** Teaching poor children to learn to read in Cambridge

I’ve started to think very differently about poor children and the learning environments we provide for them, here in Cambridge and in most U.S. public schools.  I’m starting to finally see how the learning environments we provide our elementary school students — these suburban-style classrooms of 20-25 children with one trained teacher, along with the language we use — “intervention” versus “instruction”– combine to marginalize poor children and essentially blame them (or their parents or teachers) if their reading development doesn’t follow middle class patterns.  They are aberrant, off track, “behind.”  And so we do something to them rather than re-designing the learning environment and increasing learning resources to meet everyone’s needs.  We have this concept of “universal design for learning,” but the term is neutral and depoliticized.  We say, “designed to meet students with different learning styles, different rates of learning, different strengths.”  We rarely say:  “We need learning environments that we’ve designed specifically to meet the many complex needs of children living in poverty.”  Or we break poverty up into subcategories — children who have experienced trauma, children whose parents don’t speak English, children with interrupted schooling.  That’s how we make poverty invisible in U.S. education.

I used to think: Okay, all kids, rich or poor, need to become fluent readers by roughly fourth grade.  That’s when they need to start acquiring information from books, not only from direct experience.  The also need to like reading and feel successful at it because the voluntary reading that kids do outside of school has a huge impact on their reading development.  Teachers don’t actually teach kids to read, they help kids teach themselves to read.  This is true of all learning really, because there is no learning without agency.  But kids who don’t get enough help or the appropriate type of help don’t become strong readers.

It’s not only about acquiring information or getting pleasure out of reading as some kind of discrete adjunct experience, or about acquiring a skill that can be measured. Reading is about living partly in textual worlds.  Pick up a newspaper, we’re instantly transported to a textual version of Afghanistan.  Pick up a historical novel and we’re off to someone’s version of the 18th century.  Reading is a transportive experience that alters brain development.  Something to take very seriously.

In reading research, there is a term, the “Matthew Effect.” It comes from the New Testament when Matthew describes how “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”  In the case of reading, “the rich” are the children who learn to read quickly and easily and can therefore do a lot of independent reading, which makes them even better readers.  “The poor” are the kids who learn to read more slowly and with more difficulty, and therefore don’t engage in the independent reading that turns good readers into even better readers.  Eventually they may conclude that reading is no fun, because for them it isn’t.  They become non-readers.

One of my sisters was a non-reader, a definition she adopted early in elementary school as part of her larger identity as angry, resistant child.  She went through her entire childhood and adolescence reading almost nothing.  The only book I remember her ever mentioning was Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the teacher might have been reading that to her class.  Though our family went to the local library every couple of weeks, I don’t remember her ever coming along to get books for herself.  She had zero interest in school, graduated from high school as early as she could with the bare minimum of credits, and went right to work as a typist for an insurance company at age 17.  She was a driven, determined, and focused person, and within one year she had saved up enough money to buy herself a brand new Toyota Celica.  But she did not spend time in textual worlds. That, unfortunately, hugely limited her options.

In terms of struggling readers in our elementary schools, most of whom are economically poor, what do we provide for them?  At age six and seven they want to learn to read, but if that process doesn’t go well for them, many become non-readers by age nine or ten.  I used to think that if kids weren’t learning to read appropriately, then they needed an “intervention.”  Why do we call it an “intervention,” though, and not “instruction that is appropriate for this particular child“?  More frequent instruction, more individualized instruction, more concentrated slower instruction, more intentionally tailored and designed instruction? When we use the word intervention rather than instruction, we  imply that something is wrong with the child.  The “normal” kids get reading “instruction” that is designed to meet their learning needs, but these aberrant children need reading interventions to meet their needs. The word also implies a one-time short-term fix and something vaguely mechanical.

Our  schools, here and in most other public school districts, are not designed to provide appropriate instruction to poor students who don’t have middle class home advantages. (We might have some schools and classrooms that are better designed to do that, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.) Our 1st and 2nd grade classrooms are set up as if every kids should be able to learn to read following a middle class developmental pattern.  A classroom of 20-25 six-year-olds with one trained teacher is a learning environment that meets the needs of most middle class children who speak English at home. That’s the learning environment you would find in Lexington or Newton schools and it works pretty well for those kids because they actually learn to read primarily at home.  It is not, though, a learning environment designed to meet the needs of poor children or a very heterogeneous group of children.  Nor is it a learning environment that rich people accept for their children, so they send them to private schools where the student:teacher ratio is very low.  No one would say, “Okay, we want all these kids with very different home environments to learn how to read fluently by fourth grade, so here’s a great idea: Let’s put 20 six-year-olds in a room with one trained teacher and a couple of extra adults for most of the day, and ask the teacher to teach most of them to read.”  We wouldn’t even consider teaching piano that way, even to middle class kids.  We would put that suburban model aside and say, “Okay, given the demographics of our students and the experiences they have outside of school, how can we create elementary school learning environments in which they will all learn to read?”  What is the full range of instructional needs we need to meet in these learning environments?

Instead, though, we set up a system with the same resources as standard suburban-style classrooms, and say we will supplement those environments with a secondary “intervention system” to try to meet the needs of those who don’t match the middle class pattern of reading development.  Unfortunately, though, we don’t even have an intervention system in CPS.  What does “intervention” mean in CPS elementary schools?  No one seems to know.  It seems to mean the student will spend some undefined amount of time individually or in a “small” group with:  A reading specialist.  Or a Title 1 teacher.  Or a retired teacher hired by the hour.  Or a volunteer tutor.  Or practicing on some kind of computer program.  Or they will come to school on Saturdays.  (Reading Recovery has a defined instructional model, but we only have one Reading Recovery teacher in each school.) Our “intervention system” seems to be a patchwork, created on the fly in each school, in a few cases very well organized and intentional, in most cases not.

It’s as if we said: “We are going to provide the standard middle class learning environment in our public elementary schools, with standard middle-class learning resources (i.e. one teacher per 20 kids), and then we’ll piece together something for the poor kids for whom that is not an appropriate environment.  We’ll call that pieced together instruction “an intervention,” implying there is something wrong with the child (and/or the teacher), not with the way we think about our responsibility as a society to provide equitable opportunities for all children to learn to read.”  I.e.  the kids who fit our standard profile will get the new clothes — the trained classroom teacher, instruction that bears no stigma, and the kids who don’t fit that profile will get the fabric scraps.  Which we will assemble into a patchwork and then call it an “intervention system.”  This is not just Cambridge.  This is the way our society views poor children.  We need to fix them rather than change the conditions responsible for poverty, one of which is a nationwide public school system that is not designed to ensure their success.

I think we need to start to ask the question: If we want rich and poor children in Cambridge to be able to read fluently by the end of third grade, what kind of elementary school learning environments and staffing do we need to provide for them?  We need to be very intentional about that, and not just reflexively set up minimally-resourced suburban-style classrooms that, by their very nature, are not designed to meet the very complex needs of children living in poverty.  And those needs go beyond the “instructional,” which is another huge part of the story about our failure to face the effects of poverty on children.  We all need to think beyond our platitudes about “social justice” and start to think what that would look really look like in our public schools, and how much we are willing (or not willing) to pay for schools that are intentionally designed to provide equitable opportunities for all children to learn to read.


Emily Dexter








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