Spooky Shadows, Socrates, and the Science of Reading: Part One
by Amanda Morgan on October 29, 2019
It’s Halloween—time for costumes, candy, and creepy shadows that lurk around every corner of our imaginations. Today, as we all regale our students with scary stories that leave them captivated and yearning for more suspense, I, too, would like to indulge in a retelling of two spookily similar narratives. Both begin with darkness and shadows, follow a similar sequence of events, but were written thousands of years apart.
My hope is that by the end, they will illuminate the importance of adopting the science of reading.
Long ago, a group of prisoners sat chained to the back wall of a deep, dark cave. They were unable to see anything behind them and there were definitely dubious things happening. For starters, they could only see shadows produced by others who were holding up statues in front of firelight as if putting on a puppet show for the chained prisoners.
“That one is a tree and that one is an elephant,” proclaimed Jesse confidently.
“No! We go over this every time it shows up: It is a giraffe,” sneered Liz.
“You think you would know this after a lifetime of seeing the same image. You just need to work harder to understand what is real,” said Carson.
“C’mon guys, he just needs a little training,” offered Sarah, trying to prop up her friend.
The prisoners stared through the cave at the figures on the jagged wall, much like they had done all day, every day, for as long as they could remember. The sounds, the smells, even the chains that held them in place were normal, usual...Even comfortable.
Who were these prisoners? One may presume they are like us—teachers, only privy to shadows being cast on the wall by the powers that be. Those who hold the knowledge and information create our collective opinions and beliefs about how children learn. The “shadows” they project appear realistic. We name them, discuss them, replicate them, and even argue about them, similar to the prisoners in the cave.
Like the prisoners, I once believed that what was shown to me by my professors, administrators, and others was truly the way to teach any child to read. I soaked in information like a sponge about how to stock and level my student library. I learned how to give book talks, lead my students to “just the right” book, annotate as I checked in during their silent reading time, guide them through complex texts, and, most importantly, how to instill a love of reading so all of my students became lifelong readers. As an upper elementary teacher, I was fully equipped to address most language comprehension subskills for the majority of my students—as long as they had average to advanced language and reading abilities. For the others, the ones struggling with word recognition or labeled as having “characteristics of dyslexia,” I simply placed them with a peer tutor so they could get more time to practice reading. During RTI, I led these struggling readers to discover spelling patterns within whole words. If the children practiced enough with that “just right” book, and if I peppered in about five to 10 minutes of implicit spelling instruction, I hoped (with fingers crossed) they would eventually emerge proficient, lifelong lovers of literature. I was in complete darkness relative to how to teach a child to decode. I didn’t even recognize my need for knowledge.
At this point in my career, I was unaware of phrases like “whole language,” “balanced literacy,” and “phonics-based instruction.” In my naiveté, I was merely naming shadows on the wall—a plethora of material about learning styles, the three-cueing system, and multiple intelligences that I had learned in college and through professional development seminars. I didn’t question my methodology. Didn’t evaluate it. I claimed it as truth and replicated it.
My colleagues and I did everything asked of us: using data to differentiate reading instruction and address deficits, creating color-coded charts analyzing which question(s) most students missed, and reteaching reading comprehension skills. What we failed to do was provide any remediation for students who struggled with word recognition. Why? No one told us to or explained how.
According to the Simple View of Reading, we were only addressing language comprehension in our daily instruction. We had no clue how to modify instruction based on our students’ poor decoding abilities. I kept going day after day, year after year, student after student; passing children who could not read. There are too many to count and it continually haunts me. Surely, it would click for them eventually, right? Wrong. Those children are now in high school, no doubt struggling immensely with accessing texts like Romeo and Juliet, Night, and The Old Man and the Sea. Will they make it to college? If so, will they last? I failed those children. My methods failed us both.
Come with me briefly back down into the cave to discover what happened to those poor prisoners. One was suddenly freed but without awareness or knowledge of captivity and freedom, he remained near his chains and continued to name shadows. Finally, compelled to stand and turn away from the shadows, he faced the actual statues that were being carried by the men in front of the flickering firelight.
