This year, I am entering my 11th year of teaching. I’ll never forget how confident I was that first year. I thought I knew EVERYTHING there was about teaching reading to my children. In reality, I’m still learning 11 years later. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I know I’ve never stopped working as hard as possible for my students. Today, I’m going to talk about 5 teaching practices I wish I’d never done. I’m not writing to assuage myself of some guilt or to chastise myself for what I’ve done in the past. Instead, I’m writing about these 5 practices in the hopes that someone else may avoid them.
When I first learned about the cueing strategies I thought, “this is what my instruction has been missing.” I was never really taught explicit phonics instruction, so the cueing strategies felt like something concrete to implement.
For those who aren’t familiar, the cueing strategies are a notion proposed by Ken Goodman that children use three sources of information to figure out what a word is: meaning cues, structure cues, and syntax clues. Teachers prompt students with questions like “What would make sense here?” and “Get your mouth ready, then look at the picture.” These strategies are nothing more than fancy ways of teaching children to guess.
I believed in the cueing strategies 100%. I remember giving parents cueing strategy cards at parent-teacher conferences. I would tell them that they were strategies they could use to help their child “figure out” unknown words. Instead of saying “figure out,” I should’ve just named it: here’s what you can do to help your child guess their way through a text.
I was led to believe that telling students to “sound it out” was an ineffective strategy for our young readers. The reality is, though, that sounding out unknown words is the only strategy that leads to effective decoding.
What I do instead:
It sounds simple, but the alternative to the cueing strategies is to teach children to decode. This “simple” task actually requires a lot of explicit instruction, followed by mountains of practice. We MUST teach children the relationship between phonemes and the graphemes that represent those phonemes. Effectively teaching the sound-symbol correspondences leads to orthographic mapping. This automatic retrieval of sight words is how we create proficient readers.
Limiting Whole group to 15 minutes
With a writer’s and reader’s workshop model, I was taught that whole group lessons should be limited to 5-15 minutes. It wasn’t until this past year that I began to think differently. I remember asking—how can we keep it to 15 minutes if a read-aloud text alone can take longer than that to read? I was always met with this answer: break it apart over several days, or read it beforehand. Okay, but I also don’t have any other time in my day, so when am I supposed to read it?
I wish I had given myself permission to teach whole-group. Remember, intervention cannot save a poor tier 1 program. The most important person in the school is not the principal or the interventionist. The most important person in the school is the classroom teacher delivering instruction.
What I do instead:
Instead of limiting whole-group to just 15 minutes, give yourself enough time to teach and provide some initial guided practice. It’s okay if whole group takes you 30 minutes. Remember this: we wouldn’t need as much intensive small group instruction if our whole group was meeting the needs of our children.
We know that direct, explicit instruction works (Archer, 2011.) Instead of a quick mini-lesson, I wish I had give my children the opportunity to move through the Guided Release of Responsibility model. With Guided Release of Responsibility, we start by doing all the work through modeling before slowly releasing it to students. Follow an I do, We do, You do process. You can always do the independent practice part of the Guided Release of Responsibility model on another day. I never gave my children the appropriate amount of time for modeling and successful guided practice before moving on to small group.
Using leveled texts with beginning readers
This is my biggest regret. I can still remember the days when, as an interventionist, I sat there with my Orange LLI books trying to get a kindergartener to “read” those level A texts. They didn’t have the sound-symbol correspondence to read those patterned texts. Many of my students didn’t even know all their letter sounds, but I thought exposure alone to texts was a good pathway to reading. I used to clap and applaud when they “read” those basic, patterned texts.
What I do instead:
Now, I think about Scarborough’s reading rope when I am designing instruction. Do my children need language comprehension or word recognition skills? If they are lacking word recognition skills, we MUST teach them to decode. There is no shortcut for this—if the phonemic awareness and phonics lessons in whole group are not enough, we have to reinforce it in small groups. Once children have good control on the word recognition strand, we can begin language comprehension skills. (This is how I handle small group. Language comprehensions starts day 1 in whole group, no matter the grade!) I find that teaching vocabulary, building background knowledge, and teaching affixes is the most powerful way.
Teaching high-frequency words as sight words
Oof. It hurt to even write the heading for this section. I used to think that reading was a visual game. If we flashed a word to our children enough times, it will eventually make its way into their long-term memory, right? Maybe. But it doesn’t happen the way we think. Besides looking at the letters, reading is not actually a visual task. So much of reading is dependent on our phonemic awareness. More about this process of how we store words, called orthographic mapping, next blog post! (My next TWO blog posts will be on orthographic mapping!!!!) For now, let me just say, I wish I had never expected children to just memorize words.
One of the biggest problems with the “sight word” method is that many of those words we use are actually fully decodable! An, and, that, his, for—all of those can be decoded with simple phonics instruction. And even those words that are irregular in some part have parts that are phonetically regular. There are only about 4% of words in the English language that are truly irregular (Moats & Tomlin, 2009).
What I do instead:
Instead of teaching high-frequency words as the typical “sight words,” I do a few things. First, if it is decodable, I just let children decode it! Secondly, if the word is one that is phonetically irregular in someway, I use the heart word method. It’s so much more meaningful than traditional methods.
Failing to explicit teach vocabulary each week
Did you know that once decoding is out of the way, it is background knowledge and vocabulary that contribute most to text comprehension? (Wexler, 2019) And yet I never had an explicit, systematic way to teach vocabulary. I might mention a vocabulary word, talk about it in context and move on without much more discussion or circling back.
I would sometimes use Frayer models to teach vocabulary, but I felt guilty about wasting so much time teaching a single word. I wish I had stuck with it. I wish I had devoted time every single week for my students to learn vocabulary words.
What I do instead:
Now, I know that vocabulary instruction is a must. If I were still in the classroom (not as an interventionist), I would choose several words a week to explicitly teach. Choose words that will have the most impact in a child’s life—which words will they see again and again in different contexts and across different content areas?
A vocabulary planning sheet is a great tool. You can click here to get the one you see on the right. Basically, you plan by creating a kid-friendly definition, asking yes/no questions to elicit understanding, and then giving students some examples in context.
If you are currently doing any of these five things, please know this is not an attack on you or your teaching. We are all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. If you want to start changing some practices, I suggest to just choose one thing. Think of the one change you could make tomorrow to take your students the farthest.
Archer, Anita (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. Guildford Press.
Eide, Denise. Uncovering the logic of english: A common-sense approach to read, spelling, and literacy. Pedia Learning Inc, 2013.
Goodman, K. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guess game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, May, 126-135.
Moats, L, & Tolman, C (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): Spellography for Teachers: How English Spelling Works (Module 3). Boston: Sopris West. (Accessed here: https://www.readingrockets.org/article/english-gets-bad-rap)
Wexler, Natalie. The knowledge gap. New York, Penguin Random House, 2019.