Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why don't teachers get the training in university?

Since starting Planet Literacy in 1999, I have taught scores of learners in individual reading clinics. I have taken my clinics on the road to different communities, and I have collaborated with many teachers along the way. There are a few things that are remarkably constant: a) teachers have a genuine desire to help these hard to reach learners, b)they don't have enough skills or time to do it, and c) parents know very early on that there is something preventing their child from learning the same way and at the same rate as their peers.

Regarding c), in most cases the parents are reassured when they approach teachers at early teacher/parent interviews, and they are asked to relax and give the child more time. He's just not ready, and when he is, he will catch up. By grade 2, the teachers are still suggesting the "wait and see" approach. By grade 3 and 4 the teacher is calling the parents saying, "I think your son/daughter has a problem."
By the time these issues hit the teacher's radar screen, the child has been struggling a good long while and is far behind her peers.

Actually, research is very clear that if a learner has a phonologically based learning problem, the WORST thing you can do is wait and see. What that means for this kind of learner is "Wait and fail". Not a good position to find yourself in at 8 or 9 years old. Many schools have adopted an early screening program for this phonological processing problem, and I am all for that. What I don't think is fair is that this is not uniformly practiced across the province. I also find that some schools say they are doing the early screening, but either they don't have the right kind of instrument, they don't have teachers with the training or knowledge to understand the results and provide appropriate intervention, or with staff turnover they end up with different priorities.

Re: b) I find that many teachers charged with teaching the children with poor reading skills do not have a background in phonology or linguistics and are unable to explain many of the rules and idiosyncrasies of the English language. I can't count the number of times a teacher, sitting in on a clinic with their student has remarked, "I didn't know that!" about a particular spelling expectation or concept. Granted, I didn't know some of these things either until I took more training, and luckily my background in linguistics certainly made my training go more smoothly than it might have. But now, in 2007, this information has been circulating for at least 10 years and there is a sound and growing body of evidence to support these methods. So, why isn't this knowledge reaching the teachers more universally?

I was curious- so I made some calls. I met with the Dean of Education at a BC university to inquire about the training teachers were getting. Her response was disappointing and difficult for her to explain. She admitted that teachers don't learn how to teach reading in her university. She said that because there are so many products and methods "out there", and that trends seem to come and go, that the university assumes that teachers will learn the programs and methods of the day, on their own.When I asked about learning disabilities, she referred me to another department head.

I talked to this person by phone, and asked how his program worked.
He told me that it is an 8 month certificate that teachers in the field come back to get while still working. I asked him if he focused on learning disabilities and he replied that it depended on what the teachers wanted. When I asked for clarification he explained that the teachers dictate what courses are taught according to what skill set they want to develop. I couldn't help it- I blurted out a question, "Do you think it's a good idea for teachers who don't know alot about something,(why else are they wanting more training?) to be deciding what they will learn?" He replied rather defensively (understandably; I should have worded that differently) that it seemed to be working so far. So when I asked if the courses that year would include something about teaching students with learning disabilities, he replied, "No. The teachers are more concerned with classroom management issues so we are going to have two classes on behaviour management."
I then arranged for a phone conference with people in the Ministry of Education. I was passed on to the head of Assessment in Education and another woman, the head of the Department for Special Education. When I asked if they were aware that some universities were not preparing teachers to teach reading, they both acknowledged that they were indeed aware and that this was a problem. They were both sympathetic. (tsk tsk) When I asked what they were planning to do about it, they lamented that it wasn't up to the Ministry to dictate what is covered at the university level, rather, it was the professional body, the College of Teachers. They were sorry they couldn't help more, but they were very happy to tell me about a website that the Ministry was constructing, where people could log on and have meaningful discourse about the issues facing teachers today. They fervently hoped I would be a key player in discussions, and they vowed to contact me when it was up and running.
Four years later, I still haven't from either of them.
In case you're thinking, "well you only checked with one university", I completed my Masters degree with 22 very dedicated teachers, and half of them graduated in the last 10-15 years. They all said they did not feel their training (involving at least 3 different universities) prepared them to teach reading, and certainly not to children with learning disabilities.
To sum up this post- many teachers do not know what to do to help these vulnerable students because they are not receiving the training they need.


Anonymous said...


Your post here mirrors my heart and thoughts exactly. What you said is so true...I see this phenomena all the time; Teachers telling parents to just wait and see and then when it's too late they say, "There must be something wrong." It breaks my heart when these children can be helped with the proper training.

I am a professional reading tutor in Florida and most parents carry this story when them come to me looking for help for their child.

