One of the worst assumptions I made as a young classroom teacher was that each and every student in my class would possess a fully developed framework for reading and writing in my class. Maybe this was because I had been out of school a few years when I started my teaching career, or maybe I was just too steeped in the content that I had to cover and remember for my master's program. In either case, I quickly learned as a teacher at a rural middle school in 2007 that, rather than discussing the historical development of English literature or the modern contributions of John Updike, I was working with some eighth graders who could not decode words over three letters long or two syllables. This discovery was a shock at first, but one that I found a way of adjusting to as I continued my career.
An Invisible Process
As a freshly-minted teacher, I could tell you that Edmund Spenser came before Shakespeare in the literary timeline, but beyond "dead white guys" and getting correct answers on a standardized education assessment, I did not really know how to teach someone how to read. I think the components were offered in my teacher preparation program, but I simply was not in a place to internalize them yet as I managed my assumptions. In short, I had to unlearn the idea that all students read the same way, and this was foundational in recognizing that, even with two college degrees, teachers who wish to become better have to remain learners.
What grew out of my initial experiences was a kind of haphazard cobbling together of resources and energy in an effort to develop an understanding of how reading works. I remember looking at the faces of my students, watching their eyes follow text, and realizing that reading was an invisible process. How would I make these elusive ideas appear out of thin air for my students? How could I measure what was both silent and unseen?
As much as I could try to blame-shift others, I shoulder that responsibility. I have found that shift can sometimes be helpful for falling asleep at night, but rarely aids in actually addressing and correcting the problems we face as educators. So, what did I do?
In the classroom, I read books about how to read books. I opened up my definition of text to include not only the classics I came to appreciate as a college student, but also the kind of visual reading I enjoyed when I was younger (including media and comic books). I shared stories with students and learned more about their stories. We read, and then wrote about what we read; then we wrote and read about what we wrote.
I found the power of motivation through high interest texts and media. On the first day of class, I would point to stacks of books in the room, as well as the screen that decorated one of my walls, and declare that these materials were going to be our textbook. I did not rely on one textbook to do the work of reading in my class; variety, novelty, and choice became words I implemented, sometimes without even really pausing to unpack and process them fully.
The danger of a single textbook evidenced itself one day when a student scrawled a message in pencil on his desk, "Are we going to read this stupid English book every day?" "No," I answered to him and to the rest of the class. "We are going to read widely." Then, I erased the message on the desk and kept it in mind for future instruction.
I reached out to trusted colleagues who wanted to do more than shovel standardized testing materials and rely on mandated curriculum. I learned about The Hunger Games series from a teacher at another school in my district, and this book formed the basis for part of my instruction for about four years. When it was time to get attention back from group work, I even used the three-fingered whistle popularized by the series. My interest in the book predated the films, so I was able to link these media representations up and share trailers of the films as we were encountering the novels.
The reading level for The Hunger Games is not very high, or so I am told, but the ideas are complex. The motivation my students found trumped any reading level concerns. After all, I could sprinkle in higher-order vocabulary into our conversation and writing about the book after and while we read. Imagine that.
In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is also a reading teacher. We are a pair of dictionary-loving, book-reading lit critics. She has been and continues to be my ongoing personal learning partner, as well as my partner in life. So, when I encountered a problem with how to engage a student in writing, for example, she was quick to point out the value of composing digital text. I learned that there is not one way to teach and engage, and that learning how to read and write happens in a variety of spaces. These are truths I first learned from others as I reached out and discovered value in not trying to climb the mountain by myself.
More Learning, Please!
Finally, I turned my attention to doctoral work and began studying literacy development. This process of learning started before my PhD process began as I completed an education specialist degree. At times, it was difficult going to class after spending all day teaching, but it was so worth it.
It turns out, those five pillars do mean something after all, even for adolescent readers. The foundations sometimes arrive in education after we think we have started work on the rest of structure. Without that realization, it can feel as though we are sinking.
It also turns out that, while many of the special education programs that were being offered in my district focused on phonics, the adolescent readers in my classroom really needed a wider array of processes. Resting all your hope on phonics is like suggesting we all become great readers of shampoo bottle ingredients without attending to the very important components of induction, deduction, and logical comprehension.
When I would stop in class and talk about what good readers did, this was the notion called a think-aloud. When I asked skilled readers who shared their interpretations in class to talk about how they arrived at their conclusions, I was allowing my students to take ownership and provide models. That was effective practice.
When I asked readers to navigate text out loud in front of the group through round robin reading, as had been done to me, and when I did not make enough time for my students to explore text and choose books, I was slogging through a text-based curriculum rather than creating meaningful experiences. When I spent one day of instruction writing definitions and sentences and called it vocabulary instruction, I was insulting the power of word study. And those were ineffective practices.
I have learned a lot, and I have more learning to do.
Since my early days, I have had a chance to do some penance. I am in the final stages of my doctoral program and have spent the past few years working with students in research, as well as teaching at the college level. This lengthy sabbatical has given me an opportunity that I rarely took advantage of at the secondary level; I have read research and reflected.
The assumption I made that the underpinnings of literacy, including terms like phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency, just apply to elementary school students was simply inaccurate. Trying to uphold this error in thinking can only lead to frustration. Middle grades education is not just about comprehension and vocabulary. It would be nice if all students arrived prepared for complex, abstract thinking, but that would be a conveyor belt, and not a classroom. I believe our responsibility is to meet students where they are and help them develop the skills they require to progress. It is a much more caring and human approach.
What all of this means is that my instruction has changed, but it also means that we might take a second look at what being a middle school teacher requires. Our pedagogy is about our love of the content, but it turns out that teaching is also about being a specialist in reading and in being human. There are haunting connections between emergent readers and the students we find in middle school (and even high school) classrooms every day.
In my journey, being a teacher of reading has meant embracing what a full vision of reading means.
Jason D. DeHart, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. He taught middle grades English for eight years in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2020.