Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently penned an interesting opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Teachers Aren’t Dumb.”
Willingham’s contention is that students aren’t learning like they could, or should be, not because their teachers lack smarts, but, rather, because their teachers haven’t been properly trained to be good teachers. This is a common refrain of this literacy thread. We train lots of teachers at Groves, not just our own teachers, but teachers from the community who come to learn more about literacy, math, and written expression through both workshops and through intense classes and practicums. Many of these teachers spend their own money to become better prepared to teach their students. Often they are dismayed and frustrated that the knowledge they acquire with us was not made available to them in their college teacher preparation programs. For example, how can elementary school teachers be good teachers of reading when their professors can’t identify the phonemes (sounds) of a given word? A study by a professor from Texas A&M found that 66 professors of reading instruction could correctly identify the sounds of a given word only 62% of the time. They struggled even more with identifying morphemes of a word (a morpheme is the smallest unit of sound that conveys meaning), correctly identifying morphemes only 27% of the time.
It gets worse. There are many professors across the country–including in Minnesota–who not only do not understand the structures of language like phonology, phonics, morphology, orthography, syntax, and semantics needed to become an effective reading teacher, they even remark that this understanding is not even needed to become a good teacher of reading. These professors would rather offer guessing strategies to emerging and struggling readers. Really? If a child has not mastered symbol-sound correspondences (phonics), he is supposed to guess at the word based on visual features, the context of the sentence he cannot read, or picture clues?
If professors of education do not understand what it takes to teach reading, how is a teacher ever supposed to impart this knowledge to her students?
Something has to change.
John Alexander, Head of School