Some learned to bake sourdough bread. Some took on home improvement projects. However, when it came time for me to choose a pandemic project, I decided to be a precision teacher. Unfortunately, it is not Instagram friendly, so I will simply write about it.
Let me introduce myself. I am a seasoned teacher with thirteen years in the NYC public school system with licenses in French and ESL. In fact, according to the NYC ratings system devised by the infamous Charlotte Danielson, I am even considered a highly effective teacher. I have also had skin in the game long enough to watch the DOE follow many fads, particularly the fad of big data. In fact, I bristle every time a supervisor asks how data informs my teaching. Why? Because I always considered teaching to be an artform – kind of like jazz – more Miles Davis than BF Skinner. So why would I learn a style of teaching associated with a man that some say put his own child in a box?
Like any relationship – it’s complicated. It also involves the baggage you bring to it, and I have some serious baggage. The shame of educational failure is something that haunts me from my own childhood. My first-grade teachers were hippies. My progressive school was somewhat of a cross between an ashram and an elementary school. We had goats in the back yard, yoga classes, and as an added bonus they taught me to play Blowing in the Wind on acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, they never explicitly taught me to read. I distinctly remember when Reading Time was announced. They would take me to a bookshelf filled with children’s books. I vividly remember being confused, and for the life of me could not understand why these nice hippies would not tell me what to do with these little books. To placate them, I would pick one up and stare at the pictures until Reading Time was declared over, and I could finally go back to the main purpose of school – singing more Dylan songs! The following year we moved, and I was put in a public elementary school. Here, my parents were given the unfortunate news that I was a seven-year-old illiterate. They immediately went to the Ed School at the University of Miami and found someone to catch me up. I do not remember exactly what the tutor taught me, but I do have a hazy memory of an elderly woman with a brooch. What my little girl-self did understand was that I was moving rapidly from the worst reading group to the best in the lightning speed of Mercury Morris. Yes, you guessed it, I was finally a Dolphin, that coveted 2nd grade reading group named after the Miami Dolphins during a winning season. I guess it was my winning season too.
Oddly enough, history repeated itself. My son experienced reading problems as well. When his first- grade teacher told me he was falling behind, we did a rinse & repeat. We spent the summer with my parents in Austin, and this time the University of Texas found us a literacy expert – newly minted from their Ed School. My son worked diligently, so did the tutor. Except that when we returned, he continued to free fall in school. As his elementary school could not get him to read on grade-level either, they immediately made it clear that it was neither their fault nor his – just an unfortunate roll of the biological dice. According to the child study team he had “processing problems” and ADD. In fact, one tutor that I paid a fortune to, told my son point-blank that his brain worked differently than other children’s so he should not feel bad about his reading difficulties.
So what happened? How did two struggling readers from the same family tree get two completely different results. The resemblances are striking. In both instances, it was caught early. In both instances, the parents sought advice from a respected university. In both instances, the parents were willing and able to get help for their child. But unfortunately, in the second instance there was no elderly lady with a brooch to come to the rescue.
Here are my two working theories.
- Theory Number 1: The elderly lady with a brooch might have taught me phonics. As for my son, I mostly observed the tutor use Texas’ standardized tests to practice with, as well as many vocabulary exercises – I never saw phonics. In fact, I recently looked at UT’s education site to see if they train teachers in phonics, and I could find no classes whatsoever on their website.
- Theory Number 2: There has been a sea change in educational philosophy cultivated by the psychological community. Invariably when a child struggles to read the onus tends to be taken off the teacher, and the school recommends neuro psych tests. In the case of my son, I was told that he had ADD and processing problems. Essentially the experts insist on accommodations rather than remediation. At the time, I remember being confused, as my own experience led me to believe that his problems could be remediated like mine were over thirty years ago. When I voiced my concerns to the principal who flaunted a Harvard PhD (Guess what: Harvard’s Ed School does not teach phonics either – hey but who’s counting Ed schools?) she was quite condescending, almost pitying of my predicament, and seemed down-right confused that I was not eager to get accommodations so he could keep up with the others. In fact, to this day, I find the scenario a bit like the story of the chicken or the egg. Is the manifestation of poor reading a result of poor teaching (i.e., nurture), or are we encountering a brain that simply isn’t well wired to match sounds and letters (i.e., nature)? Since there has been an explosion of processing diagnoses in the past ten years, I tend to align myself with the former explanation.
But let’s leave my theories aside and return to my son. It is seven years later, and I happened to meet a woman who had just done a training at a precision teaching school called Morningside in Seattle. She was looking for a guinea pig to finish her certification. After evaluating my son, she told me the only thing wrong with his brain was that he had never been taught phonics. Had I not experienced my own struggles with reading as a child, I might have written her off as a crackpot (she had no official teaching credentials) and continued to spiral down the road of Special Ed experts. Instead, I listened. She explained that mapping sounds to text in the brain essentially allows you to become a fluent reader, and automaticity is key. She prescribed an intense study of phonics; however, his remediation took much longer than mine (I was seven. He was thirteen.) Eventually the educational nightmare came to a slow-moving halt.
Clearly all this baggage leaves me bitter, and to some degree unable to move on. Why? Because I am a high school French teacher. That’s why! Around the same time my son’s educational challenges became manageable, I was given the lower levels of French to teach. These lower level textbooks have instructions in English, and I often ask students to read these instructions out loud. Often, I am aghast to hear them mispronounce easy words, skip lines, and read without any sense of prosody — all hallmarks of serious reading issues which remind me of my son. As I began to research these issues, I got seriously hooked on the science of reading – particularly phonics, direct instruction and of course precision teaching. I had never forgotten how precision teaching turned my son around, and I really wanted to see it in a more structured environment. Since Morningside was in Seattle, I set my sights closer to home and planned on making a field trip to the Fluency Factory in Massachusetts.