“Oh, my eyes!” cried the prisoner. “I can’t see!” After a lifetime of darkness, only being exposed to flickers of light, facing the fire was like an explosion in his eyes.
“What is going on in here? What is all of this? This is madness!” the prisoner wailed. The man who released him attempted to explain: “These statues you now see are closer representations of what’s real and true about the world and our existence than were the shadows you saw before.” The released prisoner vehemently rejected this new information.
“Uh…no thanks, man! I’m perfectly fine here with my friends discussing these shadows on the wall. They make much more sense to me than whatever it is that you’re saying. This is what works for us.”
He longed to return to what he viewed as comfy chains and the familiar shadows on the wall rather than consider the pure lunacy coming from the strange man who released him.
Are you ever defensive when someone challenges your existing beliefs? I’m guilty. I, too, fervently rejected new knowledge presented to me about the structure and essentials of our language. I was far from my literary comfort zone when in a professional development course about teaching students with dyslexia how to read. There was no talk of classroom libraries, annotations, immersion into great literature, or any discussion about a love of reading. This training revolved around brain research, linguistics, and multisensory learning. My eyes were ill adjusted. My mind ill equipped to receive such foreign information.
The professional development began with consonant and vowel phoneme charts, discussions about articulation and where the sounds are made in the mouth. As we used tiny mirrors to view and practice producing the sounds, I remember looking around the room and thinking, “How silly is this? How would practicing all these sounds in front of a mirror teach a kid anything about reading?”
The presenter went on and on about the connection between linguistics and literacy; the importance of talking to babies and reading to children; and the ins-and-outs of explicit, systematic, sequential phonics instruction. She used several terms unfamiliar to me—lots of “ph” and “eme” words (i.e., phonology, orthography, morphology, phoneme, grapheme, morpheme, etc.). The information made me uncomfortable and a little sleepy. It seemed so technical and scientific. I felt silly for not learning this in college.
Nevertheless, I listened respectfully then went back to my school, put my comfortable chains back on, and got back to naming those shadows on the wall. Go with what you know, right? And show others what you know too. My message of “balanced literacy” spread far and wide throughout my school and others. Unbeknownst to me, I was taking sides in the “Reading War” and gaining ground with each school year. My students continued to suffer, due to my stubbornness.
What shadows are you holding onto? Do we as teachers of reading have all the tools we need to teach every child to read proficiently or are we clutching onto methods that are comfortable but continually fail to build a reading brain? We must recognize and release what doesn’t work and instead commit to ascend to new heights of understanding how an illiterate brain develops into a reading brain. Teaching a child to read is a pilgrimage: with complications and frustrations around every corner but with miracles and endless possibilities when you finally reach your destination. May we be ever so mindful of how we proceed?
Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Building a reading circuit in the brain is a complex and tedious process but it doesn’t have to include crossing fingers and hoping for the best. Step one in the journey to sound literacy instruction is to evaluate where we are. Before we move forward, let’s look back and consider those who struggle to decode.
Are there “shadows” we need to release, new knowledge to pursue to ensure each child receives the tools he/she needs to read proficiently and deeply?
The science of reading is irrefutable and can light our path. Does that mean neglecting everything we know? Only you can answer that question. Ask yourself: Am I simply adopting what sounds good and is comfortable for me or am I making decisions based on what will simply get me through the day? There is no room for escapism or egotism in education, especially when we are dealing with the mind and future of a child. Taking time to evaluate where we are as teachers of reading is key to taking the next step in our journey to sound literacy instruction.
Join me next week for Part Two of this blog, where I will explore the importance of reorienting our teaching practice to learning and applying the science of reading through LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) by Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Carol Tolman. We will be in and out of that creepy cave, so feel free to bring your flashlight.
Learn More about LETRS
About the Author
Amanda Morgan is an ELA Gateway teacher, reading interventionist, and LETRS trainer. She has taught in a variety of settings from inner city and rural schools in Louisiana to Amman, Jordan. Amanda enjoys discovering new information about the reading brain and welcomes all fellow travelers to join her along this literacy journey. She lives in Shreveport, LA with her husband and son.