Everyone Learns to Read from Direct Instruction

Once Diane Ravitch posted my blog about the harm third-grade retention based on high-stakes tests of reading and reading levels do to literacy, I received some of the typical feedback I expect about reading instruction from those mired in the cult of phonics and a misguided obsession with direct instruction.

First, online and social media comments are often problematic because some (maybe many) people are simply seeking an opportunity to say what they want regardless of what is being addressed in the original blog post or Tweet. Setting up a straw man to hold forth on a pet peeve wasn’t created by social media, but it sure is fertile ground for that approach.

Next, let me be clear that when I shared my opening personal narrative of how I was raised in a supportive home that taught me my literacy skills I was in no way endorsing or suggesting that I am the beneficiary of a naturalistic approach to learning reading.

And let me go further: Speaking and listening are natural human behaviors, unless there are biological or other traumas or barriers; however, reading and writing are artificial, human created. And thus, everyone learns to read from direct instruction.

Just for effect, let’s do that again: everyone learns to read from direct instruction.

My mother did read alouds, sight words, and guided reading—just to name some strategies—and, yes, she was teaching me directly reading, even though she was a layperson.

For those of us raised in privilege, direct instruction can often appear to be naturalistic, and acquiring the most essential aspects of learning to read can also appear to be spontaneous. But none of that is true, and we all require direct instruction of reading (and writing) for many years of our lives as both literacy skills can never be finished.

The debate is not about if we offer all children direct instruction in reading, then, but how and why.

Isolated, intensive phonics direct instruction, we know, can be detrimental to reading growth for many children, yet some children find it very helpful.

The same can be said of isolated, intensive grammar direct instruction.

That is the beauty and calling of whole language—not to banish or idealize any approaches to literacy direct instruction, but to honor literacy acquisition over any set approach or program.

In other words, we must seek for each student the array of direct instruction in reading that best suits her/his needs and insure that she/he develops into not only a proficient reader, but an eager reader.

When direct instruction of reading is drudgery (such as completing a program or worksheet), as I and others have noted, it does far more harm than good.

Certainly, children coming from poverty, children living in homes with primary languages other than English, special needs students—these are populations that will challenge teachers more than children living in privilege. But not because some children (read “privileged”) acquire reading naturally and “other people’s children” need reading programs and isolated intensive direct instruction.

The human capacity for language is amazing, but it is not shielded from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The scarcity in the lives of many children inhibits the luxury of learning to read and write in homes that have survival needs or disturbances that genuinely trump their ability to gain formal language skills.

We must stop mistaking the advantages of privilege for “smart” and for “natural acquisition of language skills.” And we must stop predicting that all vulnerable populations of students need the very worst types of inauthentic direct instruction in the name of basic skills.

To be honest, there are no basic or foundational skills in whole performances such as reading and writing—although reducing reading and writing to technocratic parts facilitates efficient but often counter-effective instruction.

The reading wars are trivialized by creating the straw man argument that some of us are against direct instruction while others are for it—especially when the nasty implication that some are against direct instruction are doing so knowingly cheating some students of needed reading instruction.

I am for direct instruction of reading because there is no other option for teaching reading. However, I am fully committed to direct instruction only in the service of student needs and honoring the sanctity of reading as a full and wonderful human behavior.

I don’t teach reading programs. I don’t teach phonics.

I do teach students to read, and to love that reading in the service of their own lives and not to excel on a test.

NOTE: Since this post has spurred even more comments, many about “my child learned to read without direct instruction,” I must add that reading is not merely decoding. Yes, some children quite easily seem to be able to read aloud, and I suspect many parents believe they just learned it on their own. But simple decoding is not reading, and as I note above, reading is a complex process that we continue to learn and develop for years of formal schooling. The path to critical literacy is shaped by a wide range of strategies and we all receive direct instruction on that journey.

13 comments

  1. suecowley

    I often wonder about the 2% of children who learn to read before starting school, though. People talk about ‘picking up’ reading when they were tiny by spotting patterns of language themselves. It’s an interesting question as to how far we can do this simply through the experience of being read to.

  2. Joe Dillon

    I think this is lacking a working definition of direct instruction. The one you’ve implied seems a very slippery definition of direct instruction that incorporates responsive modeling and just-in-time explanation. Most basic definitions would include lecture, a de-emphasis on authentic practice, and rigid sequencing of content.

    Here’s a fairly common working definition:
    “In general usage, the term direct instruction refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process or instruction is being “directed” at students.”

    Have you got a definition that would make it more clear how everyone learns to read through direct instruction?

  3. Wendy Weir

    I so appreciated your attention to language development here. I am a speech-language pathologist , and I understand that a solid foundation of language experience and competency underpins literacy. You can’t ignore the significance of Maslow in that equation, as you so eloquently wrote. The base of the pyramid has to be solid in order for what comes next to grow upon it. Thank you for another insightful, thoughtful post.

