Finding Common Ground. Time to End the Great Reading Debate!

Mrs. Rita M. Wirtz, MA

There's so much going on right now in the world, in particular, I'm extremely concerned about the resurfacing of the "reading wars." I have no control and can't fix much, but I can help with re-conceptualizing why educators are so quick to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." To tell you my truth, I think it's ridiculous, so I'm taking a deep dive into why this is happening as well as offering some suggestions.

I've taught reading for over fifty years, incredible to say that. Besides Pre-k to sixth grade School Principal, Curriculum Consultant for Sacramento County Office of Education, Keynote Speaker, Seminar Leader, etc, I had an interesting experience for many years that grew out of my masters' thesis about delinquency and poor reading connection. At that time I was a Title 1 Program Evaluator for correctional education programs, first in Arizona, then California. 

I ‘walked the line' at DVI (Duel Vocational Institution), helped teachers working with inmates in prison classrooms, even in cell study at San Quentin, where basically our teachers slid packets under doors and taught through those doors. In fact, I visited all the prisons except for Folsom which didn't have under twenty-one-year-old inmates and therefore, no ESEA program. When President Johnson initiated Great Society programs, the best of the bunch in my opinion was Title I, designed to bridge the learning and reading gap, but I doubt you knew it also included juvenile offenders, hoping to stop recidivism in its tracks.

Being unable to read well is a detriment to success or basic functioning in society. We all agree to that, but how to get there has been a great, big, continual mess. I say that because I've never used any program (scripted) that I thought was perfect in itself to teach reading. In my opinion, it remains up to teachers to know how to teach the requisite skills. Programs come and go; the skills remain the same. Yet, I doubt many or most teachers, Pre-k to grade 12 have had much in the way of reading instruction courses during their Credentialing program.

I was fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Jeanette Veatch at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, and I interned at their Reading Clinic. Veatch was indeed a whole language and language experience guru. And "yes," I was and still am a believer in Balanced Literacy as well as Reading Recovery and the work of Marie Clay. I also taught with Words in Color, ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet), Sir James Pitman, England, (1960s); Laubach Literacy, Distar, and Reading Mastery, so I know the differences between following a program with fidelity and developing a curriculum that responds to and meets all children's needs.

Know Your Students' Reading Levels

Independent Reading Level: This is the highest level that students read fluently, without help, and have recall and comprehension. Ensure that word recognition errors (miscues) don't exceed more than one per hundred words of running text so that comprehension is 90% or better.

Instructional Reading Level: With assistance, students can read at their instructional level with errors not exceeding more than five per one hundred words of text and comprehension of 75% or above.

Frustration Reading Level: This is thought to be less than seventy percent comprehension, but it's more obvious than that. You just know when the student feels frustrated.

Select readable books–easy selections for beginning and striving readers, including picture books that feature short sentences and simple words. Obviously, more challenging selections have longer and more abstract words. Type size counts; smaller type is harder to read.

Easy Hack: Quickly Find Books at Students' Reading Levels

My favorite way to see whether a book is at your student's independent or instructional level is to do the "five finger technique." Select a book page with at least one hundred words, ask your student to put down a finger each time there is an unknown word. If there are more than five fingers per page, the book is probably too hard. If the child wants to read it anyway, think Dewey and the importance of interests. Let the child read the book, just provide backup assistance and scaffolding so they experience success.

Cueing: This Is What It Means. 

I have taught these strategies and still do, on occasion. It helps some children. I caution, what if the student doesn't know how it's supposed to look? Or sound like? So I agree cueing isn't the best way to teach children new words. But completely throw it out? Again, no way.

Graphophonic: "Does it look right?" What letter or sound does it begin with? Point to the letter or word. Ask: does this look familiar? Take another look at this. What does this letter (or word) look like? Look for a smaller word inside the word. Check this with a word you already know."

Syntactic: "Does it sound right? Can you say it another way? What other word or phrase might fit here?

Semantic: "Does it make sense? Look at the picture again. Reread the sentence."

Say: Does it look right to you? What sound or letter does it begin with? Point to the letter (words). What other sound might fit here? Does this make sense? etc."

Context Clues: Know and Do or Don't

Yes, I still teach context cues or clues, as I said earlier, but not as a primary strategy.

Practice looking at words surrounding new words, to gain meaning. Often by simply looking at initial consonants and other sentence parts, the child infers the unknown word.

1. Read aloud a sentence in which an unknown word is omitted. Ask what a possible word might be.

2. Provide sample sentences that show that context clues may come before or after a word.

3. Provide sample sentences with contextual clues in form of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

Recognizing Sight Words. Start with Real Words, Concrete Objects:

I don't recommend teaching sight words as the primary focus. But yes, I teach sight words. Use experience, environmental print, and sometimes word lists to practice sight words. Start with the easiest words first, especially those things concrete and real, such as objects around the house or in the natural environment.

The problem with graded sight word lists is they include such abstract words. For example, what is a "the?" It's always better to start with real things, concrete objects, called "actuals" or "realia". Word walls are way better than data walls.

Structural Analysis Helps Students Figure Out Unknown words:

Besides sounding out words, another way to decode or recognize new words is by taking them apart. This process is called structural analysis.

Teach word parts, including roots, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, syllables, word families and contractions.

About Phonics, the Alphabetic Code Approach. Common Ground.

While there are certainly inconsistencies in our language, phonics works about 80-85% of the time, so I think it's a really useful tool to teach kids, at all levels. Beginning Reading Champions are word detectives learning letters and combinations of letters. But all students encounter unknown words and it's okay to review basic decoding strategies. It's not baby; it's smart. Teach consistencies of our language.

Finding Common Ground Right Now

We are all reading teachers, schoolhouse, and home. It's important we have some idea of the reading process, and how to teach skills not just programs, to best meet kids' needs. I hope this helps you, by validating what you know and maybe an idea or two to explore.

The big news right now is a shift in the meaning of Balanced Literacy, or as Calkins says a "re-balancing". I am intentionally not discussing fluency here and comprehension building, which of course are super important, but another day.

I have many articles already written in my blogs about how to build fluency and comprehension. By the way, I'm not a fan of the fluency testing that equates reading speed or rate with fluency.

Grouping and regrouping should be continual, based on skills known and unknown. So that's it for now, I hope I have offered validation for your belief in self-selection of books, teacher read-aloud, and helping children find joy in reading all kinds of books– whether for pleasure reading or info-text, or books online.

Hearts filled with hope and love . never give up, never. We stand strong, together. Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

I'd love to hear from you! Contact me:

Twitter: @RitaWirtz

FB: Rita's Facebook


Instagram: @ritamwirtz

Books: Reading Champions! Teaching Reading Made EasyStories From a Teacher's

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