Theory should help us provide the conditions, the contexts that will foster growth toward competent reading. Most important, theory should help us to avoid methods and strategies that may satisfy short-term goals but obstruct growth.
As classroom teachers, we need to be able to plan effective day to day experiences in the reading workshop, however, we must also be able to make decisions about the learning conditions and curricular components we provide over the course of the school year. Each of these decisions should be directly related to the knowledge and beliefs we hold about reading and learning, and the information we have gathered about our students through the various assessments we utilize in our classrooms. In this way, our understandings of the learning and reading processes, and our understandings of the students in our classrooms drives our instructional practices, the learning environment we establish and the experiences we provide our students. In other words, theory should drive practice.
5 Principles of Reading Instruction
- Reading is the “construction” of meaning. It is a two-way process, as readers bring meaning to a text in order to construct meaning with a text. In other words, as Louise Rosenblatt has written, readers are active participants in the reading process, building their understandings as they “transact” with a text. Different readers may construct different meanings from the same text or experiences, depending upon the knowledge and experiences they bring to the reading event. The goal of the reader is to understand what they have read, to make sense of the text. In order to do this, each individual reader uses their understandings of the world, their knowledge of language and the relationship between the letters and the sounds of their language to construct meaning, to make sense, as they transact with a text. Reading is not simply the correct identification of individual words, nor is it the ability to read words without mistakes out loud. Reading is understanding what one reads. It is making sense of a text. Therefore, any transaction with a text must result in the construction of meaning for it to be considered reading.
- Reading instruction should develop life-long, active readers. How we transact with texts, is largely determined by the experiences and demonstrations we are provided, how reading is taught in schools and the expectations we are presented as readers. Some reading programs tend to create passive readers, readers that sit back and wait for the teacher to determine what was important in the text. Unfortunately, passive readers see no direct pleasure in reading and generally do not become life-long readers because they find no purpose in reading. In our classrooms, we want children to understand why they are reading, to assume and active stance to the reading process and develop as life-long readers, that choose to read throughout their lives for many purposes.
- We learn to read by reading. We generally learn to do this in the company of other competent readers. Frank Smith reminded educators of the old adage, “You learn from the company you keep”, when he wrote about “joining the literacy club”. If we want children to become readers, they need to “keep company” with other readers, to see themselves as potential readers and to experience actual reading events. In essence, children need to identify themselves as “readers” in order to “Join the Literacy Club”.
- Large amounts of time must be provided for students to interact with literature. As classroom teachers, we need to provide numerous opportunities to read and be read to, access to a wide range of reading materials, and a responsive, caring environment that allows children to share their reactions to their readings without fear of humiliation. Reading “instruction” must be a part of this environment, not isolated from it. We don’t learn to read by doing skills worksheets, only later to try these skills out on a real book. We learn to read by transacting with authentic literature, for authentic purposes.
- People teach people to read, not commercial programs. Authors, teachers and parents are among the many the catalysts that bring children and texts together and show them how to read and how various texts work. It is the skill of the classroom teacher, based on their knowledge of the reading process and the children in their classrooms, that makes the reading workshop successful. Blindly following a teacher’s manual or the scope and sequence of a commercial reading program, will not support all children becoming competent readers. Some children will learn to read in spite of the program, and some will fall through the proverbial cracks. It takes a knowledgeable, sensitive, observant teacher to support the efforts of all children, and to help them develop as successful, lifelong readers.