Then the pandemic hit. I knew lots of young children were going to suffer serious deficits. In fact, reading scores were already falling. The 2019 NAEP study had lower reading scores for 4th graders compared to 2017 with only 35% of students reading proficiently. Let that sink in for a second. That means MORE than half of 4th graders are not reading proficiently, and if you think the measures get better with 8th graders – think again. As a once failing reader myself, those statistics shook me to my core. Then it hit me! Here was a project that could get me through a tedious pandemic summer i.e. tutoring a child using precision teaching. I spoke with Richard McManus from the Fluency Factory, and he generously agreed to train me in this style of teaching. This was my way of paying it back to the precision teacher who helped my son years ago.
After some intense study over zoom and hours of practicing phonemes on my own, McManus gave me the go-ahead to find a guinea pig and start tutoring. If the NAEP study was correct, at least 1 out of 2 children on my block were not reading proficiently, and I was going to find one. Lo and behold the first family I spoke to had a child entering 6th grade in the fall who was reading at a 4th grade level. Her mother is a nurse who works the night shift at a local hospital. She gladly accepted my offer for free tutoring as long as we worked outside on the stoop due to Covid precautions. Let’s call the child Carla for privacy purposes.
During the initial assessment it was apparent that Carla was bright, hard-working and in my humble opinion had no learning disabilities. Here are my observations from that first day:
- She was never taught to properly grip a pen causing her handwriting speeds to be at a slow 90 wpm. She also never learned cursive. This can impede students later when writing in-class essays and taking notes, as they will lack the necessary speed to keep up with their thoughts.
- During read-alouds she read mechanically and stumbled frequently. She read at 110 wpm – ideally reading should be at the same speed as ordinary conversation which clocks in at 200 wpm. If reading is too slow, it impedes comprehension and students lose the thread of the narrative making comprehension difficult.
- When shown phonics sheets she had no idea what they were or how to pronounce the sounds. It was clear she was taught whole language. Students such as Carla who have not had adequate exposure to systematic phonics do not develop the orthographic mapping necessary to read fluently.
Clearly, she was suffering from what I call dysteachia and would not be too much of a challenge for a newbie.
The precision teaching folks are convinced that every child can learn if lessons are tailored to them and they receive enough practice to gain mastery. In fact, they take on all kinds of challenges: dyslexia, autism, English Language Learners, ADD, processing problems etc. with an admirable doggedness. This is a pragmatic educational realm where problems are remediated, not accommodated. The linchpin in this method is consistent data keeping. Each skill is practiced then timed for fluency, and students do not move on until the skill is mastered. I learned to use the Standard Celeration Chart and marveled at the purity of this kind of data driven teaching. Finally, I understood what meaningful data is, especially after years of seeing grade inflation at my own school due to measures such as “class participation”, “group work” or “project-based learning”. Here there are no points for good behavior, no homework to be copied and pasted from Google, or groupmates to exploit. It is just me, the student, the skill that must be mastered and my timer. I know it sounds clinical when compared to a blissful six-year-old singing Blowing in the Wind; but it gets extraordinary results.
These results are not lost on Carla who arrives for every session with great enthusiasm. So far, we have done 10 sessions, and I am astonished at her progress. Here are the four skills we have been practicing together:
- Say & Spell: These are high frequency words that must be read then spelled with a goal of 200-250 words per minute. On her first session she did 102 wpm. On the tenth she did 187. The first day I was surprised at how clumsy she was at rapidly identifying letters; however, by the tenth session she was attacking these same letters with gusto.
- Sound Fluency: These are phonics drills. We review a series of sounds until she is confident then we complete timings. Day #1 Carla read sounds at 48 wpm. Day #2 she clocked in at 66 wpm. For the moment, this is her usual pattern. It takes two days for her to master each new series of sounds. Carla’s accuracy during these drills with unfamiliar phonemes is remarkable. She memorizes easily and is sharp as a tack.
- Word Fluency: These work on the same phonemes from the previous drill; however, now they appear in a series of words read in isolation. On Day #1 she did 60 wpm. On Day #10 with far more complex words she clocked in at 94 wpm
- Story Passages: These passages are from a decodable reader. They allow students to practice sounds they have already mastered in narrative form. Our practice sessions involve getting her to model my prosody before timings, as well as reviewing sounds and vocabulary from the story. Day #1’s reading was at a 110 wpm, and it was quite stilted. Day #10’s reading was at 147 wpm, and the quality of the reading was astonishing. It was no longer hesitant, and she now pauses at the appropriate punctuation. The other day when asked if she thought she made progress she yelled: “Oh my God, I don’t stop at every word now!” Subsequently, these reading sessions have made me ponder the concept of fluency, as it is clearly much more than speed. In fact, as her decoding skills increase in speed, she exhibits much more enthusiasm for the stories themselves. In other words, reading is enjoyable now that the cognitive demands have become more automatic.
All in all, there is an elegance to the materials and the method. Clearly this learning style is structured and systematic, and Carla knows exactly what is expected of her. She also knows that it is attainable, and she enjoys monitoring her progress with me. Any fears I may have had about Carla’s creativity being destroyed or anxiety created by these timed tasks were washed away. By the third session, Carla began confiding in me how much she hated school because she could not read as well as the other students, and it was like a weight had been taken off her. A few days ago, her mother texted to thank me, as she noticed a happier, more confident child.
Although I do not have a sourdough bread for my Facebook feed, I have accomplished a few things: an hour’s respite to a frontline worker, a gift of literacy to a child who did not have the words to explain how her school was failing her, and a fascinating educational experiment that I am only just beginning to understand.