Working Smarter, Not Harder: What Teachers of Reading Need to Know and Be Able to Teach
by Carol Tolman
In my 27 years of involvement in public education, I have never met a teacher that did not care deeply about each and everyone of his or her student’s reading skills.As a Special Education teacher within elementary,middle,and high school settings, I, along with my peers, spent countless hours and sleepless nights preparing and delivering lessons with the hope of improving students’ reading skills. As I worked harder, I watched my students’ reading skills improve at a frustratingly slow rate; however, their progress never completely reached the grade level for which they strove. In searching for the answers to student reading success,I was left with the continual feeling that there was something more that could be done. Yet, even with over two decades of experience and the title of M.Ed., I could not identify what was missing in my reading instruction. Having not learned what I needed to know in my first two degrees, I was determined not to let that same mistake happen again. Consequently, before I began my doctoral work, I queried numerous national reading experts in an attempt to identify what I needed to learn.
Over time, I came to understand that I had been missing a fundamental understanding of the scope and sequence of skills necessary to include within effective reading instruction. The often-quoted “five core components” of reading, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary,and comprehension, are inarguably crucial components. Until I studied this field in an in-depth manner, however, it was not always clear to me exactly what skills should be included within these components. Along with this is the necessary knowledge of exactly what we mean by these components, how these skills are translated throughout the grade levels and what components should be emphasized, with what intensity for which students. For example, we know that an emphasis on teaching decoding at the word level,including the skills of phonological awareness,phonics, and fluency, should be emphasized in grades K- 3 in order to provide an accurate and automatic foundation for all future reading practices. Advanced word study is important to include beyond grade 3, especially for continued reading success at the multisyllable word level. A strong emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics within the early grades, supported by fluency, is reflected in the following scope and sequence of skills for teaching reading. While vocabulary and comprehension are truly the ultimate goals of reading, the teaching of phonemic awareness,phonics, and fluency are steps that must be in place to meet the ultimate goal of comprehension.
One issue to consider is the older poor reader who does not decode words accurately and/or automatically. Older poor readers must also be taught the prerequisite skills necessary for reading before they are able to move beyond to a deep understanding of what they read. Teachers must layer a strong foundation in reading at the word level for these students, or these students will continually build their reading skills on a rocky foundation.
The information and understanding I have gained in the field of reading has enabled me to “work smarter, not harder” to increase the reading skills of students. I share the following outlines of these skills in the hopes that you too, can use this knowledge to improve student reading achievement at all levels.We can make a difference in the lives of so many students!
- What it is: A student’s awareness of how spoken words consist of sounds.
- When to teach: Focus on pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade. Taught beyond grade 1for those students who have not mastered this skill.
Young children typically enter kindergarten with the ability to articulate words. They hear and produce however, only connected streams of speech. To the average kindergarten student, “Once upon a time” sounds like one big, long word. Over time and with proper instruction, students must become aware of increasingly smaller units of speech, until they are able to identify and manipulate the individual phonemes, or speech sounds, of the English language. Instruction in phonological awareness follows a scope and sequence from easier,larger units of spoken segments of words to smaller, individual spoken sounds within words. Instruction is done without letters, focusing solely on the sounds of the language. One way to think of this is that you can do phonological awareness activities “in the dark.” While there are more levels of phonological awareness than are listed here, the following outline includes those levels found to be most connected to student progress in reading and spelling:
Phonological awareness is an overarching, superordinate term referring to a student’s awareness of units of sounds that comprise our spoken language. The phonological awareness skills listed below should be taught in frequent, distributed lessons throughout kindergarten and first grade; for example, do activities daily for 5 to 15 minutes rather than twice per week for 30 minutes. Keep in mind that these skills should be mastered asa foundational skill for reading and spelling, and as such must be taught to older poor readers who exhibit weaknesses in this skill area.