similarly bitter Math Wars, there’s no pedagogical battlefield more littered with sacred-cow theories, bold statements, unsubstantiated policy and outright acrimony.

Recently, the combat has heated up again, with a handful of irate but organized parents and a spokesperson with good media connections claiming that the ‘science’ of learning to read is ‘settled.’ As if a proclamation about the One Best Way could convince the public (and, even more ridiculous, reading teachers) that if we all just calmed down and standardized reading instruction, every single child could read by the end of first grade, as God intended.

Which was why it was so refreshing to read this from Michelle Strater Gunderson, long-time first grade teacher (and articulate union leader) in the Chicago Public Schools:

It should not be expected for a child to read by the end of first grade. We should only be concerned if the process of learning to read has not yet taken hold. Please debate.

At this writing, there are 65+ comments, all of which boil down to this: No debate. The statement is true (often followed by personal examples of how this race-to-read pressure has done great damage to children).

I have waded into the reading instruction controversy a couple of times—here and here, for example—and always drew irate observations about my lack of credibility as commenter on reading pedagogy, because I am a music teacher. What did I know about teaching kids to read?

It’s true that I am not a traditional reading teacher. Instead, I taught about 5000 (that’s not a typo) kids to read a new language–music–when they were somewhere around ten or eleven years old.

In other words, fifth or sixth graders, developmentally ready to cope with the intellectual task of interpreting symbols, putting them into musical phrases and sequences, while simultaneously thinking about fingers, embouchures and wind production, tone quality, intonation, expression, and reading at a fixed rate. It’s a very complex process, as difficult as phonic awareness, combining sounds into words, and then making meaning.

I did all this in very large, less-than-ideal mixed-instrument (and mixed ‘ability’) groupings, often as many as 50 students in a class. I need to stress here that I am nothing special, in music-teacher world– secondary band, orchestra and choral teachers do this all the time.

Yes, some students come to us with previous experience as music readers, just as some students come to kindergarten already having a fair grasp of decoding and a healthy vocabulary of sight words. Music students may also have developed unhelpful music-reading habits (inability to keep a steady beat, for example, which plays havoc with group instruction). Other students come to the process of learning to read music as ‘failed’ traditional readers, but end up becoming valuable members of our musical groups, because of the adaptation skills they have developed—watching and listening for cues that aren’t apparent to them through visual symbolic interpretation.

I was able to teach kids across a wide spectrum to read music because:

  • My students, at age 10 and above, were developmentally ready for the knowledge work, the interpretation of representative symbols—in current ‘reading expert’ parlance, the ‘codes’ established in Western music.
  • They were strongly motivated.
  • The learning process was both challenging and fun.
  • Strugglers were not singled out, but allowed to make mistakes, anonymously, for a relatively long period of time, until they perceived their own errors, asked for help, or were corrected. Nor were students grouped by any perception of their ability or talent—there were no ‘Bluebird groups’ in beginning band, where the core learning took place.
  • There was little home pressure–not many parents were expecting virtuosos (or cared all that much); it was an elective and it was supposed to be a pleasurable enrichment activity.
  • Learning was non-competitive.
  • There were multiple modes of learning available in every single lesson: Reading accurately (visual). Watching and imitating the teacher or other players until fingers and positions or vocal production felt comfortable (kinesthetic). Listening and matching (auditory). An uncritical acceptance of mistakes as a way to learn (social acceptance), then trying again.

What amazes me is that none of this is ever considered ‘reading instruction’ or ‘the science of learning to play an instrument.’  We just collectively stumble our way through the early stages of learning to play or to sing, using every tool available, having fun while we’re at it. There are schools of thought in music instruction (just as there are in reading pedagogy), but there are no public Music Wars.

Another amazing thing: there is ample evidence that learning to play a musical instrument strengthens all of the innate skills necessary for fluent reading. (Here, and here—and there are dozens more examples in my files.) But I’ve never seen anyone suggest that it would be better to give students supplemental musical instruction when they’re labeled ‘behind’ in reading proficiency (a word I’ve come to mistrust). Instead, we take away the arts and recess, or simply force the child to repeat a grade, repeat the same ineffective reading instruction, believing humiliation is the cure.

Michelle Gunderson is right. We’re pushing too hard, too fast. And it isn’t helping—it’s making things worse.


Lesson Plans and Other Problematic Tools of Teaching

Once, back in the early days of teacher blogging, I was part of a cadre of ‘recognized’ educators (I know—the term makes me cringe, too), who were pumping out blogs for a national magazine making the transition to an online format. We were posting every two days, because our editor was a little manic about fresh content as key to increased traffic.

