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Recent newspaper articles regarding the results for reading and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education point out an interesting dichotomy: We are seeing improvement in math scores across the nation, but reading scores have, depending on the grade level, remained flat or declined.

In response to the demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing requirements, most districts have moved briskly to routinize their curriculum and set up more rigid standards for curriculum and instruction.  To the extent this process has led to a careful re-thinking of what we teach and how we teach it, that’s all to the good.  However, I strongly suspect it may be the case that the methods of instruction that are going to improve student reading ability are fundamentally different than the methods of instruction that are going to improve math achievement, and we may be seeing the result of these differences in the test scores.

Math is a systematic body of knowledge that lends itself easily to a systematic approach to teaching.  There exists a very natural progression from one level and type of content knowledge to the next, and it is easy enough to refine that natural instructional progression based on both classroom outcomes and educational research.  Whether one is teaching the methods for simplifying fractions or solving quadratic equations, the body of content knowledge may be imparted in a clear, easily defined plan of lessons.

However, I’ve yet to be able to put in my Teacher Plan Book that on Tuesday we “learn to love literature” or on Friday “the magic of poetry will be made obvious” Teaching reading is in many ways more of an art than a science, however much we may dearly wish it to be otherwise.  Although it may be possible to “teacher-proof” the math curriculum so that all that is needed is to follow the program, teaching reading successfully is in my experience wholly based on the enthusiasm, inventiveness, and knowledge of the individual teacher.

I still remember my 11th grade English teacher teaching us A Separate Peace by insisting we form our own boy’s prep school within our classroom.  To Kill A Mockingbird came alive for me when I was encouraged to relate the injustices visited upon Tom Robinson to injustices in my own life.  Antigone made sense to me when we wrote essays in class deciding what we would do if our brother or sister asked us to help them conceal evidence of a crime.  I was at least willing to give Animal Farm a chance when we were allowed to act out parts of the novel as the animals themselves.  In my own classroom, some of my most memorable moments involved helping my students to understand Macbeth by working in groups on rewriting portions of the play in a more contemporary style and setting.  “Cowboy Macbeth” still haunts me.

Student reading success is directly related to a Language Arts teacher’s ability to react quickly to the individual needs of a particular student or class, not being concerned about leaving the lesson plan behind and exploring new ways to fire the enthusiasm and interest of students.  If we try to force reading instruction into a box that looks good in a big binder filed away in the District Office, we are probably going to fail a lot of students.  Personally, I found the days I brought my students outside and read poetry to them under a shady tree perhaps the most wonderful of all; some students, of course, didn’t go for it at all, but I was always encouraged by those who were able to discern the wonder in Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in a setting more in keeping with the subject of the poem.

Perhaps it wasn’t the approved and pre-packaged method of instruction, but I believe it had some merit, and I would certainly encourage others to give it a try.

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