Throughout my career I have worked in Kindergarten through post secondary school. I have always tried to keep up with educational research and instructional trends, for my own knowledge and information, and when working with others to determine site or district focus areas. Before I started my current job, I spent about 4 years working in a secondary district. When I moved into this role, I transitioned back to elementary and had to get my head back into the world of K-6th grade. I started with math instruction, because that was a focus that had already been started in my district. Just as I was beginning to dive into some reading research, COVID-19 hit, and my instructional leadership took a backseat to all of the pandemic management that became necessary. This is all a long way of saying that I haven’t been following “the reading wars” very closely over the last 6 years or so, but I’ve recently jumped in to the mess.
A few months ago I read The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System- And How to Fix it by Natalie Wexler. While I appreciated her overall message (we need to do better with reading instruction in America), I didn’t appreciate how the author attacked what we have been doing. She specifically called out Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell, three educational leaders I learned from in my early teaching career. Since the author is a journalist and not an educator, I read the entire book with a lens of mistrust. Too often non educators want to tell us what we are doing right and wrong without any lived experience in the jobs we do every day with students. However, she did share some compelling research, enough that I knew I wanted to learn more.
A very passionate Kindergarten teacher met with me recently to discuss “the science of reading” and what she hopes to see our district do more and less of in the coming years. She recommended the podcast Sold a Story and the book Reading Above the Fray: Reliable Research-Based Routines for Developing Decoding Skills by Julia B. Lindsey. Because I respect this teacher and was looking for other sources, I happily dove into both. The podcast shook me like the Wexler book, because again there was a serious bashing of Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins, as well as their publisher. There were also some seriously wild examples shared in the podcast of teaching reading that sounded like nothing I have ever seen in a classroom. However, there was also a lot of research cited, including why the 3 cueing system (using context to figure out words) is not the appropriate way to teach reading and why explicit instruction in decoding matters.
As a district leader I want to make sure that I am well-versed in the latest scientific information, and the most current resources that would support student learning. I want our teachers to have the best resources and professional learning possible. In order to make decisions about professional development and curricular resources, I am currently working with our Educational Services team to dive even deeper into this research, looking at it through multiple lens and with the perspectives of our experience, knowledge, and current context. It’s an interesting place to be, feeling like what I know and how I taught may no longer be the best way or even the correct way, especially in the area of reading. We are so used to quick and frequent changes in the field of technology, but reading has been around forever. It’s important to recognize that as our science and technology have improved, so has our ability to study how good readers operate and what matters in the teaching of reading. I look forward to expanding my knowledge, challenging past paradigms, and learning to recognize my own bias when it comes to new research.
This post is part of a series called Explorations in Instructional Leadership. I plan to use this series to dive into some of the topics that are rising to the surface in my work, topics that I am researching for future study, and topics that impact student learning and pedagogy.
I appreciate your thoughtful, inquisitive approach to seeking best practices in how we can better serve students. As you noted, we so often have jumped too quickly and a thorough review of research and practices can help us take intentional steps forward. I always love reading your thinking! It pushes me to think deeply about these topics.
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