Curriculum Letter to the Editor

At-Risk-Reading Naiveté

October 08, 2004 6 min read
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To the Editor:

Dennis Baron’s bashing of direct instruction (“The President’s Reading Lesson,” Commentary, Sept. 8, 2004) has one central problem: It lacks educational literacy. Although his sentences are well constructed, the essay’s content exudes naiveté about at-risk kids, their plight, what they know, and, most important, that teaching these students to read is not a trivial enterprise. Children are pretty well pre-empted from performing what Mr. Baron describes as “embracing the written word, exploring it, and turning it inside out” if they don’t read the written word correctly. Furthermore, to apply the written-word-embracing criterion to at-risk 2nd graders in the early part of the school year is insensitive. These kids don’t have a large repertoire of words, and their primary focus is learning to identify new ones and reading them in story contexts.

Here is a basic educational-literacy fact: At-risk kids enter kindergarten with far less understanding of language than their middle-class peers. The book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, documents that for some types of verbal interactions, inner-city kids have an experiential deficit of a million exposures by the time they enter school. One would assume that because Mr. Baron is a professor of linguistics, he would be familiar with this work and have some understanding of the amount of teaching that is needed for the children to keep pace with grade-level expectations.

Specifically, many at-risk kids entering kindergarten don’t know the meanings of the verbal words “first,” “next,” or “touch.” So they need instruction for something as seemingly simple as “open your book to Page 2 and touch the first word.”

A good place for Mr. Baron to receive an introduction to educational literacy would be the 4th grade in a typical failed, inner-city school. Here he’d be able to observe kids who average far below the 20th percentile. That means that a lot of them know far less about reading than the kids in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” And even if the 4th graders are able to decode the text, they have serious comprehension problems.

For example, pass out a passage with the written directions, “Circle the first word of every other sentence.” Don’t read the directions to the kids. Instead tell them, “Read the directions at the top of the page to yourself and raise your hand when you’ve read them.” Next direct them, “Do what the directions tell you to do.” Some kids will ask, “What do they tell me to do?” Don’t answer. Let them “wrest meaning” from the directions. A lot of them will fail the circling task.

Mr. Baron would observe the same kind of failure in the 5th grade or the 8th grade. Ironically, however, these kids have had a lot of practice doing what Mr. Baron recommends: “learning through trial and error.”

We once took representatives from local community groups into randomly selected 4th and 5th grade classrooms in a typical inner-city school and had kids read, or attempt to read, from simple 2nd grade material. Several members of the group, including one guy that seemed very tough, cried. All said, “I had no idea that …” Exactly.

If Mr. Baron called on different kids to read “The Pet Goat” (which he sees as banal prose that could not possibly be challenging), he would observe more than one child who “reads to a different drummer.” This story would be particularly challenging for many of the 4th graders because it is designed to provide kids with practice in identifying words that differ from each other in only one letter—a final e. The observant professor of linguistics might note the inordinate number and juxtaposition of such words in “The Pet Goat”—made and mad, at and ate, cans and canes, pans and panes, even capes and caps—as well as other words that end in e: smile, like, sore.

The direct instruction program’s sequence is designed to prepare children for the challenge of “The Pet Goat” by teaching them the discriminations they need to decode these minimal pairs before they encounter them in the stories. But reading the story accurately is a challenge, and children must apply what they have learned. The kids on the videotape did a very good job of meeting the challenge, which means that they had been taught well.

One of Mr. Baron’s proclamations is that the direct instruction program provides less opportunity for the students to excel. Not so. Being able to read is a big deal for kids. Make no mistake, children who can read as well as those on the tape have good yardsticks for measuring their excellence at home. Not uncommonly, they know that they read better than some older kids in the neighborhood and possibly even better than their parents.

Mr. Baron asserts that these stories won’t turn these children into readers. Wrong. The kids on the tape are on schedule to become proficient readers with good comprehension skills. They are far ahead of average at-risk students and ahead of the middle-class average. They should be well prepared for the next level of the program, which emphasizes reading to learn, not learning to read.

Mr. Baron didn’t think much of the teacher’s presentation and seemed particularly bummed out by the fact that the presentation was “scripted.” In a way, that’s ironic. I believe Mr. Baron would have no trouble recognizing a good performance in a legitimate theater. The performers are following a script. In a very real sense, the teacher is an actor. The criteria for an outstanding performance are different from those for the stage, but they mark the difference between a successful communication and a failure. If these criteria are best achieved with the support of a script, why would it be any more of a problem here than in the theater?

Anyone who has ever taught at-risk kids successfully would know that the teacher on the tape did an outstanding job—not just OK. She had impeccable timing, effective presentation, and good reinforcement. Furthermore, she provided evidence that she did not have what Mr. Baron describes as “low expectations.” She brought her students to a high level of mastery.

The most odious and contrived shot that Mr. Baron took at direct instruction, however, is not his dig that the program couldn’t be worth much because it doesn’t teach names (which it does—Walter, Carla, Jean, Don, Ellen, Ott, Sandy, and more), or that it uses a term like “car robber,” which according to Mr. Baron would strike the students as cacophonous because it is not idiomatic English. The worst shot is a suggested parallel between the behavior of those children and that of President Bush.

If Mr. Baron had an inkling of the amount and quality of work that goes into teaching kids to read as well as those kids read, the small number of people who are able to do it well, or the fact that if children don’t learn to read well by the 3rd grade, they’re educationally dead, he might appreciate how grotesque it is to suggest that they will behave as Mr. Bush did when they try to “wrest meaning from an unfamiliar passage.” All passages they read are unfamiliar until they have read them.

And if Mr. Baron wants to discover the extent to which these kids would behave pusillanimously, he could write them an “unfamiliar” passage that starts with his major premise, “Your 2nd grade teacher shortchanged you,” then explain the reasons—the low expectations, the “five-minute script” (whatever that is), her boring table-thumping, and the like. My bet is that they would not only wrest meaning from the text but would provide Mr. Baron with a very spirited response to every point he believes he’s made—either verbally or through “the written word.”

Siegfried Engelmann

University of Oregon

Eugene, Ore.

The writer is a senior author of the Reading Mastery and Direct Instruction programs.


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