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Making Sense of Reading

Principals and administrators across the country can relate to this scenario. They know that quick fixes are not likely to help when children are not learning to read. The root of the problem is often related to what teachers know and understand about children's learning to read. Many teachers do not have a conceptual understanding of reading. In addition, teachers often do not know what parts of their reading instruction work or do not work, and as a result, why their students' test performances are high or low.

For years, teaching reading has focused primarily on curriculum and instruction. Teachers were expected to follow the teacher's guide and deliver instruction. As long as they were equipped with the necessary curriculum, administrators and the public assumed every child would become a successful reader. This expectation has not been met, however; not every child has become a successful reader.
To address the problem of low reading achievement, principals and district administrators typically have responded by adopting yet another "reading program" in hopes that just the right one will help children learn to read. If the new reading program again results in low reading scores on the achievement tests, as often happens, the cycle begins again. What can principals and district administrators do differently to help increase scores on reading achievement tests?
The focus needs to shift from teaching reading to learning to read. This means that teachers begin to weigh the results of their teaching. One question that helps teachers make this pivotal shift is " What reading skills have my students learned?" Depending on the answer, a teacher can determine whether to move ahead or go back and teach again, perhaps, in a different way, based on individual student needs.
Because children's backgrounds, learning needs, and skills vary, effective reading instruction depends upon three main components. Teachers must assess children's reading skills in an on-going manner and use assessment information to customize instruction to individual student needs. In addition, teachers must participate in on-going professional development to gain knowledge of reading and reading instruction.
In a meeting sponsored by SEDL, school, district, and state leaders explored issues that principals and other administrators face in creating and supporting effective reading programs. These leaders acknowledged that no silver bullets exist, that developing teachers who diagnose reading needs and prescribe reading instruction according to student's individual needs takes time, and that the capacity to deliver significant results on standardized tests requires a district of skilled teachers. Working from this perspective, principals and district administrators can build an effective reading program for their campuses and, ultimately, for their districts.