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Let's Keep Our Eyes on the Foundational Skills

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Many years ago I memorized a quote by Dr. Reid Lyon, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).  “If you do not learn to read and you live in America, you don’t make it in life.”  I took those words to heart and knew, as a primary teacher, it was my responsibility to teach every child to read.  I had thirty years of reading research to guide my teaching and learning as well as the National Reading Panel’s findings of the five components of reading instruction.  More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to study Seidenberg and McClelland’s four-part processing model for word recognition.  One fact doesn’t change…learning to read is complex.  Our brains are not hard-wired to read; they are hard-wired to talk.  If we place a hearing child in a talking environment, he learns to talk.  On the other hand, while a literature-rich environment is important, it doesn’t ensure that a child will learn to read.  It’s a process that involves many skills. 

As we move to implementation of the CCSS my question is, “Are we remaining mindful of the Foundational Skills for reading (Print Concepts, Phonological Awareness, Phonics & Word Recognition, Fluency)?”  My concern is not that they’ll be forgotten, but unintentionally overlooked.  Because these foundational skills are not overly prescriptive we’ll need to ensure that we have not only the necessary tools, but also the knowledge to implement them.  Unfortunately, I talk with a large number of teachers, particularly third grade and above, who point out that they are under-prepared for teaching advanced phonics which includes morphology.  If we expect students to read increasing complex text and to support their thinking in writing, then we need to arm ourselves with the knowledge to teach them how to read and spell the English language.  Programs don’t teach students; teachers do.    

I appreciate how Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams, well-known reading researcher, compares the operation of the reading system to the operation of a car.  However, unlike the driver, the reader must first build the car.  He first has to build the mechanical systems for identifying the words.  Maintenance is next.  The reader must fuel it with print and fix any problems along the way.  In other words, he needs to ensure that it continues to run smoothly.  Lastly, our reader can enjoy driving the car.  He’ll possess the skills to read strategically and know the route he’s taking.  Motivation to take the car out for a spin will not be an issue.  In reality, cars are built by assembling pieces one at a time, while building a reading system involves parts growing together.  Teachers working with foundational skills will continue to balance the various components of reading while keeping one very important fact in mind.  Balance doesn’t mean equal time to the various components but that the focus of instruction changes over time. 

I’ve never been more excited to be in education and a teacher of reading.  If we allow the research from the medical community to inform us about the reading brain and keep a very close eye on the foundational skills, we’ll accomplish yet another proven fact from a convergence of reading research: 90% - 95% of ALL STUDENTS can achieve literacy levels at or approaching grade level. 


 -Jane Seward 

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