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Why Have Teachers Been Left Unprepared to Teach Reading?

By: Louisa Moats
Teaching reading is a complex process that draws upon an extensive knowledge base and repertoire of strategies. This article argues that many novice teachers are underprepared to teach reading effectively, and examines some of the reasons why.

Why are the stringent demands of teaching reading and writing unrecognized in the design of teacher preparation programs? In reading, at least, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge may play as big a role as institutional politics and budgetary constraints. What drives the mind of the reader is neither self-evident nor easy to grasp, and, consequently, many years of scientific inquiry have been necessary to expose the mechanisms of reading acquisition.

Only recently has basic research allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs to be done. This new information about language, reading, and writing is just beginning to shape teacher preparation and instructional programs. This knowledge must also form the basis of inservice professional development for practicing teachers.

The knowledge base for teaching reading is hidden, extensive, and complex

Reading education is a field more vulnerable than many to faddish practices that later prove to be untenable. Such is the risk whenever a human trait that becomes the subject of education is poorly understood.

To appreciate why reading is one of psychology's more mysterious phenomena, we must consider the nature of the linguistic communication that reading requires. Skilled reading happens too fast and is too automatic to detect its underlying processes through simple introspection. We read, but we cannot watch how our minds make sense out of print. The linkage of sounds and symbols occurs rapidly and unconsciously. The linguistic units that compose words, the single speech sounds (phonemes), syllables, and meaningful parts (morphemes), are automatically matched with writing symbols so that attention is available for comprehension. Because our attention is on meaning, we are not aware of the code translation process by which meaning is conveyed.

Until we are faced with a class of children who are learning how to read symbols that represent speech sounds and word parts, we may never have analyzed language at the level required for explaining and teaching it. Similarly, we may not know how a paragraph is organized or how a story is put together until we teach writing to students who do not know how to organize their thoughts. Thus, to understand printed language well enough to teach it explicitly requires disciplined study of its systems and forms, both spoken and written.

When adults are evaluated on knowledge of language, even those who are educated exhibit rudimentary or cursory familiarity with concepts about our writing system that are insufficient for teaching children. Surveys measuring experienced teachers' ability to identify speech sounds, spelling patterns, and word structures reveal confusions that are typical of most adults. For example, the concept that a letter combination can represent one unique speech sound (ch, wh, sh, th, ng) is unclear to a surprising number of elementary teachers. Many identify these units by rote but are unable to differentiate conceptually between these spelling units (digraphs) and two letters that stand for two distinct sounds (consonant blends such as cl, st, pr) or silent letter spellings that retain the sound of one consonant (kn-, wr-, -mb).

Few adults can explain common spelling patterns that correspond to pronunciation and word meaning, such as why we double the consonant letters in words like misspell, dinner, and accommodate. A deeper, explicit level of knowledge may not be necessary to read the words, but it is necessary to explain pronunciation and spelling, where the words came from, and how spelling is related to meaning.

Some children learn language concepts and their application very easily in spite of incidental teaching, but others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. Children of average ability might learn enough about reading to get by, but may not develop the appreciation for language structure that supports learning words from context, organization of the mental dictionary, comparing words, or precise use of language. Yet teachers are seldom asked to study the language they teach or how its form carries its message.

In addition, teachers are not born knowing the relationships among the basic skills of reading and reading comprehension. They may see that children read poorly in the middle and upper grades, but may not understand that proficiency in basic reading skill must be taught before students will progress. Without instruction and practice, teachers are unlikely to develop the questioning techniques and discussion strategies that promote thoughtful reading by groups of children.

Meaningful professional standards are absent

Other complex and demanding professions insist on much more stringent training and preparation than that required of teachers. Pilots, engineers, optometrists, and art therapists, for example, must learn concepts, facts, and skills to a prescribed level, must conduct their practice under supervision, and must pass rigorous entry examinations that are standardized across the profession.

Continuing education to stay abreast of proven best practices is mandated. The public interest is protected by professional governing boards that monitor the knowledge base and oversee the competence of these licensed professionals. We, the consumers of these professional services, should be able to trust that any person holding a license has demonstrated competence and is accountable to his or her professional board of governance.

No such rules or standards assure that teachers who instruct children in reading have mastered the relevant knowledge base and acquired the necessary skills. Even within large universities that prepare hundreds of teachers every year, there may be no curricular specifications or standards. What a teacher candidate learns depends on the professor he or she selects. What the professor teaches is determined solely by what the professor may know or believe. Courses in reading, which are typically limited to three credit hours, are often taught by adjunct faculty who are accountable to no one. Thus, preparation for teaching reading often is more grounded in ideology than evidence.

