Dancing with a stranger? Reading programs vs investing in staff knowledge

The teaching of reading continues to be a much explored subject, however the question remains: To program or not to program? A good comprehension and phonics program is an asset to any school when used to compliment not dictate practice. Too many times programs are used as a replacement for good practice and it is time we as teachers recognise our well-earned skills that made us commit to classroom practice. We are all qualified and for those of us with years of experience, why is it that often these qualities are disregarded for the latest fad? It is no doubt that the new curriculum demands on reading teaching means a rigorous approach to comprehension underpinned by solid phonics teaching but that means only one thing: invest in teacher knowledge and practice - not replace it with programs that are prescriptive. This is not a critique of every school but more of a warning of a real trap in teaching and learning that any school can fall in to. There really is no one-size-fits-all solution.

In real time, there is nothing more valuable than programs at your fingers tips that provide you with quality texts and questions on the go. They reduce workload in terms of searching for resources - however the teaching of reading skills in comprehension needs to be very much personalised for the needs of the class and teachers need to be free to work on whatever gaps of understanding are glaring in each cohort. For example a class with majority EAL children may need to spend a far longer period on vocabulary and meaning as well as planting background knowledge prior to tackling further skills. It really should not be an expectation that all of 'this unit' be rushed through by 'x time' because the program says so. We are doing children a huge disservice when we take this approach.

All children need access to the same quality text and providing them with access may not be at equal pace for every ability. However, going slower is a huge benefit for the entire class. When each element of text is explored there is much that can be taught and transferred. I note the element of surprise on an amazing Head Teacher's face when I worked with a year 5 group and she asked how the session was. Every child said it was amazing and how much they cannot wait to read the book. Imagine the puzzled response, 'What? You didn't read the text?' My response was simple - 'Not yet'. It was the book launch and instead the focus was background knowledge, creating links and building schematic response. I showed her afterwards what and how I did this and just how the children are now ready to tackle the themes, nuances and vocabulary they will encounter in a new book. By taking the time to layer knowledge with visual links, 3D material I essentially hooked them into text that they were now very eager to read. The result was an immediate positive learning attitude to comprehension - and isn't that what we all need as a platform to deeper reading? We ended the session with the book cover and blurb, exploring fully the use of images and their impact on the reader as well as the author's use of multi-linear text. The learning the children came away with was phenomenal. Point: There is no need to rush reading lest we fail on misconceptions that can impinge on deeper understanding of a text. Knowing what a child understands prior to beginning a text can either make access to that text a smooth or rocky one depending on how we deal with misconceptions and/or lack of prior knowledge.

There is a need for structured approaches in reading and many teachers will happily plough through any program they are landed with but most will tweak and adapt according to the need of individual children and whole classes - as they should. By following reading programs with very little input or adaptations, teachers render themselves less effective in comprehension teaching. Most of us will instinctively make these changes and teach accordingly however it is a concern when it is dictated often by those not on the chalk-line for teachers to strictly adhere to a program. We must resist this as a danger to practice.

According to John Schacter, Senior Research Associate, Milken Family Foundation, Santa Monica, California (2001) “A single reading program is not a silver bullet to vastly improve a school’s reading achievement.” According to Ofsted's Moving English Forward document (2012) "The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson … an excessive pace; an overloading of activities; inflexible planning; limited time for pupils to work independently. "Therefore the first strategy from research led by Oxford Owl for Building an Outstanding Reading School (2017) was unsurprisingly, empowering staff "...with the skills and knowledge they need to teach children to be accomplished and keen readers."

Education Blogger Aidan Severs (That Boy Can Teach) in his 2016 post on Being a Reading Teacher sums it up nicely; "To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher." In discussions with 20 teachers about the impact of reading programs on their practice, all have confessed to Bright I's that they many times 'plugged and played' when following a scheme or skim read a text the night before knowing the questions were already done and all they had to do was print and photocopy in the morning. All said the programs did nothing for their development and all said visiting supply could just run with it in their absence as planning was 'on the system' - no thought, no input, no adaptation. Certainly if this is the case, why do we need quality teachers when reading teaching is this mundane? Why do we need to be reading teachers when all the thought is sucked out of a text with prescriptive questioning?

I celebrate schools who invest in quality texts, opportunities for text talk and quality CPD on the teaching of reading as those with a true knowledge based approach that deeply impacts on children's enjoyment and ability to access a wide variety of text. By not allowing programs to be the master of our pedagogical practice but a tool to enhance what we as teachers know - we discover and impart the 'what works' with efficacy. Reading teaching then becomes a familiar love... and I would rather that than dancing with a stranger any day.

Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for mastery who works across primary schools in the West Midlands, UK. She teaches to train, provides whole school CPD and coaches teachers daily to be their best reading teacher in the classroom. Follow her on twitter - @rogue_reading