Teach the Reader, Not Just Reading

There’s yet another reading war going on.  For educators my age or older, this makes us roll our eyes, because the exact same core argument rears up nearly every decade since the 1940s.  The only difference between past decades and today’s narrative is that now, media–especially social media–fuels the fire.  This war is all about whether we should teach only reading skills, or if we should teach the reader…not just reading.  

I know where I stand.  

A Brief History

In case you aren’t sure about the debate permeating social media that has set off politicians to enact rash, expensive, and sweeping laws to mandate how teachers teach and what materials they can use, here’s a super quick summary:

Historically, reading test scores in the US have not been where we’d like them.  This doesn’t look good in comparison to the rest of the world, and it’s of course not where we want to be.  Not one, no matter what you believe about literacy instruction, wants any child to fall short of proficiency.  Of course. 

So, we look for the missing thing.  Back in the 1940’s, it was deemed that there wasn’t enough phonics instruction going on.  So it was taught heavily. Then that went too far and neglected other parts of reading instruction, so whole language was brought in.  Even though studies actually showed that kids who got heavy direct phonics instruction scored the same or lower than those that were part of whole language classrooms, whole language was deemed too far the other way.  Then the 1990s came, and the war continued to rage…and we went in a new direction…sort of.  This is when the term balanced literacy entered in, because there was recognition that both authentic, print-rich experiences in reading and writing as well as clear, systematic, phonemic awareness and phonics instruction (along with vocabulary, oral language, and background knowledge) is really what’s needed.  

Until journalist Emily Hanford stepped in, and touted the belief that phonics instruction is the only way to go.  

Over all the decades, problems associated with the studies came to light, especially the reports that came out of the 25 year-old National Reading Panel, a widely referenced report, all these years later.  These studies have all led to some misunderstanding.  In today’s media-driven world, biased and inaccurate reporting abounds, only adding fuel to the fire.  

At the heart of all of this is one important, singular finding.  It’s all about balance.  

There are in fact many parts of science that contribute to how humans learn to read.  Nell Duke,  prominent educational researcher, along with Kelly B. Cartwright,  have confirmed that other factors, such as motivation, engagement, and executive functioning also play a huge role in reading success.  Their active view of reading explains all of this well.  As teachers, we already knew this.  If kids are motivated and engaged, they will want to read…and will do more of it…and will get better at it.  Coupled with strong literacy instruction by knowledgeable teachers, there is little doubt that kids will succeed.  Even better, they develop a love for reading.  And that is the ultimate goal.  

If classroom teachers were in fact not teaching phonics, then by definition, they were not a balanced literacy teacher.  Teaching readers is complex, and very nuanced.  There are many parts of it to teach and to cultivate.  We are teaching the reader, not just reading.  There’s a huge difference.  


Matt Renwick, of Read by Example says “a teacher can be an excellent reading instructor from a technical standpoint. How they present themselves – as a teacher of readers – is a different matter.”  He goes on to say that teachers who appreciate reading–and therefore aim to teach readers, not just reading, put reading skill work into authentic reading contexts, which makes it a much richer experience.  He advocates for working to help students learn how to select books that they will enjoy and see themselves in…to help them grow into lifelong learners. 

Above all, he says, teachers who teach the reader, not just reading, “don’t put it in a box to follow like a manual. They embrace the complexity of becoming a reader and honor the different ways we grow while sustaining curricular coherence.”

If we are to teach the reader, not just reading, that means we need to learn.  A lot.  After all..

“Teachers’ knowledge and skills powerfully influence student learning.” 

Linda Darling-Hammond, Doing What Matters Most: Investing in Quality Teaching, 2001.

What we as teachers bring to our students every day is what really moves the needle.  Not one-size-fits-all scripted curriculum, not following teacher manuals to the letter.  Not relying on piecemealing outside sources like TPT, either.  

What matters most when it comes to teaching the reader, not just reading?

What matters most for student learning is that we, as a teaching community, learn and grow together.  Let’s learn the research about best practices. (The importance of phonics is very old news–let’s learn ALL the research).  It also means we don’t jump on bandwagons without developing a full understanding of its consequences.   Educational researcher John Hattie says that “expert teachers are more likely to be able to respond to the needs of any particular classroom.”  

What matters is that we know our students well, that we equip ourselves to respond to their needs, and that we have a large repertoire of teaching tools to do so.    It means a balanced approach. One that includes all the components of literacy, that employs both direct instruction and inquiry, whole and small group, reading and writing, speaking and listening.  Above all, it means we need to use an approach that honors the reader, and doesn’t focus only on one very narrow aspect of teaching reading.  

Could you use support in understanding an applying best practices in reading?  Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!  Find out more about me here.  And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts:   Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Balanced Literacy Instruction: What it Actually Means, What SOR Tells Us to Do That’s Completely Wrong, Kids are Readers, Not Letters, MSV Explained [And Why it’s So Misunderstood]

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