Perspectives on Improving Student Reading Performance (page 4)
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).
Typical of the second orientation toward improving reading performance is the idea that reading performance can be improved by focusing on the processes or abilities that underlie learning. Focusing on reading skills is felt by this viewpoint's advocates to be an inappropriate emphasis. Once students "learn to learn," "become motivated," or "overcome auditory deficits," reading will be relatively easy for them. The attitudes reflected in this orientation are more constructive than those of the pessimists because the assumption is that students can succeed and what the teacher does will influence the learning of the students. However, the problems with the generalist's viewpoint are these:
- It draws attention away from the quality of reading instruction. Instead of looking at the way reading is taught, general skills such as visual perception are stressed.
- Proposed solutions often inadvertently result in students receiving less actual reading instruction than in a normal situation.
- Data from research reviews do not support a generalist viewpoint (Kavale & Forness, 1987; Lloyd, 1984).
Modality matching and learning styles approaches to reading instruction stem from the generalist viewpoint. In these approaches, learners are classified as either auditory or visual learners and assigned to either an auditory method of teaching reading or a visual method of teaching reading. The assumption is that auditory learners will benefit most from an auditory method and visual learners will benefit most from a visual method. However, reviews of the modality matching and learning styles research have revealed no evidence to support the approaches (Forness, Kavale, Blum, & Lloyd, 1997; Snider, 1992; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995; Tarver, 1996). These negative findings converge with findings that indicate that students, regardless of their modality preferences or their learning styles, benefit most from explicit and systematic instruction.
Constructivist or Whole-Language Viewpoint
Typical of the third orientation toward improving reading performance is the notion that children develop and progress at their own rate, and that learning to read is as natural a process as learning to speak and that both are comparable parts of overall language development (Foorman, 1995; Liberman & Liberman, 1990). Moreover, this orientation holds that children develop language naturally in environments that support meaningful and purposeful language usage. Thus, children will develop reading and writing skills within environments that promote meaningful and purposeful reading and writing experiences, but at their own individual pace. Differences in reading performance, therefore, are seen as reflective of developmental differences that will minimize over time.
The attitudes reflected in this "constructivist" orientation are certainly more productive than those of the pessimists because the constructivist's assumption is that students will succeed. However, "success" is often viewed as "getting the gist" of the story, for example, which is in contrast to correctly reading the words of a text. Additionally, the committed teacher's role is viewed much more as a facilitator or guide within the reading process and not as someone whose direct actions have a direct and instrumental influence on students' learning.
While some of the guidelines described in this orientation may be viewed as useful "truisms" for all classrooms (e.g., provide a supportive "literate" environment with functional print everywhere), the problems with the developmentalist or whole-language viewpoint are based on the assumption that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak. To assess this assumption, we must pose two questions: (a) Is reading, like speaking, natural? (b) What is required if the child is to read and write?
Liberman and Liberman (1990) answer the first question with an unqualified "no." Speech is primarily biological. Humans possess a predisposition for its development, whereas learning to read is gaining knowledge of and practice with an agreed-upon convention for the written representation of language. In response to the second question, much of the current research that focuses on beginning reading skills unwaveringly points to the child's need for well-developed phonological awareness skills and alphabetic understanding as prerequisite and corequisite requirements in learning to read and write.
Although developmental differences are well-recognized, the viewpoint of reading as a constructivist activity that unfolds naturally within a supportive, enriched "literate" environment is one that might negatively affect "perhaps 20 to 25 percent (of the children) who will not discover the point of the alphabet except as it is made apparent to them by appropriate instruction" (Liberman & Liberman, 1990, p. 54).
The fourth orientation and, in our opinion, the best answer to the question of how educators can improve student reading performance is direct instruction. Direct instruction involves teaching essential reading skills in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Essential skills as well as effective and efficient teaching practices are identified by scientifically-based research about reading development, reading instruction, and reading disabilities. Scientifically-based research includes instructional research that compares the results of different practices and approaches (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
The research base for direct instruction is solid. It includes research which supports the approach as a whole, as well as research that supports the components that make up the whole. It includes large-scale experimental studies conducted in the real world of schools and classrooms, as well as small-scale experiments conducted in more highly controlled settings. It includes studies with students of all income levels, all grade levels, and a wide range of ability levels. It includes studies with both special-education and regular-education students. It includes studies using norm-referenced as well as criterion-referenced assessment instruments. It includes studies which investigated the characteristics of effective teachers.
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