Teaching Struggling Readers: Focus on Meaning by Russ Walsh, Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century
Why do we read? Of course, you will say we read for pleasure and we read for information and perhaps even we read to become better writers and thinkers. In order to enjoy and learn from reading we must make sense of the words on the printed page. This is true of all readers. The driver behind all reading activities is meaning.
Struggling readers have difficulty accessing meaning. This difficulty can lead to a cascading accumulation of reading difficulties. Kids who have difficulty making sense of what they read, read less. When they read with the teacher, they are more likely to be interrupted than skilled readers and so they read less. When children read less, they get less chance to develop the decoding abilities, vocabulary knowledge, syntactic understanding and content richness that good readers need.
Reading researcher, Keith Stanovitch has called this, “Matthew Effects in Reading”, the idea that in reading the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, mainly due to differentiated exposure to text. Motivational issues then compound the problem. When you are not good at something, you tend to avoid it. Children who are not good at reading read less.
Stanovitch and others have identified one primary cause of reading difficulty – phonological processing. Children with phonological processing problems have difficulty decoding words – breaking words down to their component parts or “sounding them out.” Often these children are labeled as “dyslexic” a term fraught with mythology and mistaken connotations. I do not think the term is very helpful. Better I believe to think of struggling readers on a continuum of struggle -from those who have a great deal of difficulty taking on reading, to those with more minor concerns.
Whatever the label, however, the identification of phonological processing problems as a major cause of reading disability has led to a cottage industry of programs designed to solve the problem. These programs are, for the most part, based on what is commonly known as the Orton Gillingham Approach. We have Wilson Reading, Spell Read, Stevenson, Corrective Reading and on and on. These programs have two things in common. First, they are heavily focused on phonics instruction. Second, they do not work very well (See below)*
In 2008, the 9 million dollar Power4kids study was lauded as having the “highest possible standards for a research study.” The purpose of the study was to find out which of four programs (Spell Read, Wilson Reading, Corrective Reading, and Failure Free Reading) designed for struggling readers provided the best results. Struggling readers in 3rd and 5th grade were studied. The researchers found, to their surprise, that students in the treatment group who received instruction from one of these programs fared worse than students who received no special programs. While the lead researcher, Dr. Joseph Torgeson of Florida University, said that this was an “extremely well-designed study”, he backpedaled on the results citing a litany of reasons why the study did not yield the results he had hoped. One reason Torgeson cited for the failure of the study caught my eye – the interventions did not include enough comprehension instruction.
What Torgeson seemed on the verge of discovering, though he did not state it directly, is that any program that focuses on any one component of literacy is doomed to fail. In reading instruction, we tend to want to identify what is wrong and fix it. Since we have identified decoding weakness as a difficulty for many struggling readers, we tend to want to do lots of focused decoding instruction, ala Orton-Gillingham or Wilson. We apply the metaphor of the machine. After all if your car is not running and you identify a faulty fuel pump as the reason, you replace the fuel pump.
But children are not machines and language is not a fuel pump. The key thing to understand in designing a support program for readers is that reading is communication. If we begin our search for the best way to help a struggling reader with the idea that language is meaningful and reading is about making sense of written language, then we have a better chance to help struggling readers.
What does this mean for instruction? One thing it means is we need to provide interventions early, before children experience too much failure and adopt too many “confusions” about how reading works. Secondly, it means that rather than doubling down on phonics instruction, we need to double down on meaning making. If a student struggles to make meaning from text, we must scaffold the meaning sufficiently to assist the student in decoding the words.
Most instruction for struggling readers, in other words, has it backward. The Orton Gillingham approach and all of its imitators like Wilson Reading and Stevenson, note that struggling readers have difficulty with phonics so they pitch right in to provide large doses of phonics instruction. The study of that great communication skill, reading and writing, is divorced from communication and centers on the tiny bits and parts of words. This fails because the driving force behind reading, making meaning, gets lost in a forest of sounds, symbols, and step-by-step study of one reading skill after another. “Let’s focus on the schwa sound today, children and we’ll look at ‘ed” endings tomorrow.”
Now let’s imagine an instructional design where we turn this on its head. Reading is chosen for a group of struggling readers that is fairly easy for them to read. The text is deliberately chosen so that the children will likely stumble on only a few words. Literacy researcher Richard Allington says that most struggling readers spend most of their reading time in school reading text that is too difficult for them. So let’s make the reading fairly easy.
Next let us suppose that we introduce the story to the children in such a way that it helps them activate their background knowledge for what they will read, builds expectations about what they will read and allows them to predict what they will be reading about before they begin reading. Let’s suppose that we get the children talking about the story, noticing things from the pictures that accompany the story and making personal connections to the story before they read.
