Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

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The Reading Wars: A Continued Contest

With the progressive social movements of the 1960s and 1970s came a progressive reading movement, whole language.  This new, constructivist theory of reading acquisition resonated loudly with teachers who felt they were constrained by teaching phonics (the teaching of symbol-sound correspondences and the rules and generalizations of the English Language).  Whole language advocates believe that learning to read and spell parallels how we learn oral language–through mere exposure.  Whole language theory holds that if children are read to enough, they will learn to generalize the relationship between letters and sounds.  They magically will learn to break the code.   In this approach to learning to read, students learn words like the Chinese learn ideograms, as an entire unit, not as individual sounds that are blended to create a word.

Unfortunately for whole language advocates, the science behind learning to read does not reflect how students actually learn to read.  As Stanislas Dehaene, one of the most highly regarded reading researchers in the world, states, good readers look at every letter of a word and sound out words.  What differs between a struggling or emerging reader and a proficient reader is the speed at which they read.  Proficient readers associate symbols and sounds almost instantaneously.  For struggling and emerging readers, pulling the print off the page is a laborious, tiring process.

If you are interested in how people learn to read, you might be interested in professor Dehaene’s Ted Talk.

Dehaene’s work,along with that of many other reading researchers, underscores the importance of teaching reading in a very systematic and explicit way.  While it is important to expose students to good literature, students have to have the ability to translate the code to words they speak.  If they can’t do this, they will never appreciate curling up in bed with a good book to open new worlds.

John Alexander, Head of School






Who is to Blame?

As I have mentioned on this literacy blog, we have a reading crisis in this country.  Approximately 30% of our nation’s fourth graders do not read at a basic level (they can’t decode the printed word); over 60% of our nation’s fourth graders can’t read proficiently (with good comprehension).  These dismal scores provide fodder for politicians, the media, and the general public to vociferously criticize teachers.  “For heaven’s sake, why can’t Billy read?”

Do teachers really deserve this blame?  I don’t think so.  The primary blame lies at the feet of two constituencies, higher education–colleges and universities, which prepare teachers and are supposed to be the beacon of scientific inquiry–and state departments of education, which are responsible for teacher licensing and knowledge standards.  As evident by the course requirements for most undergraduate programs, the teaching of reading is not highly valued in the world of education.  I think most of us would contend that learning to read is the most important skill that a child can acquire in school.  Without the ability to read proficiently at a minimum of sixth grade, a child is wandering down a path that will most likely lead to a dark future.

School district administrators–principals, directors of curriculum and instruction, and special education directors–as well as reading specialists and literacy coaches shoulder some of the responsibility for poor reading scores.  Not only should they be providing appropriate professional development for their teachers (especially the kindergarten through third grade teachers), they should also be pressuring higher education and state departments of education for stronger knowledge standards in reading that teachers must demonstrate mastery with in order to receive a teaching license.

Finally, teacher unions share the blame.  Speaking from experience, teacher unions are resistant to change that affects their primary stakeholders, teachers.  Isn’t it ironic that teachers are the primary stakeholders of teacher unions, not students?

There are plenty of constituencies who share the blame for our nation’s literacy crisis.  The question now becomes:  Will anyone step forward and do what is needed to affect meaningful change?  We know how children need to be taught for them to learn to read.  We can do it.  Will we?

John Alexander, Head of School


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Are One In Five American Students Dyslexic?

A recent contribution on a literacy thread, Spelltalk, reported that one in five American students are dyslexic; they are students with reading, spelling, and written expression difficulties due to the way their brains are wired. This created a great deal of controversy with many people claiming that the number was way too high. I wonder whether it matters.

I think the best way to think of the teaching of reading is that all kids  learn to read with differing amounts of personal effort and with differing amounts of explicit instruction required. Kids on one end of the reading continuum have neurological wiring issues between areas of the brain that, for whatever reason, do not work efficiently. This wiring impacts specific areas of the brain’s ability to communicate with one another, and this impacts their ability to read fluently; kids with wiring issues themselves fall on a continuum. You can have real significant wiring issues or you can have minimally impacted wiring issues. The wiring issues help determine (but don’t solely determine) how quickly kids learn to read fluently and proficiently. I believe that Shaywitz in Overcoming Dyslexia states that these kids make up almost one in five of kids who are not reading at the basic or proficient reading levels. For 20% of our students, there is a brain-based reason for their struggles with reading.

