Monday, June 1, 2015


This post introduces our guest blogging feature “Teacher Voices,” regular content that will spotlight the passion, talent and brilliance of teachers in our community.  I’m honored that Pansy Gee, who inspires us as a classroom teacher and as a teacher leader in the Rice Center for Education teacher seminar, Writing and the Arts, brings her voice to our understanding of the real power of reading.


Webster’s Third International World Dictionary, 2001, says in part that “Reading is the scanning or looking at letters or symbols, representing words and/or sentences with  mental formulation of the words and sentences….”  Do multiple-choice tests measure students’ “mental formulation of the words and sentences”?

Johnny still isn’t reading!  Some children aren’t reading by third grade for very real reasons.  Learning disabilities, dyslexia, processing issues.  But what about those children who have no labels, no physical, diagnosable issues?  Teachers know these students, too.  They are the ones who don’t do well on the worksheets; who miss too many days of class and don’t do well on the worksheets; who either don’t read fluently or read fluently and don’t do well on the worksheets. Worksheets that ask students to choose an answer do not teach reading and do not assess reading levels.

Words in Action!

Reading instruction should look much different in a kindergarten class than it does in a fourth grade class.   Reading looks different to a 5-year-old than it does to a 9-year-old. Reading instruction should be different as well.  It should be different, and it should be taking place in both grades and in every grade in between.  Obvious statement?  A 5-year-old discovers s/he is a reader when someone points out the environmental print all around.  The McDonald’s, the Cheerios and the Disney trademarks are all, when in context, words recognizable to the youngest charges.  Once a teacher, a parent, a caregiver points out this talent, children are on their way to the “mental formulation of words and sentences.”  

Recognizing environmental print and alphabetic connections, playing with words, recognizing sound-symbol relationships and patterns, singing, and being read to should be the foundation in Emergent literacy in the preschool-kinder class rooms and at home. 

In an ideal early childhood classroom, children should be surrounded by what would naturally be in a world of make-believe and play.  Drama centers decorated with props to pretend with:  One day there may be pizza boxes, tables set with red checkered cloths and plastic dishes, note pads and pencils to take orders, play telephones to receive orders; note cards to write down recipes.  Another week a vet clinic could be opened in its place. Stuffed animals lie waiting in labeled cages. Doctor instruments on hand to examine the pets.  Familiar books in the waiting room.  Patient charts to be filled in with ailments and remedies.  Sign-in sheets so the nurse can call the next patient.  Appointments recorded in the notebook by the phone.  

Everywhere, there would be words—meaningful print that goes with the setting.  Words to be copied, words to be spoken, words to be read.  The block center would have clipboards with pens tied to them so that maps of the roads and cities being constructed could be drawn and labeled. Block Building Words taped to the shelves to help the engineers communicate what’s being built and created. The book center would have a listening station and dolls to share the books with.  Perhaps there would be a familiar poem or chant on a large chart with a pointer so the “teacher” could read to the dolls; or a “mommy” to read to her baby.  Notes written about what books were the best are left for the next group. 

Words Everywhere!

The math center may have Cuisenaire rods, counters, paper and pencils to design, copy or figure out a problem. Math words on the walls to read, to copy, to say.  And the science center may have the water/rice table for pouring, measuring, weighing.  Each scientist would be recording his or her findings in a science journal using drawings and words. The science vocabulary would be displayed for the young scientists’ “mental formulations” of their knew knowledge. Every day, the class would gather at their teacher’s feet for read a-louds, finger plays, news of the day, dramatization of their own dictated stories and adult authored stories.  Each chunk of time in these early childhood classes are carefully planned with the idea that reading (alphabetic awareness, vocabulary, phonics, fluency, spelling…) is being introduced, practiced, taught again, or evaluated. Each whole group, small group lesson, center activity, workstation, and together time would be intentionally designed to provide opportunity to manipulate the very sounds, symbols and concepts needed to be readers and writers.

This intentionality, authenticity and opportunity that’s so gently folded into the preschool classroom should not be lost in second through fifth grade classes.  There should be real reading materials: books, magazines, newspaper articles, and yes, textbooks and real instruction.   Figuring out meaning is not automatic once decoding is mastered. Reading is about “mental formulation.”  It’s thinking.  It’s understanding the ideas and the intent the words represent.   Students should be reading individually and in small peer groups, as well as with the teacher.  Reading, discussing and writing should be the mode of operation in all subjects. A class discussion on the rights of girls in Afghanistan to an education inspired by the reading of I am Malala, by M. Yousafzai fosters the understanding of both fiction and non-fiction reading. It provides ample opportunity to teach the higher-level skills necessary for comprehension.  The talking is the “brainstorming,” a first draft.  It allows the student who isn’t quite sure to hear some ideas to get started and the bit more confident student to try out different ideas.  Classroom discourse is the forum for questions, new ideas, and reinforcement of concepts. Giving opportunity for students to talk and then write about their opinions allows for clarifying, deepening and organizing understanding of the facts, as well as establishing individual beliefs and values.   Original written responses, essays and poems in journals and notebooks, provide concrete ways the teacher can understand deeply what students understand deeply.  The written word is tangible evidence of thought.  

