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Radical Eyes for Equity: What Reading Program Should Schools Adopt?

The TL;DR answer is “none.”

The conventional wisdom answer of the day is “one that is proven effective by independent scientific research.”

The reason the first answer is correct is that this is the wrong question, and wrong approach that has plagued the teaching of reading for most of modern education.

Yes, the conventional wisdom answer sounds compelling, but it is fool’s gold because there can never be a program “proven effective” since teaching and learning to read are quite complex and dependent on individual student strengths and challenges (as well as a whole host of contexts in any student’s home or school).

The reading program adoption merry-go-round is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

Every reading program replaced was promised effective in the same ways as the one replacing it. (See also the constant changing of standards.)

Schools should take at least one long step backward and start with having teachers identify what is working, what isn’t working, and how typical populations of students being taught in that school present identifiable needs that teachers must address.

The source of decisions about teaching reading materials must begin with populations of students being served and teacher expertise on both reading and that unique population.

Reading material needs in the rural South are never going to be the same as reading material needs in the urban Midwest.

Keeping reading programs central to teaching reading creates several key flaws that are insurmountable:

  • Adopting reading programs results in focusing teaching accountability on how well the program is being implemented and not on student progress and struggles.
  • Reading programs feed a silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all mentality.
  • Reading programs shift the locus of authority to the program and not the teacher.
  • Reading programs are driven by market propaganda that distorts the evidence about effectiveness.

While I remain committed to the “none” answer, that genuinely is not a practical answer at the moment.

Schools will in all likelihood continue to adopt reading programs (or continue using the currently adopted program); therefore, here are some practical guidelines that merges my ideal (“none”) and the reality of day-to-day teaching:

  • As noted above, schools must do an assessment of their current student population, their current status of programs/materials, and their practical goals for improving student progress as readers.
  • That assessment must then guide analysis of the current program (how well and poorly it is meeting needs) or provide the framework for selecting a new program.
  • Schools must critically and even skeptically address that adopting new programs often always incurs excessive costs that may not be effective use of funding since teachers with autonomy may be able to make almost any program or set of materials work.
  • Reading program adoption must not be seen as all-inclusive of the school’s reading program, but as part of the entire reading materials package and as resources for teacher implementation.
  • Schools must resist scripted programs, period.

Ultimately, schools must shift their focus away from programs-based reading instruction and toward student-need-based reading instruction.

That shift would create space to maintain the teaching/learning of reading as the goal of accountability and move reading program fidelity out of the equation since programs and materials serve the expertise of the teacher guided by student needs.

As I have noted before, historically and currently, reading programs put reading last.

If we are genuinely dedicated to teaching all students to read better, we have to (finally) do things differently.

A good start would be recognizing that “What reading program should schools adopt?” is the wrong question and then stepping back to ask bigger and better questions grounded in the students being taught and the teachers charged with a better reading program.

See Also

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The Unnecessary Collateral Damage in the Misguided Reading Programs War

Reading Programs Put Reading Last

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...