Teachers Need Reflection Too
In international teaching, I’ve noticed the conversation of phonics comes up much more with parents than it does in the US. Especially considering the British system (that I admittedly don’t know much about) places a lot of weight on phonics. So, when I saw this debate light up again on Facebook and Instagram this fall, I wanted to learn more. My background with dyslexia, phonics, and guided reading is really skewed, and I’ve never really known what to think about the whole debate. I never really believe that something is 100% the right way and something else is 100% the wrong way. I think things are more on a continuum. I’m going to share my background story with dyslexia and balanced literacy with you so that you know where I am coming from- a very confusing place. I’m not the most credible and knowledgeable voice in this debate.
During the beginning of my teaching career, a new reading specialist came into our building. She was studying dyslexia and would share the information she learned from time to time. I found it interesting because I didn’t know a lot about dyslexia and I LOVE to learn!
She would come into my classroom and tell me that in my class of eighteen, at least five students had dyslexia. Or she would come in to share a quick thing she learned about in an article. It felt normal, and our second-grade team liked our morning chats with her until suddenly things weren’t so normal anymore.
The App Diagnosis
One day she found a fantastic app ever that could diagnose dyslexia in children. I was skeptical of this app at best. I don’t believe that it is our job to diagnose children, and I don’t believe a new app is how to do it. She came in unannounced to test it out on my class during reader’s workshop. Not only was she extremely disruptive to the flow of our classroom during this time, but she also ended up diagnosing my entire class with dyslexia. I brushed this off and continued teaching, surely my whole class didn’t have dyslexia, right?
She then started printing off worksheet after worksheet and dropping off stacks in my classroom to help with my 100% dyslexic class. I was overwhelmed by this. This interventionist was known to blow up at teachers, so I always accepted the worksheets, and they found their way to the recycling. I didn’t want conflict (type 9 enneagram here!), but I did not want all of these resources. My kids were showing growth using balanced literacy, and if they were showing growth, I didn’t see a need to change.
Later on that year, we decided one of my students who was reading at a level K in mid-March would benefit from some time with a reading interventionist. They needed to work on decoding longer words and deeper level comprehension. They weren’t too far behind grade level, so the team figured a short term intervention would give them the boost they needed. We also knew they would thrive in a 1:1 setting, and short-term interventions like this had helped them in the past.
The interventionist that worked with our grade level was all booked up, so this student went to the dyslexia researcher. After one session, she came into my classroom screaming (when my whole class was enjoying snack) that the kid couldn’t read at all. She was yelling and blaming me for being a lousy teacher by teaching balanced literacy in front of all of my students!
No teacher wants to hear they’re not doing a good job- especially in front of their whole class. We’re all doing the best with what we have. I was following our district curriculum, and there wasn’t anything else I could have done. What she was ranting about was super confusing to me, too, because they were reading Frog and Toad and loving them. They could decode at a level K and comprehend for the most part. Something happened when they tried an L, and they needed a bit more help. This student was reading Nate the Great and solving mystery after mystery how were they unable to read? What does that even mean? They were reading every single day with me.
What Was the Reading Intervention?
When she started working with them, she focused on teaching them phonics instead of doing the intervention that we had discussed as a team. During our class phonics lessons, they did reasonably well. I’m not sure what work they were doing with her because whenever I asked, she talked in circles and threw out names of programs. She would argue all the time that she was Orton Gillingham trained. I didn’t care about her training. I knew Orton Gillingham and had seen it work wonders with kids. I wanted to know what their intervention consisted of so that I could support that work in our classroom. I would try to ask more specific questions, but she would not break down the 30-minute lesson and explain what she was doing. It was beyond frustrating.
How Can I Support This Child?
Soon, they had slipped back to a level J and then to a level I. One day I handed them our story during guided reading, and they declared that they couldn’t read books and gave the book back; they asked for a list of words. I didn’t understand what was going on. How could this kid who loved books suddenly refuse to read books? I had my literacy coach come in and observe because let’s be real- I was panicking. I needed to figure out what to do next. My literacy coach was also confused. She was their reading interventionist the year before and said she was shocked by some of the things she saw them doing.
As I worked with my literacy coach to try to figure out what I could do to support this little diamond, she was also stumped. She asked what they were working on in intervention. I filled her in on all the strange conversations I had and that I didn’t know what was happening. She said that she’s sure dyslexia is underdiagnosed but is also confident that my whole class probably doesn’t have it. And even if this diamond does have dyslexia, this intervention isn’t working.
It Kept Getting Weirder
Even stranger things happened after this. The interventionist went into one of my colleague’s classrooms and took all the Mo Willems books declaring that students should read dumb stuff. She started trying to start rumors about our literacy coach, even coming and asking me if I was being treated ok by her. She went low and said that the lit coach’s daughter had dyslexia, and that’s why she was anti-dyslexia. Our lit coach wasn’t anti-dyslexia but got accused of a whole bunch because she was leading us in balanced literacy. She went into another room and told the teacher classroom libraries were dumb and unnecessary. She launched attack after attack on our literacy coach via Facebook posts. I unfriended her because I don’t want to be associated with teachers who attack each other on Facebook. More things happened, but you get the gist.
