My interest was sparked during last week’s reading class that ended with a letter exercise that was part of the Saint-Aubin and Klein (2008) study. My experience with identifying both the and various t usages in a passage that could only be read once and also had to be read for comprehension, was interesting, to say the least. With the basic instructions to read for both identification and comprehension, as soon as the exercise began, my mind went to a place where I perceived myself to be in a competition – to see who could finish the passage most efficiently, although these were not the instructions. Nevertheless, I tried to process for both the letter and comprehension as quickly as I could and was shocked that I identified zero the words and only two of the t words identified on the response sheet we were given after the test. Much of my focus was on finding the t in words where the letter wasn’t readily apparent, like in the middle or at the end of the word. I never thought to consider a written numeral as containing the letter t, because I interpreted the instructions very literally – I was hunting for the letter t, like some adult-run-amok on Sesame Street.
When I checked my answers, I was surprised that not every word containing a t was included in the calculation – and that many of the words containing t that I identified were not considered at all, with the focus being on the words and eight additional t words. I wonder if the students in the study were aware of their results like I was? How would they interpret the instructions? After reading their study of 180 1st through 5th grade students, as well as the conclusion that good readers had a greater missing-letter effect than poor readers in the first four grades, my results did not seem so surprising. It was also not surprising that the majority of good readers will read over function words, effectively skipping them, because they are common. In fact, my results show zero function word identification and ¼ content word identification, confirming, I believe, their results.
Though many other studies have been done on the missing-letter effect, as shown in Saint-Aubin and Klein’s research, they obviously thought they needed to do their own study in light of what they perceived to be flaws in previous research that neglected to formally gauge reading ability by using a consistent measurement instrument, in their case the WRAT-3. I did find it odd that the majority of their students were labeled as poor readers, a fact the authors attribute to their geographical area of study, New Brunswick, Canada. Would the study replicated in higher SES schools show similar results? Would those students have a greater missing-letter effect because high SES schools tend to have higher test scores? Would the study have yielded different results if the students in the study were more varied, not from poor urban or rural areas?
Actually, my reading for this week began with the Juel and Minden-Capp (2000) study looking at how students learn to read and how teachers teach them. I thought it would be a good place to begin as it seemed to offer a more extensive background, especially given the gap in my own education concerning reading pedagogy (my background is in writing). What caught my attention immediately was their acknowledgement of the complexity of the classroom, a factor that many fail to consider. In our age of standardization, politicians attempt to solve the ills of the education system with blanket reforms. My school district, as a result, has decided that every 9th, 10th, and 11th grade student must take the same year-long classes taught by teachers who must follow pacing guides, teaching the same things on the same days at times, their autonomy and creativity as professionals undermined in many ways. After reading Juel and Minden-Capp’s background section that included several informative pages about linguistic units – the ways we can break down how students acquire language skills – the following section on instructional strategies drew me in.
It seems that every education-related article, study, or book I have read in the last several weeks has focused on the importance of the art of teaching. Kozol (2005) talks about the “withitness” factor, that points to teachers as making the biggest difference in student learning, regardless of curriculum or environment. A 33-page study released this month by Gary Orfield, “Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society,” discusses not only the lack of qualified teachers in many poor schools, and the fact that the best teachers – the ones most needed in struggling schools – flock to successful suburban schools, where, oftentimes, the pay is higher and the working conditions are better than in their urban counterparts. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell ponders the difficulty of the process of finding the right teacher for the job, citing Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, who asserts that students who have successful teachers learn three times as much as those with poor ones. Even Bill Gates’ 2009 Annual Letter, released on Monday, addresses the state of education in the United States and calls for researching effective teaching methods, realizing that expert teachers are doing things in their classrooms that are driving student success better than recent efforts at establishing smaller learning communities or standardized curricula.
Somewhere along the way, someone decided that teachers couldn’t be trusted to teach. I like to call administrative efforts “teacher proofing,” because those in charge try to prepackage learning without regard to the essential role a teacher plays in the classroom. No wonder so many young teachers are dropping out of the profession before they’ve taught for five years. Who wants to work hard to earn not only a degree, but also a teaching certificate, only to find that you are not afforded the status of esteemed professional and that your employer does not think you have the mental capacity to actually teach? When I read the Final Thoughts section of the Juel & Minden-Cupp study, after looking at their study that spanned the classrooms of four different teachers teaching the same concepts very differently at times, and all showing success over time, I was elated to see their observation that effective teaching instruction cannot be pigeonholed. There is no one good way to teach. Imagine that! They end by agreeing with Duffy and Hoffman (1999) that “improved reading is linked to teachers who use methods thoughtfully, not methods alone” (p. 15). Well, being in complete agreement with that, I had to pull and print the Duffy and Hoffman piece, which served to reaffirm my belief that yes, indeed, there is an art to teaching well.
In “In pursuit of an illusion: The flawed search for a perfect method,” Duffy and Hoffman maintain that teaching reading successfully, though frequently reduced to a debate over method – the how-to – is actually contingent upon the teacher’s style. They address prescriptive, pre-packaged curricula – and the pursuit of finding that one magic method of instruction – and how such a mentality is preventing us from really working to improve reading instruction. While their argument is specifically tied to reading, I argue that we can easily apply it to writing, or any discipline outside of the English Language Arts. They’re right. So many researchers are focused on one particular method, and even go so far as to create a competitive environment by researching the effectiveness of one method over another, that they’re losing sight of what really matters – teaching kids successfully. Their assumption is that those prescribing curricula assume low teacher intelligence and that any warm body should be able to come into a classroom, read from the script, and teach the children.
But that isn’t the case. Why not? Education is political. Those who dictate its function and structure know the power a good teacher can have. Usurping that power by prescription and standardization attempts to keep the power in their hands, while they and others continue to blame teachers for the state of education in the country. It’s a convenient ploy. When I think about countries in turmoil, some of the first radical responses include attacking the education system. The Nazis got rid of the teachers and professors. In some Middle Eastern countries, teachers are murdered, schools are bombed, and girls are prevented from learning. Why? Because knowledge is power. We call our schools equal, yet our inner city schools look nothing like our suburban ones. Is this equality? Do we have equal education and opportunity when students in poor schools have a lower success rate in our schools? Absolutely not. Schools are microcosms of our society – not every strategy works with every student. Students come to us from so many different backgrounds and experiences that one cannot reasonably expect that they will all learn the same way. Similarly, teachers are not uniform. What is important is that we acknowledge this complexity not only in reading acquisition, but in our educational philosophies and practices.
Duffy, G.G. & Hoffman, J.V. (1999). In pursuit of an illusion: The flawed search for a perfect method. The Reading Teacher, 53(1), 10-16. Retrieved January 26, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 44718847).
Gates, B. (2009). 2009 Annual Letter. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved January 26, 2009, from www.gatesfoundation.org.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Most likely to succeed. The New Yorker, December 5, 2008. 36-42.
Juel, C. & Minden-Cupp, C. (2000). Learning to Read Words: Linguistic Units and Instructional Strategies. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 458-492.
Kozol, J. (2005). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Orfield, G. (2009). Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
Saint-Aubin, J. & Klein, R. (2008). The influence of reading skills on the missing-letter effect among elementary school students. Reading Research Quarterly, 43 (2), 148-164.