Everyone Learns to Read from Direct Instruction

Once Diane Ravitch posted my blog about the harm third-grade retention based on high-stakes tests of reading and reading levels do to literacy, I received some of the typical feedback I expect about reading instruction from those mired in the cult of phonics and a misguided obsession with direct instruction.

First, online and social media comments are often problematic because some (maybe many) people are simply seeking an opportunity to say what they want regardless of what is being addressed in the original blog post or Tweet. Setting up a straw man to hold forth on a pet peeve wasn’t created by social media, but it sure is fertile ground for that approach.

Next, let me be clear that when I shared my opening personal narrative of how I was raised in a supportive home that taught me my literacy skills I was in no way endorsing or suggesting that I am the beneficiary of a naturalistic approach to learning reading.

And let me go further: Speaking and listening are natural human behaviors, unless there are biological or other traumas or barriers; however, reading and writing are artificial, human created. And thus, everyone learns to read from direct instruction.

Just for effect, let’s do that again: everyone learns to read from direct instruction.

My mother did read alouds, sight words, and guided reading — just to name some strategies — and, yes, she was teaching me directly reading, even though she was a layperson.

For those of us raised in privilege, direct instruction can often appear to be naturalistic, and acquiring the most essential aspects of learning to read can also appear to be spontaneous. But none of that is true, and we all require direct instruction of reading (and writing) for many years of our lives as both literacy skills can never be finished.

The debate is not about if we offer all children direct instruction in reading, then, but how and why.

Isolated, intensive phonics direct instruction, we know, can be detrimental to reading growth for many children, yet some children find it very helpful.

The same can be said of isolated, intensive grammar direct instruction.

That is the beauty and calling of whole language — not to banish or idealize any approaches to literacy direct instruction, but to honor literacy acquisition over any set approach or program.

In other words, we must seek for each student the array of direct instruction in reading that best suits her/his needs and insure that she/he develops into not only a proficient reader, but an eager reader.

When direct instruction of reading is drudgery (such as completing a program or worksheet), as I and others have noted, it does far more harm than good.

Certainly, children coming from poverty, children living in homes with primary languages other than English, special needs students — these are populations that will challenge teachers more than children living in privilege. But not because some children (read “privileged”) acquire reading naturally and “other people’s children” need reading programs and isolated intensive direct instruction.

The human capacity for language is amazing, but it is not shielded from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The scarcity in the lives of many children inhibits the luxury of learning to read and write in homes that have survival needs or disturbances that genuinely trump their ability to gain formal language skills.

We must stop mistaking the advantages of privilege for “smart” and for “natural acquisition of language skills.” And we must stop predicting that all vulnerable populations of students need the very worst types of inauthentic direct instruction in the name of basic skills.

To be honest, there are no basic or foundational skills in whole performances such as reading and writing — although reducing reading and writing to technocratic parts facilitates efficient but often counter-effective instruction.

The reading wars are trivialized by creating the straw man argument that some of us are against direct instruction while others are for it — especially when the nasty implication that some are against direct instruction are doing so knowingly cheating some students of needed reading instruction.

I am for direct instruction of reading because there is no other option for teaching reading. However, I am fully committed to direct instruction only in the service of student needs and honoring the sanctity of reading as a full and wonderful human behavior.

I don’t teach reading programs. I don’t teach phonics.

I do teach students to read, and to love that reading in the service of their own lives and not to excel on a test.

NOTE: Since this post has spurred even more comments, many about “my child learned to read without direct instruction,” I must add that reading is not merely decoding. Yes, some children quite easily seem to be able to read aloud, and I suspect many parents believe they just learned it on their own. But simple decoding is not reading, and as I note above, reading is a complex process that we continue to learn and develop for years of formal schooling. The path to critical literacy is shaped by a wide range of strategies and we all receive direct instruction on that journey.

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on March 30, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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