HMW Question

January 16, 2020


I was likely the last to submit my HMW question as I finally confessed my struggles. Do I make the question I’ve been struggling with for years my Cohort21 question? The quick response was “Struggle is good, that’s where innovation happens.” Struggle? YES, struggle. That IS where learning happens!

I’ve been struggling (that word again!) with (good, better, best) ways to support literacy development for a long time. Over the years, I’ve taken a gazillion courses (a very small exaggeration). Direct Instruction, Reading Recovery, Lindamood-Bell, so many courses. Yes, I learned something from each, but the challenges remained the same. I finally landed in several courses based on structured literacy. That’s when I discovered the reading wars and that’s where I am now, in a murky, messy quagmire centered right in the bulls-eye of the argument

I now teach (so fortunately and gratefully) in a lovely, warm little school, in a classroom that has an incredible library of books. You have to know, that I love reading, that I dream of being left overnight in a library or a book store. This collection of books is pretty close to a dream.

Here’s the blip in the dream. The library of books with colourful illustrations and interesting texts gets sent home to help children ‘learn’ to read. I also use the library to help children learn to read. Most do learn to read and if they need support, they can have more intensive support in grade 2, but please ask, can we prevent or at least minimize the need for added reading support?

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Or maybe you just quit reading, but this is where my zeal gets fired up. The research – there is no argument, it’s solid research, says the brain learns to read the same way it learns to talk, one sound at a time. Students get better at sounds, and soon reading looks instantaneous. Steven Pinker said “children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.” It takes struggle. Dang that word!

Reading instruction. These leveled, predictable texts use many words that poor decoders cannot read. They use sound patterns that haven’t yet been introduced in their phonics program. They have words spelled with varied and relatively complex phonics patterns, and pictures that enable guessing. These ubiquitous readers teach children that reading is easy, that it involves guessing (from the picture, from the first letter, from the context) and memorizing, a strategy that will not help children in the long run. This type of text does not encourage children to look carefully at the letters in words to decode them and the letters and their sequence are exactly what makes one word different from another.

Ok, so I still heart these little books and I think there is a place or two for them, but I am passionate about using (research-based) structured literacy approaches to meet the needs of ALL students, to help students learn to become better writers, spellers, storytellers. To struggle to understand that English is morpho-phonemic language and thereby grow their understanding of the language. Explicit and systematic instruction is an essential component in literacy development hence my struggle, my question:

How might we better harness the latest science of the reading brain to bolster a literacy program that meets the needs of all students?

3 Responses to “HMW Question”

  1. Eric Daigle said:


    You’ve touched upon a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I have a 3 1/2 year-old girl who is already starting that long road towards literacy. I am thankful every day that we decided to put her into a Montessori program because those early-phonic structures you talk about in your blog, are exactly what the program works on with her.

    We started at home with a phonetic alphabet, and my daughter has learned the actual sounds of the letters rather than the arbitrary rhyming scheme the traditional alphabet song dictates. This has already made a world of difference as I see her decoding letters based on their morphemes. From their she will learn to trace the letters in a cursive style (sandpaper letters), accessing the kinaesthetic aspects of her brain through her hands (concrete) and into her head (abstract). While this happens the starting blocks of association begin by matching three-letter words (CAT) to actual objects that represent the concept.

    This is my roundabout way of suggesting that perhaps you might look into the Montessori method for some alternative answers to your wonderful HMW question. I know the last thing you might want to do is take another course. However, this is a developmentally appropriate program which is highly researched (Maria Montessori was a scientist) and has actually produced results for over 100 years.

    See you on Friday,

  2. NancyS said:

    What a beautiful explanation of your question. Struggle indeed! So often in the reading wars, the math wars, any wars, questions are framed as either/or. So often the answer lies in and. You hint at this in your introduction to the question. There is no need to “throw out” those beautiful levelled readers. As students become hungry to read, they may help them tiptoe their way to more authentic texts. At the same time, a structured reading approach will ensure that whatever obstacles they face, they will have the tools to struggle through them. That is a whole bunch of metaphors mixed up together, but I hope you know what I mean. I am always suspicious of a first, then approach. Because of the way my brain works, I prefer yes, and. There must be a way to infuse a comprehensive literacy program with the subskills provided by a more systematic instructional approach. Just as in math we can both progress sequentially in step-lock fashion while spiraling through a more varied set of problems, so we can sequentially introduce the fundamental skills of reading while immersing children in rich experiences with text. Think of it is a direct path through the centre of a helix. That’s my thinking right now, but it might change as we dialogue further about this. The learning continues.

  3. Jillian said:

    You are such a beautiful and thoughtful writer. I think the entire literacy community is working through these ideas and questions about best practices in literacy instruction at the moment. You know that I ALWAYS want to talk more about this with you!
    Jillian 🙂

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