When the “science of reading” goes too far (opinion)

Imagine a 3rd class of class. A teacher and a child sit side by side, opening brochures in front of both of them. The teacher starts a timer. The girl starts reading: “Goldfish are good pets. They are easy to care for and don’t cost much to feed. Goldfish are fun to watch as they swim.

“Now tell me as much as you can about the story you just read. Ready, start, “says the teacher, restarting the timer.

The girl quickly scans the passage. “Um, she has a pet goldfish. It is easy to take care of. He likes to watch him swim. He’s a good pet. “

The teacher calculates each word the child says in relation to the passage, determines that he has provided three details in a meaningful sequence that capture a main idea and circles a score, as high as possible: 4.

The teacher restarts the timer and repeats the process with two more steps.

The teacher in this scene is testing the child’s reading using Acadience, one of several literacy screens that the New York City Department of Education has required elementary schools to administer three times a year. And the baby, according to the manual on the teacher’s lap, has just demonstrated a very good reading comprehension.

The mandate of the department was undoubtedly influenced by the ascendant ‘reading science’ movement. Its supporters argue for a greater focus on phonetic education – structured lessons that teach the connections between letters and sounds – from kindergarten through second grade. They recommend screeners like Acadience because they generate useful data on children’s phonetic knowledge in these early years. However, in New York, these screeners are also used in the upper elementary classes, where they offer teachers very little of what they actually need: a nuanced and accurate picture of students’ understanding skills.

While proponents of “reading science” see understanding as the ultimate goal of readingthey don’t prioritize it as a goal or focus reading instruction. They argue that as long as readers come to texts with strong decoding skills and a broad knowledge base, understanding is almost assured. Therefore, the thinking goes, education should focus on developing students’ phonic knowledge (which is the basis of decoding) and broad topical knowledge.

A reading assessment cannot be valid if the type of reading it requires does not match the type of reading we need to do in real life.

The two of us, a teacher-educator specializing in literacy and a veteran elementary school teacher, argue instead that teachers must actively support student understanding. This means two things. First, we need to teach understanding as a multidimensional experience. We want children to understand what is literally going on in the text (who did what when), but we also want them to be able to analyze how parts of the text (literary devices, imagery, structural choices) work together to develop ideas. And we want them to interpret the purpose and meaning of the text in relation to their life and society.

Second, supporting student understanding means nurturing what’s called active self-regulation: the ability to monitor our understanding and regulate our reading when something doesn’t make sense. Readers can do this simply by rereading, strategically focusing their attention, or intentionally seeking information to fill gaps in understanding.

Any tool we use to assess reading must generate information on these two aspects of reading comprehension. In Jessica’s 3rd elementary class, the grader Acadience no. Jessica had no idea of ​​students ‘understanding of how characters change, what an author is teaching us, or how details support main ideas, nor did she ascertain students’ ability to evaluate an author’s perspective or analyze. how literary devices add meaning to the text. In other words, her assessment did not show her whether or not the children were engaged in the kind of thinking that allows for deep understanding in realistic reading situations.

This screener took over two weeks to administer. Multiplied by three administrations a year, that’s six weeks of missed reading lessons. All it had to show for this investment of time were simple numerical scores based on the words said by the children in their retelling.

The idea of ​​a simple score – the idea that we can quantify reading ability – could be reassuring for educators keen to tie their teaching to something solid. But screeners like Acadience only offer an illusion of scientific objectivity. After all, a reading assessment cannot be valid if the type of reading it requires does not match the type of reading we need to do in real life.

More importantly, the way we evaluate reading shapes the way we teach reading. If assessment tools require children to say a certain number of words over a disconnected set of mundane passages, teachers will be inclined to emphasize recall and will not be inclined to support children in selecting complex and relevant texts to read.

Our approach to teaching reading is embedded in a wide range of educational values, values ​​apparently shared by the New York City Department of Education and many other boroughs across the country. In the summer of 2021, when the department commissioned literacy screening, it also issued a “vison statement” for teaching reading that calls for an emphasis on “critical literacy” – education intended to “challenge students.” to be critical thinkers “and” foster critical consciousness. “The statement sees literacy applied to” culturally relevant curricula. “

We believe, however, that the screening mandate and vision statement are in conflict. The mandate undermines the unquestionably worthy goals of the vision statement by paying little attention to the support students need to build meaning from different texts and then apply that learning to other activities.

What is happening in New York City reflects a broader trend in which teachers are expected to negotiate contradictory pressures to teach reading in a culturally relevant way, but evaluate reading in a way that deprives it of any relevance.

How could this be a relevant assessment?

Imagine a third grade classroom. A teacher and a child sit side by side, opening brochures in front of both of them.

A teacher starts a stopwatch, not a timer. A girl reads a short text about sharks, while the teacher notes her decoding errors and keeps track of her fluency.

“What is the author’s point of view on sharks?” asks the teacher.

The child replies, “Well, the author wants us to think that sharks are dangerous. Look at this entry” You can run, but you can’t hide. “This makes a scary feeling. But I disagree! People are probably more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to people. Sharks should be more afraid of us. “

There is no numerical score, but the teacher notes that the child knows what is literally going on in the text and is analyzing and evaluating it.

The child in this scene is reading the way we read in real life. We want our children to read with a critical focus, not to take the author’s opinions at face value. We want our children to empathize. And that kind of reading requires instruction and therefore rich, meaning-based and authentic evaluations.

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