The Four Rs

Iowans apparently feel strongly about the three four Rs–reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and recess–judging from the mini-firestorm that erupted on Twitter (here’s a taste of it, HT @mcleod) after the DE posted this article praising high-poverty schools raising reading scores, which included the following quote:

“They weren’t happy with some of the things we had to drop, such as morning recess time because we really don’t need that,” Tina said. “They butted heads with me for a couple years, but now they are into it.”

Leaving Director Glass arguing about what “to cut” something means.

But here’s what we aren’t talking about: the specific reading instruction methods and programs being used by these (or any other) Iowa schools.  Take a minute to pop over to your school district website—even if you already know what your district reading instruction philosophy, methods, and programs are—and see if you can find any clear statement about how your district approaches reading instruction.

These conversations about reading instruction in Iowa, which so carefully dodge the whole language/balanced literacy/phonics issues, seem to assume that every teacher, school, and district in Iowa is already using the most effective reading instruction methods and programs or that the details of reading instruction methods and programs don’t matter very much.  They aren’t and they do.

For what it’s worth, here’s my experience.  I attended a mixed SES elementary school that not only had time for reading instruction, but also spelling, penmanship, writing, math, social studies, science, PE, art, music, and morning, lunch, and afternoon recess and still let out daily at 2:35 pm.  In case you missed it, we had three recesses every day and we all needed it–not just a few wiggly boys–but all of us, probably even the teachers.

So, when I hear these stories, I can’t help wondering how these schools are teaching reading that there is so little time left for anything else?

But also, could we please make sure that we’re not congratulating ourselves for remediating reading problems of our making?  The English phonetic code is complex but it doesn’t have to be confusing; ineffective reading instruction creates confusion but effective instruction illuminates–and that’s what we should be aiming for in the first place.  Which kind of instruction are the schools in the article providing?  We have no way of knowing from the details provided.

And, just because I’m already on my reading soapbox, a sample of classic reading instruction blunders:

  • Emphasizing letter names (this word–cat–is not pronounced see-ay-tee; it is the sounds the letters represent that are important, not their names).
  • Teaching phonetically regular words as sight words (creates the idea that English spelling is completely unpredictable, requires too much memorization, and doesn’t help the child learn a rule that can be applied to reading/spelling other words).
  • Teaching only part of the code (yes, /ch/ as in church, but what about school and chef?  Kids need to be able to read those words too).
  • Rejecting decodable readers (yes, a cat on a mat in a hat with a rat is boring to adults but decodable readers provide great practice and a sense of accomplishment and confidence for early readers).

More on the issue can be found at Dangerously Irrelevant and A Blog About School.