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Doing Your Homework:
Why Reading Teachers Can't Teach Children to Read
(and What They Can Do About It)

by Sue Heath, Research Editor, Wrightslaw

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I have been a remedial reading teacher in a public school for 30 years. All remedial reading teachers in my school have 50-60 students. This year, I was given 10 special education students (in addition to the 50 students I already had).

It is virtually impossible to meet the needs of all these children. Are there any guidelines for remedial reading teachers?

I want to help these children but there is just so much that one person can do.

From Sue
If you are a remedial reading teacher and have 50 or 60 students who have different problems and are at different stages of reading development, you cannot provide effective remedial reading instruction.

Many of your students will fail, despite your best efforts. (Three Reasons for Reading Failure)

Succeeding in Teaching Children to Read

If you are to succeed in teaching children to read, you must be well-trained in research based reading instructional methods. You must teach your students every day. You must have data from assessments so you know where each of your students is functioning and where each child needs to be.

You must use the programs as they are intended to be used - including the recommended hours per day and week, and the recommended teacher-student ratio. (Read What are the Criteria for Remedial Reading Programs?

Because you have too many students, you cannot use reading programs as they are intended to be used. This is one reason why more than 50 percent of children never learn to read proficiently.

Who Can Fix the Problem?

If you are looking for someone else to fix this problem, it is not going to happen. The person you are looking for is you. You vote in local elections. You have colleagues, friends, and neighbors.

You say all remedial reading teachers in your district have 50 or 60 students. With this many students, these teachers can't teach remedial reading either - they are likely to be frustrated and unhappy too.

You and your fellow reading teachers need to get organized and become squeaky wheels.

Get Organized, Educate Others

There is power in numbers. (Read One Person is a Fruitcake, 50 People Are a Powerful Organization.)

Organize remedial reading teachers in your district. Get together and develop strategies to educate your school board, your community -- and the parents of the children you teach.

Provide facts about the three reasons for reading failure.

Provide facts about how to teach reading. (Read What are the Criteria for Remedial Reading Programs?)

Provide facts about the six qualities of effective reading programs.
(Read Considerations When Selecting a Reading Program from The Access Center.)

Educate the decision-makers (administration, school board) and parents about the model reading program from the Department of Education that calls for 90 minutes of instruction, 5 days a week, from kindergarten through grade 3, in general education classrooms. (Read Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children from the National Research Council and Question C-1 in Guidance for the Reading First program)

Provide facts about the consequences of failing to teach children to read. Failing to teach children to read:

* is not cost-effective
* fills prisons with illiterate citizens
* fills welfare rolls with illiterate families
* wastes taxpayer money
* destroys the lives of children who just need to learn to read

You also need to educate the parents (most of whom think their children really are receiving remedial reading instruction). Provide parents with the facts and "11 Questions to Ask about Your Child's Reading Program."

Make 11 Questions to Ask about Your Child's Reading Program into a flyer that you, other teachers, and parents can can distribute throughout your community (flyers are a powerful underutilized tool). (Read Using Flyers to Educate Others)

Get Training in Research Based Reading Instruction

Doctors are required to get additional training on new research based medical treatments. Reading teachers who have worked in the field for several years need to get additional training in research based reading methods so they have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach children who do not learn to read on their own.

Fixing the System

I do not question that you care a great deal about your students. You have devoted your life working for them. You know the system is broken.

As a teacher with 30 years of experience, you need to direct your efforts to saving children who will be damaged until the broken system is fixed.

If you continue to tread water in the broken system, your students will not learn to read and the system will have to be fixed by someone else.

Who knows and cares as much as you?

You need to fix some part of the problem every week. This applies to all of us.

"If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem."

Three Reasons for Reading Failure

1. The program is not appropriate for the child.
2. There are too many students in the reading class
3. The pace of the instruction is too rapid for children to achieve mastery of skills presented.
Source: The Reading Foundation

Six Qualities  of  Effective  Reading  Programs  

1. Effective  programs  are  driven  by  reading  research,  not  ideology

2. Effective  programs emphasize direct, systematic, intensive, and  sustained  reading

3. Effective  programs  require  school ­wide  buy ­in  before  they  are  adopted  

4. Effective  programs  are  supported  by  initial  professional  development  and extended  follow­up  training  throughout the  school  year ; 

5. When  implementing an  effective  program, the  school  needs  to  be  committed  to  the integrity  of  the  program ’s  instructional  approach  and  materials; 

6. Effective  programs  make effective use of instructional time, provide multiple reading opportunities, and employ a variety  of  reading  assessments  (Schacter, nd).

One Person is a Fruitcake, 50 People Are a "Powerful Organization"

There is power in numbers:

1 person = A fruitcake
2 people = A fruitcake and a friend
3 people = Troublemakers
5 people = “Let’s have a meeting”
10 people = “We’d better listen”
25 people = “Our dear friends”
50 people = A powerful organization”

12 Things Parents (and Teachers) Need to Know by Parent Leadership Associates

Federal Model Reading Program

Look at the federal model reading program that is effective in teaching children to read. (For specifics, read Question C-1 of Guidance for the Reading First program)

This model calls for 90 minutes of instruction per day, 5 days a week, from kindergarten through grade 3. Children who are not making sufficient progress receive additional instruction. This model assumes that reading instruction takes place in general education classrooms.

11 Questions to Ask About Your Child's Reading Program

Here are some questions you need to ask about your child's reading program:

1. What is the name of my child's reading program?

2. Is the reading program researched-based? Does the program include the five essential elements identified by the National Reading Panel and required by No Child Left Behind?

3. How many children will be in my child's reading group?

4. How have the children in this group been selected?

5. Has the teacher been trained in direct, systematic, multisensory reading instruction?

6. Is the teacher certified in this particular program?

7. Has the teacher completed a supervised practicum in this program?

8. How many hours of instruction per week will my child receive?

9. How will the pace of the instruction be determined?

10. What criteria will be used to determine mastery?

11. How will I be informed about my child's progress?
Source: The Reading Foundation

Resources: Research Based Reading Programs

These articles and publications will help you learn about research based reading programs, appropriately trained teachers, stages of reading development, and the federal model reading program.

Reading Disabilities: Why Do Some Children Have Difficulty Learning to Read? What Can Be Done About It? by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D.

National Reading Panel Reports Combination of Teaching Phonics, Word Sounds, Giving Feedback on Oral Reading Most Effective Way to Teach Reading (NIH News Alert, 2000)

Stages of reading development - If the program is not appropriate for the child's reading stage, it will be ineffective for him, even if it works for other children his age.

Synthesis of Research on Reading from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development by Bonita Grossen, University of Oregon

4 Great Definitions About Reading in NCLB - No Child Left Behind includes the legal definitions of reading, essential components of reading instruction, scientifically based reading research, and reading assessments. Does your child's program have these "essential components"? Has the school given your child a diagnostic reading assessment? What did this assessment show?

Guidance for the Reading First Program - The purpose of Reading First is to ensure that all children are proficient readers by the end of third grade. This publication includes a description of a model program - 90 minutes of instruction per day, 5 days a week, with additional instruction for children who continue to struggle,

Research based reading programs and contacts

Learn more about Reading - how children learn and need to be taught.

Learn more about research based instruction.

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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