A good book introduction helps children get ready to read and anticipate what they will read. They have built up expectations and those expectations can help them power through unfamiliar words.
Next let’s suppose that while all these struggling readers are reading this story that is reasonably easy for them and that they have been well prepared to read, that we listen in while they are reading (all children reading at the same time, not round robin) and we notice they stumble when trying to identify a word. At the point of difficulty we can then prompt them to use all the cues available to them to identify the word: What would make sense? What would sound right? What would look right? And when they try to make it look right, but limited ability to apply phonics rules interferes? We try other prompts. What do you see that can help you? What is the first letter? Does this look like a word you know?
After the reading and after we have observed what children have struggled with, we can follow up with a decoding lesson based on the struggles that the students had with individual words, but we must also follow up with a discussion that builds the students understanding of what they had read.
Of course, what I am laying out here is the design for guided reading. Guided reading puts meaning at the center of the reading instruction and therefore puts struggling readers in a better position to use all the cues available in reading to decode the text. If we front load meaning, we give struggling readers a better chance to read meaningfully and if children are reading meaningfully they have a better chance to decode successfully, read more and improve their decoding abilities.
Guided reading is based on one reading intervention strategy that has been proven to be effective for struggling readers: Reading Recovery. Like all programs for struggling readers, decoding instruction is an important component of Reading Recovery instruction, but Reading Recovery puts meaning at the front of the instruction.
Literacy expert, researcher and writer, Richard Allington says, “We’ve known for two decades that when classroom reading lessons for struggling readers are meaning focused, struggling readers improve more than when lessons are skills focused.”
Enough said. Want to help our most struggling readers? Focus on meaning.
*I know that the statement above is going to anger a number of my hard working colleagues who labor mightily everyday with struggling readers employing one of these Orton-Gillingham style programs. I know they believe in what they are doing and are doing it to the best of their ability in the service of children. But faith is not research and the research evidence is just not there. You can look here, here, here, here, here and here for summaries of that research. The research into these programs indicates that these programs might have some positive effect on “alphabetics”, that is phonics, and very limited or no impact on comprehension. This is to be expected. If teachers focus their attention on one thing, kids are likely to get better at that one thing. According to the University of Michigan website on dyslexia, children with dyslexia can learn phonics, their difficulty is in applying phonics in real reading situations. They say “increased instruction in phonics will not help dyslexics” Phonics is not reading any more than spelling is writing.
Paperback: Amazon | Barnes and Noble
Print ISBN: 978-1-942146-33-9
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-34-6
Amazon Kindle Matchbook: Purchase the Parent’s Guide to Public Education print book and buy the Amazon Kindle ebook version for just $2.99. All of Garn’s Amazon Kindle eBooks are now available through Amazon’s “MatchBook” program! When you buy the print version – either paperback or hardcover – of any Garn book from Amazon.com, you can also get the Kindle version for just $2.99. Equally good news is that if you have previously purchased any Garn print book from Amazon.com at any time in the past, you can also now buy the Kindle version for the same $2.99.
“Russ Walsh’s Parent’s Guide is a must read for any parent who is trying to make the best educational decision for their children. It is a clear, thoughtful response that will give parents wisdom, confidence and ease. Walsh is not only a professional, life-long educator, he is a beautiful writer whose style is thoughtful, clear and easy to read. A Parent’s Guide is the best guide for anyone who cares about public schools.” – Carol Corbett Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education.
“Russ Walsh is a knowledgeable, insightful critic of the dogmatic school reformers who are driving American education back toward the 19th century instead of ahead into the 21st. His analyses are on par with those of Diane Ravitch, David Berliner, Yong Zhao … “- Dr. Don Ambrose, Editor, the Roeper Review
“A clear, concise parent’s guide to school in the age of education reform. In a discussion that has been characterized by a great deal of heat, Russ Walsh sheds some light and cuts through the fog of propaganda and PR. This is a clear, fair guide to what is in the best interests of your child, and what is just baloney. Best of all, in a discussion that is filled with questions about what’s best for the nation, Walsh helps parents answer the most important question—what’s best for my own child?” – Peter Greene, Author of the bookCurmudgucation: What Fresh Hell, Author of the “Curmudgucation” andEducation Week Teacher “View from the Cheap Seats” blogs
“Russ Walsh’s new book is a distillation of years of experience and wisdom from an actual expert in the field. This is essential reading for any parent, teacher, school board member, administrator or anyone who cares about the U.S. education system.” – Steven Singer, Pennsylvania educator and public school advocate.