What this meant was that I was writing feverishly, coordinating topics with my fellow teacher-writers so that we didn’t all write about the same thing. There was little responding to current policy issues or op-eds popping up on critical national questions. Instead, there was a whole lot of generic, one-in-the-can education writing.

What I remember was that after a year, the editor evaluated our personal relevance via tracking the most-read blog topics. The number one draw? A blog about faculty meetings. Seriously.

Evidently, teachers wanted to read about their ordinary, daily practice. The ultimate tinkering around the edges, pedestrian things that get griped about in the faculty lounge.  This hasn’t changed—my FB and Twitter feeds have been overrun last week by a piece on a recent Hechinger Report entitled ‘Does Lunch Have to Be 45 Minutes?’

This preference for the prosaic bubbles up in mid-summer when the school supplies displays appear (and scary teacher dreams return). Teaching is one of those professions where satisfaction and mastery of the work depends heavily on accruing and curating a wide array of craft knowledge. Good teachers really do have strong opinions on staff meetings and optimum lunch breaks. They matter.

In my building, having your lunch time attached to your planning period–some 90 continuous discretionary minutes–was highly coveted, something given to 20-year veterans who sucked up to the scheduling secretary. The other desirable spot was first hour, when everyone else was teaching and the copy machine was finally available.  These things may sound inconsequential, but they’re not.

One of these evergreen subjects is lessons plans.  Should they be required and collected? Should they be standardized? Should they include goals/objectives/relevant standards? Are they even a real part of what teachers do—or just blah-blah to satisfy someone in the office? What is the real purpose of lesson plans—another mandated task that checks up on lazy teachers? Preparation for an emergency sub? An organizing tool for better teaching?

Offhand, I’d say the answer to all but one of those questions (the last one) should be—or could be–‘NO.’ Here’s a recent piece (again, very popular and widely shared in the teacher circles in which I travel) which makes a lukewarm but (IMHO) flawed case for abolishing required lesson plans, going as far as suggesting that lesson plans are a deterrent for those who might wish to be teachers during a nationwide teacher shortage.

During my 31-year career in the classroom, I often worked with colleagues who resisted the contractual requirement that they turn in weekly lesson plans. As veteran teachers, they felt that detailed planning on paper was mindless hoop jumping. According to them, good teachers could step into a class, all their knowledge and skills percolating, and proceed to do the right things, without having to rely on notes. Good teaching as natural artistry.

The thing is—this never worked for me. Any time I ever went into school without a clear plan for what I was going to do every hour of the day, Things Went Wrong, and I left school with a headache. This was especially true when I was a younger teacher, and my aforementioned craft knowledge was skimpy. For the 31 years I was in the classroom, I sat down every Sunday night, usually with a glass of wine, and wrote lesson plans. Because on the Sundays that I didn’t, I paid for it on Monday. I never outgrew the need for an organizing tool.

Of course, by Wednesday, the plans were defunct, off-track, amended and adjusted—but they still served a purpose. Turning them in to the principal was pointless, although I always complied, and I am profoundly grateful that I never had to follow a lesson plan template or pacing guide, list state standards, or give my plans to a sub who would have been mystified about what to do.

My plans were my own, generally written on a yellow legal pad with thought bubbles, bulleted learning goals, don’t-forget reminders, essential questions and useful extensions, what you need when your amazing 48-minute lesson is—surprise! —over and done in 32 minutes. Extensions are strategies (sometimes, something as simple as a juicy question) that reinforce the core idea or skill. After you’ve taught for years, you’ll have a mental bag full of extensions. Writing them down just reminds you to use them.

Here’s the reason I think lesson plans aren’t non-essential make-work: It took me a good 20 years to understand the parameters of high-quality lesson design. I wrote crappy plans, just to get them done and have a list of things to do, for a long time.

Eventually, I understood the structure of a good lesson—knowing your students and what they need before you plan, setting goals for learning, choosing appealing materials, paying attention to kids’ responses, and reflecting on how effective each lesson was, what students actually learned. After that, I found the lesson planning process indispensable.

I found I’d been planning a lot of disconnected but cool musical activities. My students were always busy—engaged—but I was missing richer and more coherent learning. Because I hadn’t thought deeply about it and put it in my plans.  The best piece I’ve ever read about this phenomenon is here: The Grecian Urn Lesson.

There are undoubtedly veteran teachers who have it all in their heads, but any teacher who resists planning in favor of winging it might take a reflective look at what, precisely, kids are taking away from their classroom. (Photo by CaptPiper)Photo by CaptPiper BY-NC 2.0