While the academic freedom that professors often invoke has a place in teacher education, its claim is not as absolute as it may be in the humanities. Professional preparation programs have a responsibility to teach a defined body of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are based on the best research in the field. This is no less important in reading than it is in medicine or the law.

Good information is hard to get

Few of today's popular textbooks for teacher preparation in reading contain information about the known relationships between linguistic awareness, word recognition ability, and reading comprehension.

Few discuss in any useful detail how the English writing system represents speech. Basic concepts such as the differences between speech sounds and spellings, the fact that every syllable in English is organized around a vowel sound, and the existence of meaningful units (morphemes) in the Latin layer of English (about 60 percent of running text) are rarely explained. Few texts contain accurate information about the role of phonology in reading development, and few explain with depth, accuracy, or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it.

Teachers are often given inaccurate and misleading information based on unsupported ideas. For example, in the recent past, one of the most common misconceptions has been that knowledge of the phonic system can be finessed with awareness of sentence structure and meaning. Textbooks for teachers must attain a much higher standard of accuracy, currency, depth, clarity, and relevance if teachers are to be well-prepared to teach reading.

Classroom instructional programs are uninformative

Inadequately prepared novice teachers often find themselves dependent on the information given in teachers' manuals to learn about spoken and written language concepts and to generate strategies for teaching students to read. Major classroom textbooks in language arts omit systematic teaching about speech sounds, the spelling system, or how to read words by sounding them out.

The most popular programs being used today are appropriately strong on literature, illustrations, cross-disciplinary thematic units, and motivational strategies for children, but very weak or simply wrong when it comes to the structure of English and how children actually learn to read the words on the page. A recent review of major classroom reading programs shows that they continue to lack the content necessary to teach basic reading systematically and explicitly.

Can we do better?

Comprehensive redesign of teacher preparation and inservice professional development is possible, but it must begin with a definition of the knowledge and skills necessary for effective practice and demonstration of how these are best learned.

Fortunately, leaders in the field – including the National Research Council panel on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the member organizations of the Learning First Alliance – have reached consensus regarding the agenda for change. They agree that new teachers require much more extensive, demanding, and content-driven training if discoveries from the reading sciences are to inform classroom practice.

Specifically, teachers must understand the basic psychological processes in reading, how children develop reading skill, how good readers differ from poor readers, how the English language is structured in spoken and written form, and the validated principles of effective reading instruction. The ability to design and deliver lessons to academically diverse learners, to select validated instructional methods and materials, and use assessments to tailor instruction are all central to effective teaching.

Why are the stringent demands of teaching reading and writing unrecognized in the design of teacher preparation programs? In reading, at least, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge may play as big a role as institutional politics and budgetary constraints. What drives the mind of the reader is neither self-evident nor easy to grasp, and, consequently, many years of scientific inquiry have been necessary to expose the mechanisms of reading acquisition.

Only recently has basic research allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs to be done. This new information about language, reading, and writing is just beginning to shape teacher preparation and instructional programs. This knowledge must also form the basis of inservice professional development for practicing teachers.

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

A. Liberman (1997). In April 1998, Dr. Liberman received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading for his work explicating the nature of phonological processing and its relationship to reading.

Moats, 1995; Moats & Lyon, 1996; Scarborough et al., 1998.

Shankweiler et al., 1996.

Ibid.

Beck et al., 1998; Pressley, 1998.

Corroborated by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing survey of reading courses in state universities in 1996.

Stanovich, 1994.

Report on the California State University Academic Senate's condemnation of the state legislature's reading initiative: 'Some Professors Resist State's Reform Formula' by Duke Helfand. Los Angeles Times, Oct. 25, 1998.

Summaries such as those by Adams, 1990; Pressley, 1998; Osborn & Lehr, 1998.

M. Adams, 1998.

Textbooks would need to be aligned with curriculum and content standards for teachers and research standards established by major consensus documents.

In 1996, the California Department of Education surveyed major instructional programs on its adoption list before determining that special funding was necessary to support districts' purchase of supplementary instructional materials in these domains. (See note 46)

Stein, 1993.

Stein, M., Johnson/ Gutlon, unpublished manuscript.

Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Learning First Alliance, 1998.

Endnotes

Endnotes

Click the "Endnotes" link above to hide these endnotes.

Adapted from: Moats, L. (June, 1999). Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. American Federation of Teachers.

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