Someone recently commented that she thought the “reading wars” were over. With the National Reading Panel’s report don’t we have a shared understanding of what kids need to know to learn to read? Yes and no. The war has continued, it’s been a silent fight for a while. But, it seems we’re back on the battlefield again. Maybe you’ve listened to American Public Media’s series on reading or MPR’s discussion on the science of reading last Fall. The battle is getting heated again and each side is digging in, organizing their research files, and preparing their arguments.
The predominant approach to teaching reading in our schools has been balanced literacy. The idea of balanced literacy is that it has phonics as well as whole language instruction and can meet the needs of many learners in a classroom. Authentic texts are used in guided reading groups, read aloud activities, and building vocabulary. Balanced literacy enthusiasts have research to show that children learn to read and gain a love of reading. Sounds great, right?
But for many children, this kind of approach isn’t what they need to become proficient readers. These learners, particularly those with dyslexia or other learning differences, may need more systematic, explicit instruction in phonics, phonemes, decoding, and other. Again, we have research to show that many children need this kind of explicit instructional approach that breaks down our language into its individual parts and sounds. So, what gives?
Every brain is different. A recent study at the University of Zurich confirms that our brains are like our fingerprints, each one has its own unique anatomy. We develop at different paces and acquire new information differently, yet we have one teacher assigned to a classroom of 25-30 students. If each has their own unique learning profile, how can we expect one teacher or one literacy approach to reach the diverse learning differences in the classroom?
LDA’s philosophy has been that no one curricula or approach is going to fit the needs of all learners. The war isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. It’s really about how can we meet each student’s needs. We can’t continue to think of this a simple investment in a new training or classroom curriculum. But, to stop and understand that each learner is different and we, as detectives in learning, need to take time to understand how each and every one of our students learn. When teachers begin to understand this, and we see them use the research and knowledge they have about reading acquisition as well as use the data they are collecting from their student’s work to inform their instruction, then begin to see progress in our student’s proficiency and achievement.