Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Disheartening: Teaching Children What They Already Know

At Boston College students in our teacher education Masters program must complete an “inquiry project” in their practicum classrooms. To celebrate this achievement, each year Boston College hosts a “community of learners” mini-conference where students share their projects.

This year I sat at a table with seven students who shared their projects with me and with each other. I must say, it was a pretty disheartening experience. Our program at BC emphasizes teaching reading in the context of rich, challenging literature; yet all these students shared projects that focused on decontextualized phonics and sight word instruction. We may stress holistic approaches to reading at BC, but in their classrooms the emphasis was on skills, skills, and more skills. It was particularly discouraging to hear a student named Anne (who had been in one of my classes) rave about a new phonics program her (suburban) school had adopted. All students in grades K-2 now spend 30 minutes a day on phonics and, according to Anne, next year the program will be extended to 3rd grade.

Research indicates that lots of kids enter first grade with strong phonics skills and many of these children already read independently. This may be particularly true in affluent, suburban schools like Anne’s. Putting aside my objection to decontextualized phonics instruction, why are the teachers in Anne’s school – and in other schools across the country – teaching so many children what they already know? Why would we force potentially hundreds of hours of phonics instruction (in Anne’s school children will have had over 350 hours of phonics instruction by the time they complete 3rd grade) on children who already read independently? The only answer I can come up with is this. Many schools have stopped asking how well children read and instead ask: “How do they do on DIBELS?”

No wonder David Pearson has warned that “DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flashcards” (p. v).

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