Three sounds. Four letters.
The word “read” is difficult for many young students because it involves a unique situation called a digraph. This occurs when two letters are pronounced as a single sound. I could not have explained this 18 months ago.
Like many Arkansans, reading came easily to me as a kid. After a childhood of being read to and listening to “whole word” lessons, I simply looked at the letters and saw words. The system made perfect sense to me.
So, when my classmates struggled reading and I waited for them to catch up, the fault had to be on them, not the instruction. The system worked for me. It should work for everyone, right?
Years later, I found myself back in Arkansas teaching journalism at both high school and collegiate levels. I was working with kids from many economic, social and ethnic backgrounds. I was prepared to discuss the importance of the press and the necessity to vet your sources.
However, my days weren’t spent on journalistic topics but centered more on English spelling and grammar. My classroom became just as focused on basic composition as it was on broadcast journalism practices. The system – my system – had failed far too many students.
My students didn’t know how letters worked, and I didn’t have the tools to teach them.
I ran. I got out of teaching, because I felt unprepared to do my job. I was failing my students.
A few years later, after working in the commercial sector, I got back into education at AETN and was assigned a project from the Department of Education. The Science of Reading would be an 18-hour, video, professional development “learning path” provided through AETN’s Educational Division, ArkansasIDEAS. This course – which would take a daunting three years to produce – would be required of every licensed educator in the state of Arkansas.
So, I had one of the biggest projects ArkansasIDEAS had ever taken on, and it was going to be seen by literally everyone in the state. The pressure was on.
But I wasn’t alone. Working closely with ArkansasIDEAS’ in-house education team and a group of literacy instruction experts from the Department of Education, we quickly outlined an 18-hour, three-year game plan.
A few weeks ago, PBS NewsHour released a piece explaining how The Science of Reading became a law in Arkansas. It was our job to plan and execute how that law would affect classroom instruction.
We wanted teachers to apply the lessons of The Science of Reading to their instruction incrementally. We didn’t want to overwhelm them. And we wanted to monitor the effects of the program as it rolled out over time.
Therefore, we decided to release the pathway, an hour at a time, every other month, over the three-year period.
A Strong Foundation
The first eight hours – the last of which will be available to teachers this June – serve as a foundation of recent scientific research and instructional practices. In these courses, experts make an argument for phonics-based instruction, and provide the scientific support for that argument.
The foundational courses of The Science of Reading are led by internationally-recognized literacy experts such as Dr. Wendy Farone, Dr. Kenneth Pugh, and Dr. David Kilpatrick. We also feature local teachers and literacy specialists to help keep a focus on how this research applies to Arkansas classrooms specifically.
All Teachers are Reading Teachers
If someone had told me – as a high school broadcasting instructor – that I would be required to take professional development over phonics instruction, I would have thought they were crazy.
Then, again, I was the guy who left teaching because I felt helpless.
Our mantra through the development and production process has been, “All teachers are reading teachers.” The lesson I have learned at ArkansasIDEAS isn’t how different carpentry teachers are from literature teachers, but how they are alike.
Educators teach to create a love of learning. That should be our mission, above all else. We want students to leave our classrooms and seek out information on their own.
We cannot expect students to fall in love with learning if they can’t decode the information on the page. The responsibility of creating “self-educating Arkansans” falls equally on the English and broadcasting teachers – as well as parents, bosses, siblings and friends.
If you have the opportunity to help someone read, you have the responsibility to help them read.
“All teachers are reading teachers.”
In that spirit -- the final 10 hours of The Science of Reading will focus on classroom and content area application. No more broadcasting instructors helplessly fumbling their way through grammar lessons. We will highlight how the lessons and research behind The Science of Reading apply to even the most unique of classrooms.
Looking to the Future
The Science of Reading is a big project. It will change instruction in Arkansas for years to come. I have been working on these courses for 18 months and am a much better reader (and writer) because of it. We have 18 more months and 10 more hours of course work to produce. I look forward to seeing the waves we make.
Being a public school teacher is hard. I left teaching because I felt like a failure. I couldn’t help the people I was tasked to help. The Arkansas Department of Education, AETN and ArkansasIDEAS are taking steps to make the job easier. They are preparing classroom teachers with the science and application to correctly teach reading.
It’s like teaching kids magic.
“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” – Victor Hugo
Author Corey Womack, who serves the AETN education department ArkansasIDEAS, is a television producer and lead producer for The Science of Reading learning path.