The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 2 - Page 22

Special Selection



Teaching New Dogs Old Tricks


Ann Powell-Brown

Ann Powell-Brown



I am an “old dog,” and proud of it. In my long professional journey as an educator, I taught in public schools for thirty years. I have been a literacy professor at a state university for another nineteen years. Put that together, and the candles on my birthday cake could start a firestorm. I tell you this, dear reader, because I want you to know that this reading teacher has been around long enough to see a multitude of fads, techniques, instructional methods, “boxed curriculum,” and sometimes materials which claim to be “research based,” but seem vague relative to sharing the research design or reveal that the company had conducted its own research

Many highly touted methods and materials fell out of favor a long time ago, but a number of them are back as reruns. Some of them were good, but a few of them keep returning like the mummy in a bad horror movie. When they return, they have a new name and some new tweaks. No matter how good we teachers are, as professionals we are all so desperate to help children learn to read well that we grasp at the next boxed “miracle”. Younger teachers cannot be expected to recognize that many of these miracles have been here before, and have bitten the dust for one reason or another. We teachers just keep hoping that the same materials or methods will work for every child in our classroom. In our hearts, we know they will not..

Today’s teachers also should be aware that the newer diagnoses for dyslexia, dysgraphia and other learning problems that affect literacy often use the old but valuable framework of language based learning disabilities, a term recognized in 1963, when Dr. Sam Kirk coined the phrase, “learning disability.” ((Thomas, 1996). It is important to realize that there is no one technique or method that “cures” these literacy difficulties for everyone, although sometimes only one or two methods or packaged materials are chosen by a school district as the “cure all.” Specific materials,

methods, and strategies work for some children and not others. It is imperative that teachers figure out exactly what is keeping a struggling reader from reaching their potential. For example, when you receive a report that a child might have some of the characteristics seen in children who are dyslexic, put on your “teacher observational/thinking cap.” Do not accept the idea that the child may be dyslexic because he doesn’t associate sounds with letters. Watch him. Can he identify letters by name? If not, why would you think he does not recognize the sounds that correlate with letters he doesn’t know? Does he have an undetected hearing problem? Is he missing school so much that he isn’t learning consistently? Did he begin school as a language delayed child who is a native English speaker, or as an ELL child who is not? If so, those issues, and others that may stand in his way will undoubtedly mean that it will take extra time him to catch up with his peers, and the problem may not be what was first though it to be. Let’s not label him unless that label will truly help him make progress, and let’s see what we teachers can do first, before we refer him for more testing, and affix a label to him..

Learning From Our Past

I jokingly said to a colleague one day, “How on earth did we learn to read without SLO’s (Student Learning Outcomes)? “ Don’t get me wrong; we need standards. They are what keep us on the same page. However, I personally believe we have gotten carried away in this country. We no longer have time to do motivating, creative activities with children. We don’t allow them to read for the sheer joy of it. One of my graduate students recently told me that she was in a professional development meeting where the well-known presenter told the teachers that they should just let the children spend part of the day reading what they wanted to read. My student said it was if a bomb had gone off in the room, and a number