As I was perusing through some posts in a literacy Facebook group, I came across a particular post that caught my attention. A literacy teacher asked if a specific program was good to use for students who were struggling with learning how to read. What spurred me to write this post was not a teacher reaching out to fellow teachers regarding their opinion about a literacy program but rather the answers that were given to this teacher.
There were several responses that affirmed that the program identified would work and other responses that suggested trying out some other program. Despite there being more than 20 replies, not one teacher asked for more information about the student(s), nobody expanded on why they thought the program in question or the other programs would be effective. One program was highlighted because “it is easy to use/follow” and “can be used with larger groups of students“.
I would like to address why the above criteria shouldn’t be our main focus when choosing what materials/methods we use with our students.
Easy to Use
A program that is “easy to use” does not necessarily mean it makes learning easier for students. I find this term “easy to use” an insulting message that I have heard frequently from school leaders, teachers and as a sales pitch from companies that create literacy programs and software. I understand the appeal of adopting the “easy to use” program, but as I stated above, the problem is “easy to use” does not mean that the program will be effective and meet the needs of our students.
I would recommend that we put “ease of use” aside and spend more time focusing on research, especially independent research, that examines the effectiveness of any program.
Programs that boast about their effectiveness for larger groups of students are often appealing to school leaders. The problem is that the strengths and needs are not going to be the same for each student in the group. When the group size is larger, teachers can not address the needs of each student in a timely manner. The teacher will waste time teaching some students what they already know in order to address what the other students don’t know. It is virtually impossible to help a large group of students make progress fast enough to catch up with their on grade-level peers.
Knowledge is key
In Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners, Regie Routman, writes that overreliance on programs is a sign of lack of professional development(p. 109). Making teachers more knowledgeable about all elements of literacy and literacy processing creates teachers who are not dependent on programs. Teaching our most struggling readers is not an easy task. Making informed decisions based on our observations and choosing a way to respond that will best fit the student(s) in front of us is not easy. Therefore, I am skeptical of any products that market themselves as making our job easier.
As reading specialists, we need high-quality professional development that is well-supported by research and grounded in theory. High quality professional development helps teachers by:
- providing knowledge to inform decision making
- helping teachers to understand how children become literate and the complex processes involved in learning to read
- showing teachers how to closely observe students and how the progression of literacy acquisition builds over time
- letting teachers know which approaches are effective
- showing what type of assessments to use, how to examine those assessments, and how to use assessments to inform our teaching
Effective teachers develop a belief system that they work from and are able to reflect on and evaluate their teaching decisions and practices. Effective teachers are not simply going through the motions of teaching or being compliant by following manuals with fidelity. Effective teachers make professional learning a priority.
Make Professional Learning our Responsibility
We can best support our students by making it our responsibility to involve ourselves in professional learning opportunities such as:
- Reading professional books
- Facilitating/joining book studies
- Advocating for professional development teams that plan for professional development that goes deep (not fleeting or piecemealed) and is meaningful
- Start your own professional learning group
- Attend professional conferences
- Work with the school’s literacy coach
- Implement what you have learned during professional development, evaluate and reflect on how it went
When we’re thinking about the effectiveness of adopted programs or practices we have to think beyond what is easiest. We should be constantly learning and looking at research. The list above is not exhaustive. If you have any other suggestions for professional growth please add them to the comment section below.