To be honest, I never understood why dyslexia and balanced literacy were at war. Why was she so anti our balanced literacy framework? The way I understood it was dyslexic students needed something different than what was provided in a balanced literacy framework. There are, of course, kids who need different teaching than the teaching happening in the classroom. Shouldn’t we accommodate them?
More Than A Little Confused
As you can imagine, that experience left me more than a little bit confused about dyslexia. All I knew was a kid who was doing well in reading got an unofficial dyslexia diagnosis by a teacher who wasn’t the most stable, and then he got worse and worse as a reader. His reading level at the end of the year was lower than at the start of the year.
Logically I knew that this was an odd case, and she wasn’t the greatest, but it was tough to get past all of her irrational and abrasive behavior. After this incident, I didn’t think about dyslexia for a long time.
Then, a few years ago my school (a different one than the school above) had professional development with the principal from a school that specializes in dyslexia. She talked a lot about the importance of phonics. We reviewed phonics rules and I met with her one on one to discuss the teaching of phonics. We had just switched to Fountas and Pinnell Phonics and it was the first time our school had a phonics/ word study program. We talked for a long time about what rules to teach kids and what rules not to teach, how to build in phonics support into the reading and writing workshop. If I could work for this principal I would. She was so knowledgable and I left her session with millions of ideas to pull into the classroom. It didn’t seem as though there was a huge disconnect from what I was doing in my classroom using balanced literacy and the phonics PD that I attended. They seemed to work in harmony which was the opposite of what I had always been told.
Phonics is a Part of Balanced Literacy
I feel there is a misconception that phonics is not taught in a balanced literacy framework. That isn’t true (if things are happening correctly- I know sometimes they aren’t). Phonics is taught in part of the program, often referred to as word study. The way phonics is taught depends on what program or philosophy a school is following. I’ve used Fountas and Pinnell Phonics, which follows the workshop approach and teaches in on one specific phonics piece each lesson. I’ve also used Words Their Way and Word Journeys to teach phonics through sorting and making connections between other words. I would say the whole goal of word study in balanced literacy is for skills to transfer back into reading and writing. We might not teach all of the cute phonics rhymes we learned as kids. This is usually because the cute rhymes tie in with the exceptions, not the rules. Perhaps people behind the Science of Reading would like a more rigorous phonics component to balanced literacy. I’m not opposed to that, and I don’t think many are. We want to teach transferrable phonics skills to our kids as phonics knowledge is needed for decoding.
M,S,V and the Science of Reading
Last year I led our school in learning Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, and part of that system is MSV. If you don’t know, MSV stands for Meaning, Structure, and Visual. These are considered the three cueing system readers use as they read. When readers encounter an unknown word and attempt to decode it, they ask: Does this make sense? Does this sound right? Does this look right? Often in a balanced literacy approach, more weight is placed on meaning than on phonics for the in the moment decoding while reading.
While preparing for that training, I came across research that MSV wasn’t valid, and I read it. I knew that there were teachers extremely frustrated by B.A.S., and they would find this research. I also think it is good practice to read things that you disagree with. It furthers your reflection and your own ideas. What I found was fascinating. Researchers show that the English language is much more decodable than we’ve been led to believe. It is a topic that I would like to learn about more. I do notice that children who come into our schools from the British system are much, much better decoders but have limited comprehension skills.
I recently joined a Facebook group for teachers who support the Science of Reading. Currently, I’m disappointed I haven’t learned more from the group as it is right now focused on bashing balanced literacy programs and leaders and less focused on sharing information on the science of reading. Hopefully, I can begin to learn more from them as a teacher.
So, Am I Wrong?
It isn’t a good feeling to think that you’re wrong about your core beliefs on a topic, but it is a good time for reflection. Am I wrong? Should I stop using a balanced literacy approach and focus more on phonics? The Science of Reading people say yes. I don’t know, but I don’t think so at this moment. I want to learn more and strengthen my phonics instruction, and I don’t believe that kids in younger grades should just read decodable texts, BUT I do think decodables are beneficial for some readers.
Could we include more decodable reading within the phonics portion of balanced literacy? What compromises could be made to support both? I don’t know but I am sure there are some.
This whole debate reminded me of a conversation we had with a literacy consultant at the start of the year. We were providing a scaffolded support tool that the majority of students actually didn’t need. We removed that support from the kids who didn’t need it and kept it for the kids who did need it. I feel like giving all kids decodables instead of the books they currently have would be similar. We would be putting up supports for all kids that they might not need. Dyslexia is underdiagnosed, and teachers need a lot more support and education in this area. I am sure that what works for dyslexic students will work for all students, but is it what’s best for them? I don’t know. I’m going to continue to research and listen to both sides of the argument. We’ll see what I discover.
The Science of Reading
Please know that if you’re using a balanced literacy approach some of these may be hard to read because of the teacher-bashing in them. I’m not about that. Couldn’t we have this debate without bashing teachers and name-calling?
I’m only including the responses from Lucy Calkins and Irene and Gay Su Pinnell because they’re the only responses I know of right now. If you know of additional responses please share them in the comments.
Let’s build a productive conversation around this topic in the comments below.
What are your thoughts? What does your education and experience lead you to?
Just a forewarning, any teacher-bashing comments will be deleted. That isn’t productive for either side. Try to figure out a way to phrase your comment in a way that doesn’t bash the teacher but teaches.