A Thought on the Value of Explicit Teaching

One of my favorite parts of the day is Reading Group.  I work with three kids–a third grader and two second graders.  One is on the autism spectrum.  Another has the worst auditory processing disorder I’ve ever encountered: basically, restrict all the spoken input you receive in a day to what might come out of the BBC radio news…and then throw that radio in a blender before turning the volume to the highest possible setting.  The third is a general ed kid who, despite being raised in a print-rich environment and spending two years in quality schools, was consistently the poorest reader in any room he entered.

Ah, Reading Group–perhaps the least creative 20 minutes of anyone’s instructional day. I squirreled away a bunch of those dreaded Open Court materials when teachers decided to go all Whole Language, and I Direct Instruct the hell out of everybody until each phoneme sinks in.  The decodable books–little paper pamphlets, each with a story of 70 or so words using the sound/spelling correspondence being targeted at that time–leave much to be desired in the plot department, possibly because there really aren’t too many stories you can tell using only short-vowel word blends with “ea” in the middle.  I make Power Point slide shows with each spelling pattern: we chant the sounds and blend them like new converts in a cult.   Every possible step is ridiculously scaffolded, to break an incredibly complex process into smaller, more manageable pieces.  Language, I tell people, is a second language for my kids.

Today, as we went through the sound/spelling correspondences for “Wh”, I snuck in some review of a previously taught pattern.  The gen ed kid’s face lit up when he saw the a_e on my computer screen–this child who has struggled since kindergarten under everyone’s concern that he either wouldn’t or couldn’t learn like the rest of them, this child who swam for two academic years in a sea of print and stories and never understood that the code which surrounded him was water he could drink.

“Ah, helper E.  It’s my favorite long vowel!”

Whole language, every now and then, can go kiss my ass.

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2 Responses to A Thought on the Value of Explicit Teaching

  1. Laura says:

    When did they go back to whole language in schools? And why was that a good idea? I think whole language was the undoing of any possibility of spelling skills I ever had. And, seriously, not helpful for the GRE.

    • teacherbeth says:

      The whole thing’s a pendulum, and it swings all over the place. Some schools are completely wedded to explicit phonetic reading, all the time for all kids, and others are just as dogmatic about phonics sucking all the joy out of the natural reading process. My school currently gives teachers the flexibility to make their own intelligent choices about this, which I think is valid. The tricky thing as a classroom teacher is you may very well have a room where 5 kids could decode before kindergarten, 15 kids will pick it up with a mixed approach, and 5 kids really need the explicit scaffolded decodables that bore the rest of the kids to tears. That’s where reading intervention, taught in small groups and ideally outside the regular classroom with someone else tracking progress, is key.

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