Thursday, May 3, 2012

Don Peek: Reading - The Most Important Skill

This post is authored by Don Peek, a former educator and past president of the training division of Renaissance Learning. He now runs The School Funding Center, a company that provides grant information and grant-writing services to schools. To learn more, or to subscribe to the School Funding Center Grant Database, go to schoolfundingcenter.

Reading – The Most Important Skill

In my last post I discussed the merits of a skills-based curriculum.  I firmly believe in that concept, especially for students with disabilities.  Out of the many possible skills that we teach children in school, I don’t believe any is as important as reading.  When children master the skill of reading, the world truly opens up for them.

That is especially true today with high-speed Internet available to almost everyone.  Once a person learns to read and comprehend what he/she reads, all of that information in books and on the Internet, every idea or concept ever imagined becomes accessible.  That wasn’t true just 25 years ago.  Our world has truly changed.

Only a very small percentage of our students lack the mental capacity to learn to read well.  Other students may struggle, battle with dyslexia, or have other difficulties, but in the end, if we concentrate on teaching them this one very important skill, they can master reading and change their lives forever.

I taught remedial reading myself at the middle school level, and my wife taught 1st graders to read for 34 years before she retired.  I can’t say it’s an easy task, but it is worth every bit of the time and effort you put into it.  Some students can’t hear the vowel sounds properly.  Some students aren’t seeing the same symbols on the page that you see.  But the key to reading well that so many educators ignore is that once students have obtained even the most basic reading skills, the way for them to improve is by practicing their reading. 

Worksheets may be helpful for students struggling with blends, vowel sounds, prefixes, suffixes, or compound words, but in the end, if a child doesn’t practice reading in a real book written by a real author, those minor skills they pick up on worksheets are not going to stick.

When I was a principal in Northeast Texas, we moved our reading scores from less than 50% passing the state reading test to more than 90% passing the state reading test in two years.  Every teacher in that middle school became a reading teacher.  Students practiced independent reading an hour each day (broken down into two 30-minutes segments) in library books appropriate to their own individual reading levels.

Yes, we used Accelerated Reader (a commercial product from Renaissance Learning that helps educators monitor independent reading) to help monitor and motivate our students.  I won’t apologize for that for one main reason.  It worked.  It worked for us, and it worked for our students.  When we first started our program, our students were reading an average of two grade levels below the national norm.  After two years, they were reading on grade level.

Their grades went up in all subjects.  Why not?  They could now read and understand their textbooks in science and social studies.  Many of our learning disabled students were dismissed from our special education program.  Even if they had really had a legitimate reading disability when they started our program (such as dyslexia), they were able to overcome it by learning to recognize the reading symbols they were seeing and practicing their reading an hour each day at the appropriate level for them.

Next time I will discuss our balance of reading to students, reading with them, and having them read independently.

 In this blog, I just want you to know that if you were forced to teach only one skill to your students, disabled or not, that skill should be reading.  No other single skill can have the impact on their lives that reading does.  Make sure your students can read at the highest possible level, and you can change their lives forever.
Grant Info:

Grant Name:  Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring

Funded by:  National Science Foundation

Description:  The PAESMEM Program seeks to identify outstanding mentoring efforts that enhance the participation of groups (i.e., women, minorities, and persons with disabilities) that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The awardees serve as leaders in the national effort to develop fully the Nation's human resources in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This program provides educational opportunities for undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, k-12 educators.

Program Areas:  Math, Science/Environmental, Technology, Disabilities

Recipients:  Public School, Privates School, Higher Education

Proposal Deadline:  6/6/2012

Average Amount:  $10,000.00 - $100,000.00

Contact Person:  Richard A. Alo

Telephone:  (703) 292-4634

Availability:  All States

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