Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

A Message from Mary Howard

Focusing Attention on What Is Important

My career has been remarkably rich and rewarding, spanning nearly three decades of classroom experience, personal research and educational consulting. A recurring question plagued me in my early years of teaching and continues to guide my thinking. It was obvious that my role as a teacher was multifaceted, but sifting through the many instructional responsibilities made me wonder if there was anything that should take priority. A single issue consistently came to mind that made everything else appear secondary. After more than thirty years, I am no less confident that the role I play in developing each child's potential for literacy development is the umbrella under which all else falls. Viewing each component of the curriculum as an opportunity to further this lofty objective, my primary goal is to design an instructional program in which each child comes to associate value, purpose and pleasure in reading and writing experiences.

I have often asked educators across the country what they view as their primary instructional responsibility. Responses have been widely varied, generally directed to a specific teaching assignment. Middle and high school teachers, for example, consistently cite a specific instructional area such as science, social studies or math. Responses in the elementary grades are more dependent on the clock, or whether it is math time, reading time, music time or science time. As the clock changes hands, teachers view responsibility to shift as well. In other words, reading is seen as the focus during language arts, but spiders suddenly take precedence during science.

Putting Literacy in the Proper Perspective

Without minimizing the importance of each aspect of the curriculum, I suggest the placement of these components demonstrates a failure to grasp the big picture. Regardless of teaching assignment, literacy permeates the entire school day as a critical and non-negotiable priority. I will survive in this world without knowing all there is to know about Christopher Columbus, but my chances of success in life are significantly diminished by limited expertise in reading and writing. Further, my success or failure in understanding these topics is dependent upon my ability to make sense of the print selected to accompany that learning.

My concern that literacy is not put in the proper perspective is elevated to alarm when intermediate and secondary teachers declare that it is not their responsibility to teach children to read (I teach science, not reading; I’m a fifth grade teacher, so children should know how to read by the time they come to me.). The prevailing belief seems to be that children learn to read in the early grades so responsibility to reading after that time is merely to fine tune existing skills within the confines of the grade level curriculum. But this can be a dangerous proposition if we fail to acknowledge the growing number of students without the literacy framework upon which to build continued learning. Reading is unquestionably a developmental and sequential process in which previous learning has a significant impact on all that follows. Many teachers, particularly beyond the primary grades, feel ill-equipped to effectively teach reading to a widely diverse population. If students have not developed as successful independent readers by the time third grades ends, doors may begin to close tightly and often permanently as the gap continues to widen with increasing literacy demands. If literacy problems are not addressed in a timely fashion, the likelihood that this will translate into a life sentence is extremely high.  Every teacher is a literacy teacher every minute of every day.

Variations in Learning to Read

Why does it appear that more children are struggling with reading than ever before? Perhaps one explanation is the prevailing definition of what is normal. Traditionally, the designated ?normal? age for learning to read is the age of six. Children who do not meet this expected guideline are often labeled, viewing the child rather than the timetable as flawed. Certainly neurological and learning deficits that deter learning may exist and must be addressed. Yet, extensive research on learning and the brain confirm that there can be a different but normal variation of up to four years in the rate of development. The child who begins reading at age seven may be no less ?normal? than the child who begins reading at age three. In Denmark and other countries where literacy rates are high, reading instruction does not begin until the age of eight. The highly acclaimed Waldorf Schools do not force reading upon children. As children begin reading at age five while others do not begin reading until age eight or nine. In exemplary instructional models, personal timetables are acknowledged and respected by recognizing that what is normal for one child may not be normal for another.  Keep in mind that research confirms that reading is not a skill that is normal to the human brain in the first place, and yet we are creative in our own time and tables for success.

I am not suggesting that we bide our time and simply wait until children "get around" to learning to read. Literacy is clearly a priority that should be the primary goal from the beginning. What I am suggesting is that each child is viewed on a one-to-one basis by first considering whether the development is biological, neurological or environmental and proceed accordingly by designing an instructional program that adapts to the learning needs of children with these variations in mind. "Developmentally appropriate instruction" should describe what is appropriate for each child rather than what is appropriate for a grade level or what began as a variation or difference is suddenly translated into a deficit or disability, a deficit that did not exist until that child interacted with that environment. When the environment consistently perpetuates these school induced deficits, then who are the slow learners? Certainly not children, but they are the losers in every case.

Three Causes of School Failure

Quite simply, there are only three reasons why children fail in school: experiences have been withheld that set the stage for subsequent learning; the environment is not designed in a way that nurtures and respects the unique learning needs of each child, or instruction is not aligned to meet these needs. Through ongoing assessment and observation strategies, teaching should be based on these three critical factors by providing rich literacy opportunities that emphasize limited experience over ability in a supportive environment with respectful texts and tasks through appropriate and individualized instruction. Adjustments are then made in the instructional program to meet the needs of children rather than asking children to adapt to the existing instructional program. If alternative instructional opportunities are appropriate, responsibility is not relinquished to support services but extended to the regular classroom program so that intervention services are viewed as in addition to rather than instead of.

