How ought reading be taught? Notice that the question asks “how ought” not “how can”. The question bears a subsequent inquiry: what should my students read? One technique I have grown increasing aware of is children sitting in small groups reading little paperback pamphlets about animals, the seasons, plants, and daily life bearing lots of pictures and few words. Another characteristic of these pamphlets is that they are “graded”. That is, they are leveled from easy to hard by use of a number or alphabetic code.
The idea is that students are grouped with other students who are reading at the same level of difficulty and fluency. The teacher assigns readable texts suited for the group to build fluency, increase reading time (i.e., time on task), and hold interest. More advanced readers can read independently while the teacher works with those who are struggling.
This is differentiated teaching and learning (which, by the way, understood and practiced rightly is a very classical idea. See Plato’s Phaedrus.).
I am told that this practice of “guided reading” is research-based. I am also told that this is what teacher colleges teach and that “guided reading” is simply how reading is taught to children today.
Now I am too much of a traditionalist to accept such statements hook, line, and sinker. I begin wondering how we have taught children to read before all this research? It is quite a bold proposition to claim that we have only recently discovered the correct methods for reading instruction.
I continue to wonder whether our culture has contributed to developing a generation of enabled thinkers who are fearful or unable to reason independently? Who are uncertain and doubt their own abilities to perceive truth? Who require the “experts” to direct their thinking and their practice?
What increasingly concerns me more is the subtle rejection of the foundation upon which we stand. A certain “chronological snobbery” grows increasingly more popular. We devote greater trust to the untested and unproven innovations of our day while simultaneously rejecting the tested and proven methods of our ancestors.
I have found no better diagnosis of this trend than that given by G. K. Chesterton in his book “What’s Wrong With the World”:
“The trouble in too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school to-day the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the last ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience.”
To change slightly the direction of my thoughts, another thing that troubles me is separating the language arts and teaching them as disconnected disciplines.
For instance, listening is not an important exercise directly tied to reading; phonics and spelling are not tied to reading or writing; grammar is a subject all of its own to be taught apart from the others. Hence, the demand rises for a “writing” curriculum and a “grammar” curriculum and a “reading” curriculum and a “phonics” or “spelling” curriculum. Pretty soon the teacher’s book case is stocked with curricula and the students are toting roller back backs so that they might bear their burdens.
Helping teachers to see the relationship between phonics, spelling, reading, writing, grammar, thinking, and even speaking is a task that combats against the popular educational philosophies promoted today that are accomplishing less with more. I long for the educational spirit that can do more with less.