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Trust Your First-Grade Teacher

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If we really are determined to make sure that the 95 percent of children who can learn to read do learn to read, we need to look beyond the programs and rethink our administrative policies.

My name is Linda and I'm a (former) first-grade teacher. Before you judge me, however; before you accuse me of contributing to the illiteracy of minors; you should know that, in all my years of teaching, no child left my first-grade classroom unable to read.

How did it happen?

It started in a small town, at a small college with an extremely strong education department. That's where I learned to be a teacher. I wanted, however, to be a first-grade teacher; more specifically, I wanted to teach children to read. That took a little more effort -- extra time in the college's lab school, extra courses in reading instruction and children's literature, extra emphasis on teaching in the primary grades. Teaching reading is a specialty requiring specialized knowledge.

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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Of course, after graduation, things didn't go quite the way I had anticipated. My first year teaching, my principal refused to assign me to a first grade. He never assigned first-year teachers to teach first grade, he said. I was crushed. I was incensed. I was insulted. What was he thinking? He was thinking, I'm sure, that until a principal is absolutely confident of a teacher's ability, that teacher should not be placed in a first-grade classroom. He was right.

Having served my probation, I was assigned to teach first grade the following year. (This is where luck enters the picture.) The official reading program for the school system I worked in was based on the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA), a system in which each sound -- as opposed to each letter -- has a different written symbol.

The phonetically-based program worked well for many students. It was widely acknowledged within the district, however, that the program was not appropriate for all students. It was not appropriate for teaching students with learning disabilities or students of low ability; it was believed they would not easily make the transition from the ITA system to the standard alphabet. It was not appropriate for teaching students who entered first grade reading, however minimally, because they would have to learn the new alphabet, then transition back to the standard alphabet. It was not appropriate for students whose parents objected to the ITA method. No single reading program or instructional method can address every child's needs.

Consequently, I found myself teaching reading in what was, by necessity, a multi-program first grade. Why was that lucky? For the simple reason that flexibility was built into the system. Teachers were expected to use ITA for most of their students and whatever additional programs worked best for their other students. Teachers were free, moreover, to choose those additional programs themselves. Sound risky? It shouldn't. If a teacher cannot be trusted to know and to utilize the best instructional programs and strategies for teaching each child to read, that teacher does not belong in a first-grade classroom.

That year and every year thereafter, I taught reading using a wide variety of instructional strategies, including ITA, phonics, basal readers, programmed readers, and whole language. I taught children with learning disabilities, children with low ability, and children with exceptional ability. I taught children who were reading independently and children who didn't know the letters of the alphabet. I quickly discovered that the child least likely to learn to read was the child who didn't believe he or she could learn to read. Teachers need the freedom to utilize programs and materials that will allow every child early reading success.

In all my years of teaching, no child left my first-grade classroom unable to read. Why? Not because I was cosmically destined to be a successful first-grade teacher; not because I carry a recessive "successful reading teacher" gene. Successful reading teachers are not born; they are well taught, well prepared, confident in their ability to teach every child to read, and trusted to do so. Children learn to read when their teachers know what to do and are given the freedom to do what they know.

So, why am I telling you all this? We have to stop debating reading programs. The real secret to producing successful readers does not lie in a single reading program or method, but in the judgment and skills of the teacher and in the teacher's ability to use that judgment and those skills as he or she sees fit.

If we really are determined to make sure that the 95 percent of children who can learn to read do learn to read, we need to look beyond the program and rethink our administrative policies. Administrators must

  • insist that primary-grade teachers have specialized training in teaching reading,
  • place only teachers with proven track records in the primary grades,
  • allow primary-grade teachers to select and use a variety of reading programs, in addition to the one mandated by the school district,
  • provide first-grade teachers with a budget for purchasing additional instructional programs and materials.

Above all, we need to recognize that reading programs don't teach reading; teachers teach reading. Train them and trust them, and they will.