Celebrating International Literacy Day: The Path to Reading

By Diane Prouty, Karen Tietjen and Mark Sweikhart

September 7, 2012   |   0 comments

Diane Prouty, Karen Tietjen and Mark Sweikhart (Washington, DC)

Students reading in one of India’s School Dropout Prevention Program Schools.

Three researchers sit at the back of a grade 2 classroom in a rural community hours from the capital city. This is one of the last classrooms on their list of schools to observe. They have visited classrooms around the country for the past two weeks collecting data on the teaching and learning of reading. Nearly 90 children are huddled together in 15 groups at wobbly tables and benches in the classroom they are visiting today. Most of the children squeeze tightly together on the benches while those who are unable to find space at a bench lean against the shoulders of those who can find a seat and observe from behind. Most students are engaged in the lesson but not all. Some whisper in the ear of a nearby student; others stare out the window watching villagers walk through the school grounds on their way to the market or at cows grazing on sporadic shoots of grass peeping out of the ground. There is always something going on to distract them when they don’t want to listen to the lesson anymore and the cacophony of noise outside their classroom makes it easy to ignore the noise inside the classroom.

The brownish mud spackled walls of the classroom are bare except for a teacher-made poster of the letters of the alphabet and a large poster about mosquitoes and the dangers of stagnant standing water. At the front of the classroom is a tired, worn out blackboard whose once smooth surface is now blemished by cracks and large brown gouges. The chalk makes faint marks on its surface which you can barely read even from the middle of the classroom. The teacher has written several sentences and lists of words on the board that don’t seem to have anything in common. Her penmanship is distorted by the uneven surface of the blackboard further exacerbating the struggle to read what she has written in letters so small even those sitting in the front of the classroom need to squint to see them.

She smacks a stick she holds in her hand along the sentences as the children mechanically shout out the words in unison. Their combined voices are a monotone, there is no expression and no sense they understand what they are reading. When they finish the five sentences their teacher turns her attention and stick to two lists of words that border each side of the sentences. Again, the children shout out the words in rote fashion. When they finish with the lists the teachers tells them to silently read from a textbook each group shares at their table. A quiet buzz fills the room as the students attempt to read the stories in their textbooks while the teacher writes new sentences and more lists of words on the board.

This shouting in unison is a rigid rite of passage they all endure in hopes that if they work their way through the endless sentences and lists of words they do not know it will hopefully help them move forward into the next grade to face yet another year of shouting out in unison endless lists of words and meaningless sentences. Our researchers are no longer surprised or dismayed by what they see and what they have learned over the past two weeks.  In an effort to better understand how teachers teach reading and children learn to read they have the answer to both their questions:  They don’t!

The future holds little promise for most of the students in this classroom. Fewer than half of them will manage to struggle onward to the end of the primary cycle. Evidence shows that the lucky ones who continue to secondary will drop out there  even more precipitously and fail to complete a secondary level degree. Nor is the future promising for their country that desperately needs a literate population to foster healthy and happy families, a vibrant economy and an engaged and informed citizenry. But these findings aren’t a surprise.

Research has repeatedly shown that a student who fails to learn to read in grade one is unlikely to learn to read in the next grade because of the enormous effort it takes to catch up. At the same time, the student is exposed to increasingly more specialized content which makes it harder to master what is being taught. The evidence has further shown that good readers continue to move forward while, tragically, the poor readers fall farther and still farther behind.  Gove writes that “…reading skills are self-reinforcing: Poor readers read about half as many words as good readers, thus getting half the amount of vocabulary practice.” (Gove & Cvelich, 2010, p. 6.) In fact, students who fail to reach the critical milestone of reading by grade three often falter in the later grades and drop out before earning a high school diploma. (Hernandez 2011).

But there is a way to break the cycle of failure and jumpstart the path to literacy: change the way teachers teach students to read using evidence-based methodologies proven to work and provide students with appropriate decodable reading materials so they can practice and increase their skill base.

Over the past two decades an examination of the best approaches to pave the way to literacy have provided a very clear picture particularly for children living in poverty since they often have uneducated parents, may lack adequate nutrition, have fewer outside-of-school educational opportunities and less access to reading materials, computers or other resources that promote language development that form the foundation necessary to learn to read.  What is that picture? An early grade reading program framed around the early language skills of phonological and phonemic awareness, a 20 minute daily dose of systematic phonics and a stress on oral reading fluency (ORF) that promotes the rate and understanding of reading.

Recently USAID shifted its focus in basic education to reading, especially early grade reading. In line with this shift, Creative has worked with USAID, ministries of education and implementing partners to realign its basic education projects in Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, and Yemen to focus on reading in primary school.  As a result, Creative brings core competence to the design and management of reading programs framed around multiple entry points for interventions to strengthen reading teaching and learning, depending on the country context—its needs, receptivity, and agenda. These include assessment, pre-service and in-service teacher and head teacher professional development, instructional materials development, policy dialogue, stakeholder and community engagement, private-public partnership, and action-based and experimental research.

Creative’s tools for evaluating, designing, and implementing an evidence-based, country-wide reading program address system and school-level components of a phonics-based reading program,  including analysis tools to examine reading materials for their predictability, readability and decodability. Creative has developed a vetted process to review a country’s policy framework to assist in the realignment of an existing national curriculum to the five core competencies of an effective reading curricula. This process includes the development of a scope and sequence in a first or common language and facilitates the transition to a second instructional language.  These programs use a multimedia platform that includes student instructional and teacher professional development and coaching materials.

Let’s fast forward into the future. Funds provided by USAID to the Ministry of Education were used to begin an early grade reading program throughout the country.  Phonics-based instructional materials in the first language of the children have been produced and teachers have been trained on how to use the phonics routines in their classrooms. All blackboards have been resurfaced and teachers have been encouraged to use large letters when writing on the board to ensure all students can see what is written even those sitting at the back of the classroom. Our three researchers are revisiting the school today to observe what if any changes have come about from the teacher training and new materials.

Students are still huddled in large groups around wobbly tables and benches but they are all excitedly engaged in a hands-on interactive syllable matching activity. Every two student shares a small sandbox they use to practice writing letter shapes as they eagerly shout out the letter sounds to the letters their teacher writes on the board. A small bookcase with a small selection of decodable reading materials sits in the corner near the teacher’s desk. The teacher made poster of the letters of the alphabet has been replaced with a colorful alphabet banner that circles the wall at student eye level.

Examples of the students’ writing is posted on the walls and a list of words that begin and/or end with the target letter “T” is taped on the wall next to the blackboard. The vowels they learned this week are written in large letters across the top of the blackboard and one syllable words using them are listed under each vowel. The teacher no longer smacks the board with her stick as the students read orally but instead uses her finger to move along the vocabulary words she is teaching to her students modeling how to read from left to right and top to bottom.

No longer are students gazing out the window uninterested in what is taking place in their classroom. Today when the teacher tells them to orally read together in their small groups a loud learning hum fills the air. Our researchers have a new answer to their probing questions:  How do teachers teach reading and children learn to read in this classroom?  The answer to both: With enthusiasm!

Gove, A. & Cvelich, P. (2010).  (Early Reading: Igniting Education for All: A report by the Early Grade Learning Community of Practice. Research Triangle Institute: Research Triangle, North Carolina. )

(______).  (2010). Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Annie E. Casey Foundation: Baltimore, Maryland

Hernandez, D. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation: Baltimore.  Maryland.

Diane Prouty, Karen Tietjen and Mark Sweikhart are all Senior staff of Creative’s Education for Development Division.