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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Roadblocks to Reading: An Interview with Richard Allington

By Peter DeWitt — March 06, 2012 6 min read
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In the recent issue of Educational Leadership (March 2012), Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel wrote an article called Every Child, Every Day. They laid out six simple steps that all educators can do to get students reading. These action steps take very few resources but they do take the effort of the teachers in the classroom, which ultimately involves a supportive administrator who will look past test scores and focus on what students really need.

In our present high stakes testing dominated culture, more and more teachers are turning to test-prep. In a few states, test scores count for 20% of a teacher evaluation so we will see an increase in test prep in the classroom. Educators need to find a balance between increasing test prep and finding quality time to focus on literacy instruction, which is one of their most important jobs.

Reading should be magical. I understand that that sounds corny but think of the books that surround you as you read this blog. So many of those books take children (and adults!) on magical experiences through worlds unknown, or back in time when our countries (for my international friends!) were new. Reading creeps into every part of our lives. Reading offers us joy and takes us away from the stressors of life. We need to make sure that it does not always cause so much stress with our students that they don’t want to pick up a book.

Dr. Richard Allington
If you have ever been fortunate enough to see Dr. Richard Allington present at a conference, you understand that he is a fairly blunt educator with a great deal of experience. He is a national expert in the area of literacy. The six steps that Allington and Gabriel lay out are easy enough to manage but they take time and effort. The steps are:

Every child reads something he or she chooses - Allow students to choose books that they like AND can read. This is in addition to books that are selected by their teacher.

Every child reads accurately - Many schools have increased the time spent on ELA but increased time doesn’t mean that students are allowed to read books where they can be successful (98% accuracy or better). Students need to spend time reading texts that are not too challenging. Reading books where they can be successful increase the likelihood that they will become better readers.

Every child reads something he or she understands - Allington and Gabriel say that, “Understanding what you’ve read is the goal of reading. But too often, struggling readers get interventions that focus on basic skills in isolation, rather than on reading connected text for meaning.”

Every child writes about something personally meaningful - Most times students are asked to continue sentences after a teacher prompt. Allow students to pick the topic and write about it. Yes, there are students who will struggle finding topics which is why it is important for teachers to brainstorm with their students.

Every child talks with peers about reading and writing - Provide students time to talk with one another about their reading and writing.

Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud - Listening to an adult who reads fluently increases students’ own fluency.

When reading the article you get a sense that there is more to the story of why educators do not take these steps already, so I asked Dick Allington to delve a little bit deeper into what he believes are the biggest roadblocks for teachers when it comes to reading.

PD: What are the major roadblocks to reaching these six goals?

DA: A major factor impeding attainment of these goals is the limited expertise most elementary educators have about what the research says on improving reading achievement. This lack of expertise extends into central office administration as well. I know of no other explanation for the widespread adoption of so much ineffective practice.

Perhaps this lack of expertise stems from the fact that no one has ever set any sensible standard for being highly qualified in reading instruction. Every elementary teacher, if they meet their state standards for elementary certification is, by default, highly qualified to teach reading under the existing law.

At the same time, the International Reading Association study of preparation of elementary teachers pretty firmly established that teachers who had completed 12 to 15 credit hours of reading coursework as part of their preparation produced reading achievement levels that exceeded those produced by experienced teachers.

Nonetheless, many states, including Tennessee where I work, certifies teachers with as few as 2 credit hours in reading coursework. In addition, according to NCES the US has one teacher who meets the IRA standards for reading specialists in every 10th elementary school! So while we supposedly have a national focus on improving student reading achievement we have very few educators who have any idea of how to go about accomplishing this goal.

PD: You mention that schools should eliminate workbooks and worksheets. Why do you believe that worksheets are still used in classrooms and what can teachers do differently?

DA: Worksheets are still around because they make teaching easier and they are commonly accepted as acceptable practice. On the other hand, we can look at the old Beginning Teacher Studies that Dave Berliner did in the 1970s. Those were the first studies demonstrating that worksheets were largely a waste of time if improving reading achievement was the goal. But worksheets today are made to look like the tests kids take and I guess that is the reason for their widespread use, that and limited awareness of the research on the ineffectiveness of worksheets.

Today’s worksheets are actually worse that those used when Berliner did his study. Today children rarely have to write more than a single word when completing worksheets. In the past they wrote whole paragraphs on worksheets but no longer. So while the older worksheets didn’t produce any positive effect on achievement todays worksheets seem more likely to be impairing progress in becoming a reader.

As for what to replace worksheets with, I’d ask why not have kids write instead? Write about what they’ve just read. Write a comparison of two characters they’ve read about. For instance, we have good evidence that writing during and after reading of this sort improves reading achievement but we rarely have kids write. Or engage kids in literate conversations about what they’ve been reading or have them engage each other.

Again, we have good evidence that even small amounts of literate conversation in lessons improve achievement. But in far too many classrooms everyone is doing the same low level worksheet silently and alone. It is enough to make me weep for the children (End of interview).

Allington, Richard L. & Rachael E. Gabriel (2012). Every Child, Every Day. Educational Leadership. The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). March 2012 Volume 69 Number 6

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.