Perspectives on Improving Student Reading Performance
Effective and efficient instruction benefits all students but is essential for instructionally naive students who typically have trouble learning to read. Instructionally naive students are those students who do not readily retain newly presented information, are easily confused, and have difficulty attending to an instructional presentation.
There are four basic perspectives toward improving student reading performance. The first, the pessimist's viewpoint, states that the schools can do little unless the student's physical make-up or home and social environment are altered. The second, the generalist's viewpoint, states that the schools can improve reading performance by developing a wide range of abilities which supposedly underlie reading. The third, a constructivist or whole-language viewpoint, holds the individual reader's construction of meaning as central to reading, and views phonics and the "decoding" of words as strategies that trivialize the purpose of reading. The fourth, a direct-instruction viewpoint, involves an analysis of how to teach specific reading skills. Each orientation toward reading instruction is discussed below.
The pessimist's viewpoint states that the schools can do little unless the student's physical make-up or home and social environment are altered, and that conditions outside the control of the schools are the predominant determiners of success. The pessimist orientation results in educators not examining what occurs in the school to explain why children have not been successful.
More than three decades ago, Becker (1973) pointed out the problem with the pessimist's orientation, an orientation tacitly minimizing the importance of teaching:
As long as the educational climate was such that teaching failures could be blamed on the children, there was no pressure on the teacher to learn more effective means of dealing with children. Over the years, psychologists, mental health workers, and some educators have trained teachers to shift their failures to someone else or at least to blame the child's home background, his low IQ, his poor motivation, his emotional disturbance, his lack of readiness, or his physical disability for the teaching failure. With the recent advent of the label learning disability (for children with normal IQ who fail to learn) there is no teaching failure which cannot be blamed on the child. (p. 78)
An orientation that blames students for their failure is unwarranted and harmful. Teachers can bring about substantial improvements in students' reading performance. Problems, such as poverty, a disruptive home life, and physiological impairments, often make teaching more difficult. However, we reject the assumption that improvement in reading achievement is not possible unless there are changes in the children's economic and social environments. Educators cannot use social and home environments as excuses for the poor performance of some students.
More than forty years of substantial and coercive research now supports the proposition that if students are taught fundamental reading skills directly, explicitly, strategically, and thoughtfully, they will learn to read (Adams, 1990; Becker & Carnine, 1980; Foorman, 1995; Kame'enui & Simmons, 1990; Lyon, 1995; National Reading Panel, 2000; Smith, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 1995).
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