An issue of equal, if not greater importance, are the kids who have more traditionally wired brains but who still don’t learn to read fluently or proficiently. Given the NAEP scores across the country, this problem is an epidemic. About 30% of our nation’s fourth graders don’t read at a basic reading level. (They have difficulty decoding the printed word.)  About 60% of our nation’s fourth graders don’t read proficiently (with good comprehension). These kids aren’t dyslexic. They are ELL kids; they are kids from poverty with a single parent or being raised by relatives; they are white middle class kids; they are everywhere. These kids are instructional casualties.
Many years ago, Louisa Moats, one of the nation’s reading experts, said that teaching reading is rocket science. We know more now. We know that good reading instruction is good reading instruction. Kids need to be proficient with phonological processing; at a young age, they need to be able to segment, sequence, and manipulate sounds within words; they have to have an understanding of the alphabetic principle to the point of automaticity; they need to understand syllable patterns and morphological structures of words; they need to be able to read fluently; they need to have an adequate oral vocabulary; and they need to be taught comprehension strategies to help them understand what they read. In short, as Moats says, they need to understand the  relationship of speech to print, and in the early years, their spelling instruction needs to complement their decoding instruction. All of these skills sets need to be introduced and mastered in an appropriate developmental scope and sequence of skills.  We know that explicit instruction is better than implicit instruction. Simply stated, we can’t expect teachers to impart the relationship between speech and print to their emerging and struggling readers if teachers don’t understand the relationship between speech and print. The vast majority do not.
We can’t control where the kids are coming from, but we can control critical variables of instruction including: the content and instructional knowledge of the teacher; the curriculum used; the intensity of the instruction (reading group size); the frequency of instruction (how many minutes a day do the kids receive explicit instruction?); the duration of the instruction or the intervention; and the appropriate grouping of students for reading instruction based on their reading skills.
Children in reading programs that identify these variables of instruction and are both intentional and thoughtful about the delivery of the instruction can, and do, make significant gains in their reading–both in fluency and in comprehension. I believe we can attain reading proficiency with 90%+ of the student population when such a program is implemented, provided it is implemented with knowledgeable teachers who teach with fidelity and who can be diagnostic-prescriptive in their approach.
Don’t believe teachers who say that kids all learn to read differently. They don’t. Reading science shows us this.
Finally, if 60% of fourth graders can’t read proficiently, does it really matter if one in five American students are diagnosed as being dyslexic? All students–dyslexic or not–deserve good reading instruction.
John Alexander, Head of School

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Another Minneapolis School District Controversy

Admit it.  Many of us who reside in Minneapolis feel that the Minneapolis Public School District (MPSD) has been in disarray for years.  With over 35,000 students in 76 schools, MPSD is the third largest in the state.  It is a decentralized juggernaut that appears to lack consistency from school to school.   As one Minneapolis teacher once told me, “They (administrators) can tell us what to do, but once the classroom door is closed, we are free to do as we wish.”  That attitude is reinforced by a powerful teachers’ union whose primary consideration appears to be its teacher members, not its students.  Unions like this hold great power and can ensure mediocrity instead of excellence.

In the four short months of the current school year, there have been at least two significant controversies involving the district.  I wrote about the first, “Lazy Lucy,” in this blog a few months ago.

The optics of the second controversy, the school board’s selection of a  new district superintendent, is no better.  On December 7 with the school board’s 6 to 3 vote, Dr. Sergio Paez was chosen over two other candidates, including Michael Goar, the interim superintendent who garnered the other three votes.

Paez was the superintendent of the Holyoke School District in Holyoke, Massachusetts.   The Holyoke School District is approximately a seventh the size of Minneapolis and reportedly has a three million dollar deficit and a similarly poor graduation rate (60%).  In addition, the state has taken over the district and Paez no longer serves as the superintendent but is employed as a consultant.

In some people’s minds, these were reasons enough not to offer Paez a contract, but there is more.  There was an allegation of student abuse by teacher(s) in one of the Holyoke schools.  Reportedly, Paez looked into the allegation and didn’t find any evidence to dismiss anyone or change the people that were contracting the services for that particular program.  The allegation is now being investigated by the Hampden County District Attorney.  In conducting an internet search, I quickly found the complaint which was dated April 15, 2015.  It’s difficult to fathom why the school board or the search committee couldn’t do the same.

Although contract negotiations with Paez have stopped pending further investigation into the allegations, the district’s decision-making process  is again called into question.  For critical decisions–like choosing a superintendent or books for young readers (Lazy Lucy), it would be a benefit to all to make the correct decision the first time.

If this hiring decision by the MPSD school board concerns you as it does me, you may contact the district at or call 612.668.0000.

John Alexander, Head of School


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Preschool Funding: Should We or Shouldn’t We?

The Minnesota state coffers will soon be filled with almost two billion dollars of excess revenue, and, undoubtedly, there will be conversations between Democrats and Republicans about how to spend, or not spend, this surplus.  Governor Dayton is certain to push for funding preschool for all Minnesota youngsters as this has been an education priority for his administration.

Many feel that an investment in preschool for all Minnesota four year olds is prudent because there may be a high return on investment (ROI).  In fact, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce, calculated that “for every dollar invested today, savings range from $2.50 to as much as $17.00 in the years ahead.”  Similarly, James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate, states that there is a seven to ten percent annual return on investment in high-quality preschool.