Reading as a Lifelong Goal

What about children who are developing at an expected rate of literacy? Is there a time when literacy formally ends, when teachers are no longer responsible for teaching reading? Is the job complete for the fifth grade, middle school or high school student reading on grade level? Of course not! Knowledgeable teachers recognize that literacy is a lifelong goal and acknowledge their role in this process. Readers continually seek to refine skills they have learned or are in the process of learning. Literacy is not “mastered” at any point, but is a never-ending process in which the reader draws from a reservoir of all previous learning that will serve as a bridge to new learning. As texts become increasingly complex, existing strategies must be reinforced and new strategies learned through both implicit and explicit instructional opportunities that actively engage children in carefully selected and appropriate texts. The high school science teacher is no less responsible for literacy than the first grade reading teacher, albeit with a different focus. Instructional opportunities serve to extend and enrich literacy as we continue to reinforce and build mental models as children internalize the strategies they will be expected to use independently in the future.  In this way we are teaching children how to learn so that the goal is not to teach reading but to help children become readers.

Selecting Appropriate Texts and Tasks

The texts teachers select throughout the day are a critical consideration in meeting these goals, providing multiple and varied opportunities to teach rich literacy strategies. Well-selected texts can serve as the vehicle for literacy, but inhibit any potential for learning when poorly selected. In fact, these frustration texts can have serious long-term implications over time.  Alternate texts and supportive instructional scaffolds now become imperative if learning is to take place, making the literacy needs of each student the guiding factor of instructional decisions rather than a perceived responsibility to publishers. Selecting respectful and appropriate texts and tasks throughout the day is the responsibility of every teacher through varied instructional approaches that address auditory, tactile-kinesthetic and visual modes with appropriate repetition to reinforce learning. Literacy then serves as the framework upon which everything else is built and the pathway to which all other learning ultimately flows.  This has nothing to do with grade level and everything to do with good decision making.

Looking for the Wrong Solutions

Fortunately, districts are beginning to recognize the high priority role literacy plays and are designating funds specifically for this purpose. While this is a welcome and long overdue change, it has opened up a new set of problems as districts consider how to accomplish this objective. Unfortunately, the solution often exacerbates the original problem as schools embark on an elusive search for the panacea or recipe for addressing the challenge of literacy. The response is bigger and better basals, the best phonics program, the newest computer software programs or fail-proof instructional packages that reflect personal biases over student need. In many cases, research is misinterpreted as reading is turned into scripted lessons with questions designed to inhibit rather than nurture thinking. Reading is often reduced to isolated skill and drill, sixty minute huffing and puffing sessions or time-consuming worksheet activities that fail to address the problem. These activities are generally at the expense of authentic experiences and rich instructional opportunities as children suffer the consequences.  The new cry is for "research-based" programs which often means examining biased quantity based research and ignored the informative and powerful qualitative studies (not to mention in-class experience) we are being sold a bill of goods and told to ignore common sense.

Moving in the Right Direction

Certainly programs are useful resources when used on a flexible and limited basis in which the teacher maintains control over the publisher. But wouldn’t it make more sense to focus attention on increasing teachers’ knowledge base so they are better equipped to evaluate, negotiate and modify the programs they are asked to use? Wouldn’t it be a better use of time and money to design an instructional program where teachers rather than publishers select and adapt rich opportunities and instructional strategies? Shouldn’t teachers have a professional responsibility to understand why specific strategies are or are not warranted while giving them a wide range of instructional strategies to select from? Shouldn’t the curriculum be designed to accommodate the uniqueness of the children it services rather than asking children to adapt to the confines of the curriculum? Aren’t we wasting valuable time debating the value of the programs that virtually guarantee winners and loser? Isn’t the goal to make teachers more knowledgeable about the learning process so they may become active participants?

Meeting the Promise of Literacy for All

I have devoted a career to assuring that the promise of literacy is a guarantee for every child in every classroom. Informed districts recognize that the demands of literacy can be addressed only by understanding the role teachers play in this process and offering rich professional learning opportunities to enhance that role. My seminars are designed to acknowledge teachers as change agents by addressing both the teaching and learning process and challenging them to take ownership by assuming professional responsibility. By integrating research on the brain and literacy, teachers will have a greater understanding of the literacy process so that instructional experiences can be purposefully and consistently designed to meet the needs of each child. I suggest a wide repertoire of strategies while focusing on why specific strategies are effective and how they can be adapted in a supportive environment. Instructional decisions are based on thoughtful and informed instructional practices selected on a day-to-day and student-to-student basis.

I believe that teachers are ultimately the key to the challenge of literacy and that little will change until districts tap into this rich resource. This belief is emphasized in every seminar as I reinforce the many effective strategies teachers are already using, suggest how to modify current practice to be more effective and teach new and powerful strategies that can be implemented the next day. I model the strategies I share in order to show teachers what this looks like in the classroom. It is my belief that all children can succeed if the focus is on instructional practices over programs and packages, making increasing the effectiveness of teachers in developing literacy the highest priority. I am fortunate to have played a small role in this process for thousands of teachers across the country and know that I can support your efforts in the same way.

Contact Mary Howard.