Before conversation, before written response, and before the process of critical, deeper understanding, teaching has to occur -- directed instruction. Lessons on how to infer, draw conclusions, understand an author’s purpose, distinguish between fact and opinion,-- all must be ongoing.  Just because Johnny can sound out words and orally “read” the page does not mean there is comprehension.

If We Know How Kids Learn to Read, then Why….?
Or Don’t Blame Johnny…..

More and more, classrooms in Texas have stopped looking like the reading-rich classrooms described above.  Students sit and get worksheets.  Even the youngest are being given worksheets with multiple choices.  Teachers feel forced to change from “best practices” to training children to look for the one right answer.  Hours are spent on test practice, test prep, testing strategies.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each school year on tests, test practice workbooks, extra duty pay for after school and Saturday tutorials and incentives for children to attend.  Even science and social studies are being taught with worksheets that look like the STAAR and IOWA tests. Teachers will say “off the record” that too much time is spent on test activities.  But when districts send out “snapshot tests” every 3-4 weeks starting in late September and continuing to Spring Break, teachers have little choice. These are the benchmarks that the supervisors analyze and let principals know the results and the principals let the teachers know the results.  Teachers are then told what objectives need to be drilled upon.  This is how teachers use “data to drive instruction.”

The district begins testing in December with IOWA testing (Norm referenced) for kindergarteners; and then late fall-early winter Co-Gat testing for all 4 and 5th graders; late January brings DLA (District Level Assessment; i.e. STAAR Practice), in early April is state testing (STAAR) of 4th grade writing and 5th grade reading and math; then a few weeks later in May there is the 3rd and 4th grade STAAR reading and math and 5th science.  In early May children in first through fifth grades take the IOWA Test for an entire week.   AND there is the additional testing of the English Language Learners (TELPAS) worked in there somewhere!  More Co-GAT testing for Gifted and Talented qualifying follows in Mid-May!  

Testing is what the schools in the Houston Independent School District are focused on, because it’s what HISD is focused on. It is the district’s yardstick by which everyone—teachers, students, principals, and schools are measured.  Whether a teacher is “highly effective” or needs to be on a “growth plan” depends on test scores. How much bonus is awarded depends on test scores.  Whether a school is exemplary or low performing depends on test scores.  Some schools are better at looking like they’re not focused on testing, but look at what is being used as instruction.  Multiple choice, fill in the blank, one answer worksheets?  Or opened-ended questions that require thinking and explaining both orally and in writing?  Look at what’s being graded.

Yes, it’s true, HISD has a reading problem.   It didn’t happen overnight.   It has taken years of requiring teachers to rely on test data to determine whether Johnny can read or not.  HISD’s Literacy by 3 Initiative will not solve the problem.  Getting Johnny to a passing score on the state reading test will not make him a life-long learner who uses reading as a tool to acquire knowledge and be inspired to develop new ideas.  Skill-specific instruction will not help Johnny read.  He may be able to sound out every word on the page, stop, pause, and read with expression.  That does not equal understanding.  Pronouncing all the words in an article on chemical reactions, pausing and stopping, and answering ten multiple choice questions is neither a reading lesson or a chemistry lesson.  This activity will not the help the chemistry illiterate reader comprehend a passage he has no schema for; nor will it help the future chemical engineer to be inspired to inquire further.  But it is the way “reading” is being currently assessed.  And so it is the way classrooms are being conducted. 

Reclaiming What We Know

A teacher leading a class discussion, listening to what is said, noticing who is talking and who is not.  Accepting questions as part of the thinking process.  Filling in background knowledge as needed. Having students form opinions and support those opinions based on text evidence.  Having students bring their own ideas to the discussion and explain how the ideas were formed.  Clarifying, organizing and writing down their thoughts that were based on the reading or responding to a well-asked question about the reading reveals more “data” on what and how a student understands than choosing one answer out of four.
Pansy W. Gee
Leader, Writing and the Arts
Rice University Center for Education
Teacher, 39 years

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