Given the reading programs found in our state’s kindergarten through third grade programs, I question whether investing tens of millions of dollars in a Minnesota preschool program is a good idea.  If our schools are not going to use evidence-based approaches to teach reading and instead promote a sight word reading approach, one that depends on rote memorization of words, the preparation of four year olds will all be for naught.  We will be throwing money down the proverbial drain.

Let’s first fix our emerging and struggling reading programs.  Then a preschool program’s seeds could really take root and flourish.  Without a strong, evidence-based literacy program in the early elementary years, the students’ literacy development will wither like a flower without its nutrients.

Our state’s students deserve better.

John Alexander, Head of School


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Lazy Lucy: Another Controversy for the Minneapolis Public School System

Controversies within the Minneapolis Public School System sometimes appear to be a dime a dozen.  Many are not really controversies at all; they are differences of opinion made to be controversies because political axes are in need of sharpening.  The most recent controversy, “Lazy Lucy,” involves the introduction of some readable text of questionable nature for first through third grade emerging readers.

On its face, the controversy involves the district spending 1.2 million dollars on an early literacy curriculum which is accompanied by short, decodable stories that students can easily read.  The “Lazy Lucy” story features Lucy, an African girl, who is too lazy to keep her hut clean.  Then there is “Nieko, the Hunting Girl” in which an American Indian girl, with her father, stalks a wooly mammoth.  There is also one about Kenya, where people run really fast.   It’s not a stretch to see why minority communities might question the subject matter, and it leaves one scratching one’s head as to how the decision was made to choose the curriculum.  Was there a committee charged with reviewing several curricula and making a recommendation as to which to purchase?  Did a heterogeneous group of teachers and administrators comprise that committee?  Or did a single individual make the decision to make the purchase?  Were there any checks and balances in place to ensure that the decision to purchase the curriculum was a good one?

If we peel back the skin of the onion a little further, we see that the controversy involves more than just choosing a curriculum containing stories that might be racist at worst or insensitive at best.  The curriculum decision also reflects the deep disagreement that exists within the district as to how reading should be taught.  The reading controversy has existed in the ten plus years I have been at Groves Academy, and I am sure it existed long before I arrived.  A controversy that has been brewing nationally for the past forty to fifty years, it pits whole language advocates versus “phonics fanatics.”

Unfortunately, over the years the reading wars’ pendulum has swung back and forth within the district as it has throughout the country.  When I first arrived at Groves Academy in 2005, it was quite clear that the district was following the whole language protocol.  There were leveled readers in the classroom, and students practiced daily guided reading with their teachers.  There was very little explicit reading instruction happening.  Instead, the belief was that if you exposed kids to great literature and gave them a little push, they would begin reading when they were ready, when their brains were mature enough.  Not surprisingly, many students didn’t score well on national reading tests, and a significant achievement gap between white middle class students and African American students continued to grow.

A few years after I arrived, the district changed the reading curriculum, presumably due to low test scores.  The district moved to supplement their whole language reading curriculum with some phonics instruction found in the workbook, Words Their Way.  The change was made late in the spring of 2009, and with teachers leaving for the summer, district administrators were scrambling to figure out how adequate professional development could take place.   After speaking with a few Minneapolis public school teachers the following fall, it was apparent that adequate professional development had not taken place.

When a school district does not thoroughly vet a reading curriculum, it inevitably will make a poor decision.  There is a lot of money to be made in education, and publishers attract attention and boost sales with slick marketing campaigns.  There doesn’t have to be much, if any, substance behind the marketing.  In fact, there are phonics reading curricula in the marketplace that are just as poorly anchored as whole language curricula.  Bad phonics curricula only serves whole language advocates as they can accurately exclaim, “See, I told you phonics doesn’t work!”  The pendulum then shifts back to whole language.  This is the story of the reading wars over the last forty to fifty years.  People get on their soapboxes, and children are harmed.

In truth, a good reading program for emerging and struggling readers does contain more phonics with explicit instruction than it does whole language.  In truth, controlled, decodable readers, like “Lazy Lucy,” which students can read easily, are more appropriate for these readers than is good, non-controlled literature with which young readers are forced to guess at a word’s identity.  But phonics alone is not enough.  Teachers need to be prepared to teach deep-level phonics, not just symbol-sound correspondences.  They also need to be well versed in phonology, morphology, vocabulary development, orthography, semantics, and syntax.  Teachers need to know more than just believing that reading comes naturally when the brain has developed and a good book is placed in front of their students.

On the surface, the latest Minneapolis Public School District controversy may be about race and insensitivity, but it’s really about much more.  It’s about how kids best learn to read.

John Alexander, Head of School