It’s hard to believe that questions about how children learn to read could cause a war, but in the 1970’s and 80’s, that’s exactly what happened. During the “reading wars,” proponents of the phonics approach believed beginning readers needed to focus on sounding out letters and words, while whole language advocates argued for immersing children in interesting texts and focusing on meaning, with the faith that reading specific words would follow. That debate has long been settled with the acknowledgement that children need to learn to “decode” words and recognize common words, while also learning a text’s meaning. The agreement has arisen in part from an explosion in cognitive science about the neural pathways of reading development. Yet an alarming number of children still struggle to read well. In a recent article for Policy Insights from the Behavioral Brain Sciences, reading researchers Carol McDonald Connor and Frederick Morrison argue that is because students aren’t getting enough individualized reading instruction, tailored to their specific strengths and weaknesses.
Learning to read is not a straightforward process. It isn’t automatic like learning to speak, and individuals pick up the multiple skills involved in reading at different rates and sometimes in different order. As they progress through formal reading instruction, students have varying strengths and weaknesses; a student might be good at recognizing letters but not know the sounds they make, or he might know the sounds but take so long to get through them that he forgets the meaning of the sentence. As a result, students have different needs throughout the process of learning to read, and Connor and Morrison believe that “if teachers do not differentiate literacy instruction, a substantial proportion of the children in their classrooms will not reach their full reading potential.”
Differentiated instruction (sometimes called individualized or personalized instruction) means using different teaching strategies for different students, in order to meet each person where he or she is. It can happen in small groups or one-on-one. Differentiation has become a popular catchphrase in education, but methods vary. Some are informal, while others, like the popular Response to Intervention (RTI) approach, are more structured. But differentiation is hard to do well, especially when teachers have a large number of students and a lot of demands to meet. Connor and Morrison believe that mediocre implementation and lack of teacher training are responsible for the rather disappointing results of large-scale RTI trials.
But effective differentiation is possible, if Connor and Morrison’s system, called Assessment-to-Instruction (or A2i), is any indication. The system is based on research data showing that all children need both decoding skills and vocabulary, but that the amount of each depends on the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. To determine what each child needs, the program includes three computer-based tests, and students’ scores drive recommended teaching strategies for four sets of skills. An A2i lesson plan is created, which aligns student results with the school’s curriculum and the Common Core State Standards so that teachers know what activities to do with whom and when. The program recommends homogenous reading groups based on student scores, but the groups are flexible and can always be changed by the teacher. Results of randomized controlled studies show that A2i is beneficial: students in participating schools develop stronger reading skills than those in control schools, and students make more progress the longer their teachers have been using the system.
In an educational culture saturated with tests, some parents and teachers might be skeptical about A2i’s emphasis on assessment. But Connor and Morrison would argue that this kind of data makes it possible for teachers to better identify student needs and group students in ways that allow them to meet all of those needs practically and feasibly. If all students need different kinds of help, how can a teacher provide it if she doesn’t know precisely what each student needs? With the kind of precision that assessment provides, Connor and Morrison write, “it is certainly possible to meet the learning needs of all children, including English learners, minorities, and children living in poverty, and to help every one of them reach their potential.”
Original journal article: Carol McDonald Connor and Frederick J. Morrison, “Individualizing Student Instruction in Reading“