There has been a lot of discussion recently about the science of reading and what that means for instruction and materials. Seven research experts recently reviewed the program, Teachers College Units of Study, comparing it to existing research. I wanted to share a teacher’s perspective. I have taught for 26 years in a balanced literacy district, as a kindergarten teacher, literacy coach, and first grade teacher. I taught using the Units of Study for four years. In this blog post, I’ll share some of the strengths and weaknesses I’ve found in the program and some changes I made as a result of learning about the science of reading.
When using the Teachers College Units of Study for Teaching Reading, I felt empowered as an educator. The format of each lesson is narrative and felt more like an example from a classroom than a script. This felt comfortable and inviting. I was able to choose books other than the ones listed in the lesson, and there were parts of the lessons I could choose to do or not, depending on my students’ needs and my preferences. For example, I switched an anchor text on monkeys for a text on spiders because it matched my science focus; some days I left out the mid-workshop teaching to focus more on conferring, and I chose classroom favorites for shared reading rather than the Unit books. But this had drawbacks as well. The narrative did not always sound like me or my classroom. I wondered if the book I was choosing really was the best option. I was filled with questions. Did I know what parts to leave out or change in the lessons? Was I really choosing what was best for my students? Did it matter that other teachers were choosing different books and parts of the lesson to focus on?
The Units of Study for Teaching Reading offer routines that helped organize my literacy block. Students learned the routines of the mini lesson, then engaged in independent reading of their “just right books” and partner reading. The routines are explained, and examples are given in the Units. The workshop flowed and students were interacting with books. However, I often wondered how my students would move from one level to the next and how students that had “just right levels” below grade level would ever catch up. Some lessons include letter/sound relationships and sight word instruction but there is not a sequence or system of instruction to move students forward in their ability to decode.
The Units assume that each teacher has a classroom library filled with fiction and non-fiction of varying levels. Students need many books at their level, and I worried that I wouldn’t have enough of a certain level, especially if many children needed books of the same level. The lessons include sticky notes with the strategies that are taught during the mini lesson for students to reference. Since students are responsible for using the strategies during independent reading, it was difficult to know if they were using the strategies except when I was checking on students individually. “Conferring” is a routine in the Units. From the lessons, it seemed that it would be easy to cozy up with a child and check on their progress but the management is tricky and I often felt like I was racing around the classroom without giving students the individual attention they needed
The Units include one read-aloud lesson and one shared reading lesson. The routine of the read aloud and shared reading is an expectation in the Units; however, after I taught the lessons that are included, I needed to plan for, find books, and prep those lessons beyond the ones in the Unit. There are sticky notes included that I could model my own lessons after, but it was time consuming to create these lessons myself and I often wondered if I was asking good questions. The books are beautiful and include some non-fiction, but the lessons do not include multiple texts on the same topic or intentionally focus on growing vocabulary. I found that the choral reading opportunities helped create a culture of reading together and offered students an opportunity to hear and practice fluent reading. This was not enough for my students to become independently fluent with grade-level text, however.
Supporting all Students
The Units of Study for Teaching Reading aim to foster a love of reading for students. Teachers share books they love, and students are surrounded by books and have a choice in what they read. The inviting, cozy nature of the narrative lessons invites all students to love books. While students are independently reading, teachers can pull small groups, but teacher-directed intervention lessons are not part of the Units. Teachers must rely on their own knowledge–or seek out their own information independently–for how to intervene to offer practice opportunities for students that need more instruction/practice. When I pulled small groups during the Workshop, I felt like I needed to be teaching each child individually. I often taught the book rather than the student because there was not a guide to what exactly would move my students forward in their ability. I spent hours learning what skills students needed in each level to be able to move on to the next level of books. This was not a good use of teacher time, and my small groups felt frantic.
Then and Now
I taught in a workshop structure for many years. I credit my enthusiasm for cultivating a love of reading to the Units of Study for Teaching Reading. I still follow the routines for independent reading and partner reading in my class today (with a few tweaks). For example, students have book boxes with books they have chosen to work on based on interest not level and decodable texts to practice current and previous spelling patterns. Partners sit “elbow to elbow” with a text between them; partners can help each other but the focus is on decoding, not the pictures. The science of reading and evidence-based instruction have brought other changes to my classroom as well. The changes I have made benefit all students. Instead of a mini lesson, I teach a direct instruction phonics lesson that follows a scope and sequence. Students read decodable texts that include current and previously taught skills as well as books of their choice.There is no guessing or relying on the pictures to figure out words. My classroom library is now organized by topic. All students have access to grade-level text and beyond. Students are engaged in thinking, listening, and writing about complex text through read alouds. There are opportunities for knowledge building and vocabulary instruction. Small group time provides instruction and practice on current and previous phonics spelling patterns, high-frequency words, and fluency. I know my students better as readers because of the scope and sequence and I can easily tell who needs extra support. I feel more streamlined and efficient in meeting all of my students’ needs.
I still call my literacy block reading workshop and my students love books, but with the tweaks and changes I have made, I am confident my students are getting what they need. None of my students are getting left behind because of lack of practice opportunities or insufficient time on direct phonics instruction. After many years of searching for what I needed to do to meet the needs of all of my students, I am filled with joy and a newfound peace. Having all of my students learn to read is a wonderful thing.