The Journey: Voices from the Field

by Kathleen Theodore
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIV, Number 3, December 2002, Putting Reading First

Photo of Kathleen TheodoreThe journey began on a hot and humid September day in 1980. Bright-eyed, full of hope, and with the anticipation of successfully making a difference, I was a new teacher with a multi-age classroom of 6- and 7-year-olds. Butterflies danced in my stomach as I faced the challenge of teaching a national treasure — our children — to read.

The school in which I was assigned had a unique child-centered philosophy based on the British infant schools. The philosophy was incorporated into every facet of the curriculum and given to each teacher in a handbook. I read with fervor the handbook's section on teaching reading. Language experience, listening to each student read individually, and reading aloud to students daily were the key components of the school's philosophy on reading instruction.

“Voices from the Field,” is a regular SEDL Letter column that features essays written by educators. These essays do not necessarily reflect the views of SEDL staff, but serve as a touchstone for the challenges and successes of schools and districts around our region.

Each day I tried vigorously to incorporate these components into my reading instruction. I was successful reading aloud to my students. However, my attempts at listening to all of my students read individually as well as allowing them to participate in individualized language experience activities were less successful. My students were on so many different levels, ranging from fluent readers to those whose decoding, sight vocabulary, and language skills were minimal. There were not enough hours in the day to individualize instruction to the extent needed for students to achieve mastery of critical reading skills. I remember well those students who learned to read well in spite of me. But the majority of my students seemed to need something more than my instruction offered. There must be something that I was missing. For the sake of all of my students, I knew I had to embark on a journey. It would be the most important journey of my career, requiring a relentless search for knowledge with a commitment to act strategically to ensure that all of my students emerged as readers.

I began to talk to the experienced teachers. I listened attentively as they described their practices, and I also observed them in action with their students. Those successful teachers fascinated me. They illustrated that teaching reading is a multifaceted process that requires careful orchestration, especially the late Ottie Pittman, who as a first-grade teacher in New Orleans effortlessly taught so many students to read. She moved fluidly through various activities such as explicitly teaching sound-symbol correspondences and blending sounds to read words. Her pace was brisk and her expectation for student participation and mastery were evident as she amplified responses, provided immediate correction, and retested orally for mastery. She moved students through tasks involving reading books that contained the phonics elements and sight words taught by having students listen to and interact with stories that were much higher than their reading levels. She incorporated all the reading components I knew were important. In an "ah-ha" moment it became evident to me that she obtained results because she had a systematic approach to teaching reading. I realized that you could have all the right pieces, but if they were not carefully and purposefully sequenced, our students — especially our most fragile learners — would not be successful readers.

To my dismay, teaching reading was the most challenging part of my first year of teaching. As I contemplated the process, I realized that I was ill-prepared to teach beginning readers. I could not put together or understand the key ingredients in teaching reading.

It was during my second year of teaching that I experienced a ray of hope through a student named Alicia. She had enrolled after the school year had begun and was not yet able to read. Since I was not confident of my ability to teach her to read, I asked an experienced teacher down the hall to teach her. Toward the end of the school year, I was amazed when I heard Alicia reading. She read beautifully! Immediately I asked her teacher how she taught Alicia to read. She told me that although the school's philosophy did not condone it, she used a phonics program along with the basal reader. She strongly believed that the phonics instruction was key in enabling her students to read well.

Finally I had something tangible to grasp. Through courses at a local university I began to learn how to teach phonics. My thirst for knowledge led me on. My students deserved no less than the best; I needed to learn more. The end of my second year of teaching was a time of great frustration for me — and unbeknownst to me, it was also a time of frustration for many of my colleagues — both veteran and new teachers. Many of the successful veteran reading teachers had moved on. Then, in what was a turning point, for us all, my colleagues and I began a dialogue about reading: We asked each other, "Do you know how to teach reading?" The answer was a unanimous no. We all knew what we had been told to do in the teacher's handbook was not working. It was a relief to admit this among ourselves, but we were not comfortable admitting it to our principal. Somehow we felt that the inability to teach reading could negatively reflect on our effectiveness as teachers. We resolved then to figure it out ourselves.

We soon realized that each of us had students in our rooms who not only could read, but could read very well. They all came from one teacher, Jean DeLeon. She gathered us on the patio of her French Quarter home and taught us how to teach reading. Jean's approach was grounded in the understanding that English is an alphabetic language and that reading any alphabetic language requires a reader to go through the alphabet and crack the code in order to have access to language and meaning. She emphasized the importance of helping students understand that spoken language is made up of sounds. We became the students as she engaged us in the listening activities of rhyming, oral blending, and segmenting larger parts of words, such as syllables, as well as segmenting and manipulating phonemes, the smallest unit of sounds. Jean's style of teaching respected the needs of beginning readers as they progressed through an intense focus on processing language to reading fluently. She used decodable text to teach reading and rich literature to develop oral language comprehension, vocabulary, and critical thinking skills. Her systematic approach became clear to us as we examined the material she used as a vehicle to literacy with much greater understanding. The circle of colleagues — of professionals teaching and learning from each other — became not only a circle of friends but also a circle of enlightenment. This circle of enlightenment enhanced the journey and will always be a part of me. It gave me the courage to successfully teach many students to read when so many others wanted me to teach differently.

What I gained from the circle is that we use different texts for different purposes. For example, while the Velveteen Rabbit is a beautiful piece of literature, it cannot be used to teach beginning readers to read. Its use should be geared toward increasing oral language, critical thinking, vocabulary, and comprehension. Part of the journey was learning what effective reading instruction is and developing skill in delivering instruction. This skill was accomplished through teacher practice, observation, conversing and studying with colleagues, and coaching. More important, it was the admission of not knowing how to teach reading that led to great discovery.

Students need explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics in order to break the code of our alphabetic language. A key component of phonics instruction is integrating phonics into the context of reading through substantial practice with decodable text. Reading is a carefully orchestrated symphony. Applying the right instruction at the right time or stage of development is deeply rooted in its chords. But the heart of the journey was realizing that both my students and I needed time and practice to develop expertise. I needed to be able to deliver effective reading instruction and my students needed to learn to read. My students also needed ample opportunities to develop fluency. Then they could grow wings and fly, celebrating their successes along the way.

It's a great and exciting time to be a part of reading education. The scientific reading research has led the educational community onto the cutting edge of success — leaving no child behind. We can no longer listen to those who promote reading instruction without substantiated research. The cost of failure is too expensive and too often those students who fall behind stay behind. I believe that all teachers want their students to succeed. We must work together to develop our own professional learning communities that will inspire and empower us to achieve great things. To my colleagues I say: The journey continues. Be of good cheer. These are truly good times. A circle of enlightenment awaits you. Close your eyes and visualize every child reading well.

Kathleen Theodore teaches first grade at McDonogh No. 15 Creative Arts Magnet School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a freelance consultant who enjoys working with children and teachers.

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