  4. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Here’s something from the Math Wars (Canadian Division) that shows how little progress has been made after a quarter century or so of debating direct instruction/back-to-basics bilge vs. pretty much anything else. It’s just like the Literacy Wars, with the Fonix Fanatix refusing to allow for anything that isn’t their chosen religion (and if you’ve got that, you’ll always have people addicted to direct instruction (or worse Direct Instruction, a la University of Oregon’s lovely little DI cabal) and opposed to any approach that respects students and takes them into account other than as conduits for performing on standardized tests). http://bit.ly/1WXZYVp

    It’s all very hurl-worthy.

  5. peachymeyer

    My first real job was as a developer of Spanish acquisition classes in a traditional elementary school in Florida in the early1960’s. My principal was and remains the most knowledgeable administrator that I ever worked with. When I asked her why she thought I was such a slow reader while all my siblings were so speedy, she asked if I had gone to Catholic school in first grade. Surprised that she should know this, I told her that yes, I had. How did she know? Well, she said, Catholic schools, at least during the period in question, taught reading through phonics, whereas the public schools, where the rest of my family had attended, were more whole-language oriented. Even though I already knew how to read from the age of four at the latest, the phonics workbooks took their toll on my reading efficiency. I loved those workbooks; they appealed to my analytical nature and desire to sit and ponder why things worked as they did and to figure out puzzles. So, as I was encouraged to, I transferred these processes over to my reading, and I have never been able to totally get rid of the resultant slow reading. It has interfered with both my academic and my pleasure reading all my life.

  6. Everyday Voices

    This is interesting because as a kid, I don’t remember ‘actively’ learning to read, it felt completely natural, reading came after learning to speak, and writing came after learning to read at a sufficient level. I went to school, I was taught reading according to my grade level and I didn’t remember it being a chore or that I was ever behind my grade in my reading and writing (I attended public school, not a fancy private school). By the time I was in 6th grade, I was reading books, magazines and essays which far surpass my grade level. I am not extraordinarily gifted but above average academically I would say. After reading this piece, it becomes clear that the things that allowed me to succeed far passed my grade level was the nurturing environment at home, not just what was taught to me at school. I was encouraged to (or it was demanded of me more like it) read, write and get good grades and my mother, though divorced, took care to provide a nurturing environment for me at home for learning. Therefore, it seemed like second nature to me. Also, before I attended school, I was exposed to a lot of books, poetry recitation and nursery rhyme recitation from memory etc. And this is the ‘privilege’. Children from middle class families have the luxury of family stability, there aren’t fallouts which are related to poverty (electricity being cut off, and other financial worries which filter down to children etc.) which would hinder learning and studying, all of which the kid can’t control.

  7. John Mallory

    Thanks for this post, I recently got my Master’s in Literacy and while I teach high school I like to keep abreast of what is happening in early childhood education. My understanding of the current literature is that instead of using a one-size-fits-all method, that teachers take an all-of-the-above strategy based upon where students are at and their needs. For example, instead of relying on pure phonics, teach students to recognize sight vocabulary, phonemes (common letter combinations), as well as use context and grammar clues to recognize words. Even though I don’t teach early elementary, I really liked a book called “Reading Essentials” by Routman.

  8. Martha T

    It almost seems beside the point of your post, but as Sue noted above, not EVERYone needs direct instruction. My older child taught herself to read before kindergarten, and I did zero instruction — beyond reading to her every day. Did the same for the second child, who did not learn to read on her own before school.

    • plthomasedd

      I think you are speaking about acquiring simple decoding, which is part of reading but not reading in full. My point is that we continue to learn to read for many years and that process is shaped necessarily by all sorts of direct instruction beyond decoding.

  9. Norah

    Great article to follow-up your previous one. I enjoyed the discussion also, and agree with Joe Dillon regarding the mixed messages about direct instruction. Both my children learned to read before they started school (both at age 3). They were immersed in a rich literate environment with stories read and written every day, and a parent who encourage them to observe and take an interest in print. They loved being able to read for themselves, but we didn’t stop reading together until they were teenagers. It was such a pleasurable activity to do together. They did receive “direct instruction” as you describe it, but not in the way that direct instruction often implies. There was no forced structure, workbooks or timetables. There was shared enjoyment and encouragement, an expectation that they would learn (in their own time) and an interest shared as any other interest would be. When my son was three years old he used to wake me in the morning and pries my eyes open so that he could read to me. I seem to recall that “Go Dog Go” was one of the first he could read at this time.
    I applaud your final two statements: I don’t teach reading programs. I don’t teach phonics.
    I do teach students to read, and to love that reading in the service of their own lives and not to excel on a test.
    I have no idea why we should still be having these discussions about reading instruction. We should be developing readers, not teaching reading.🙂

  10. Pingback: Formal Schooling and the Death of Literacy | Norah Colvin

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