So many teachers lack sufficient training and many (at least in the State of Florida) have NO teacher training whatsoever. For example: last fall I met a teacher who had just graduated with an Arts degree in Theater and Dance (not teaching). She was teaching K-6th grade and special education science classes. She told me she had no idea what she was doing. I met another 1st grade teacher who had a degree in Interior Design - again, no training in teaching. And another with a degree in Biology (not teaching) teaching
2nd grade - and the list goes on...

I too have experienced situations where teachers have commented "I didn't know that!" as I was sharing various aspects of the reading process and the phonics gaps that were missing with particular students.

I too, have a background in Linguistics with a degree in Speech Language Pathology and Communication Disorders)and I have been teaching for 14 years. However, I realize that there is so much more for me to learn. My desire at this point is to further my education in how to teach children (especially learning disabled students) to read even better and with quicker results.

I atteneded a university in Michigan that offered two reading classes for teacher trainers of which I took both. However, neither were geared toward teaching the learning disabled students. In your post you said that "this information/methods have been in circulation for 10 years." What information are you referring to? Can you recommend any books, programs, workshops, etc. where I can go for further education and training in how to better help my students learn to read.

Thanks so much for your posts. I will add your blog to my favorites and check back often.

Lynda M.

Kathy said...

Hi Lynda

Thank you for your post. I have been hoping to connect with others in this field in the hope that we can learn from each other!
Their are many researcher/writers who have written great papers and or books: Joseph Torgesen, Louisa Moats, Sally Shaywitz, and Marilyn Adams to name a few. There is a wonderful paper by Louisa Moats and Susan Brady, called Informed Instruction for Reading Success: Foundations for Teacher Preparation, that was officially approved as a Position Paper for the International Dyslexia Association in 1997. I don't know if it is available any more on the internet, but you could contact the Association. It is really thorough, and highlights the gaps that you and I both have seen.
Also, a book that I can't do without, is Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, Published by Alfred A. Knopf 2003. The ISBN # is 0-375-40012-5. Another good book is The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research, by Peggy McCardle and Vinita Chhabra, publisher, Paul H Brooks, 2004, ISBN # 1-55766-672-5
In terms of training- I haven't seen it myself but I have seen students who have had Orton-Gillingham tutoring. I think they have a comprehensive training program. Also, The Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program is very powerful, and has been around for years. I believe they travel with their training workshops. They have info on their website, I took some training locally in 1996, and used in the public system before going private. There is something fairly new that is really getting good reviews-(and it was reviewed by the Florida Center for Reading Research in 2006 by the way)is the SpellRead program.
That's probably more info than you were looking for! I hope to see you back on the blog soon!

Lynda M. said...

Thanks Kathy,

I appreciate your time and expertise. The information you gave is wonderful and no, it is not too much! How can information ever be too much? It may be more than I can digest right now but at least it gives me a place to start. I will do some research on these programs and books and do what I can to get going on them. In the meantime I have some other questions for you as you get time. Here is a little background on a student I am currently working with...

I have a student who started tutoring with me in August. She is almost 10 and is in the 3rd grade, (she repeated 2nd grade). When she started tutoring with me she was reading at a Primer level at a fluency rate of approximately 34 wpm. In my initial assessment I found that she had huge learning gaps in her phonics; she didn't even know that long vowels existed, didn't know r-controlled vowels, didn't have any vowel combinations like ou, oi, ow, ay, etc., and didn't have knowledge of word endings, pre-fixes, suffix endings, etc. So... my initial goals were to focus heavily on phonics. She was able to learn phonics VERY QUICKLY and apply them to words in isolation and in written text. Her teachers were telling the mom to have her tested for a learning disability. I told the mom that I suspected it was more like "teacher disabled". (Nothing against teachers - I am one!) After working with her for just a short time I could tell that she was NOT learning disabled.

Here we are three months of tutoring later and she has a strong foundation in phonics and went from Primer level through 2.5 (2nd grade, 5th month) reading level.

Now the challenge for her has shifted greatly to a vocabulary/language problem. She knows how to the decode words but doesn't have meaning for many words. In addition, second grade sentence structure becomes much more complicated with an increased useage of pronouns, comma usage, parenthetical statments and imbedded sentences within sentences, and understood subjects in sentences, etc. And...the vocabulary is much more difficult. For example, she read this sentence in a 2.4 book, "My boss is good about letting me off for special occasions, such as when one's kin comes from West Virginia." For her to understand that one sentence I had to teach the following concepts/words:

letting me off, special occasions, such as, one's, kin, West Virginia (she didn't know West Virginia was a state - a place)

In addition she is not able to tell me synonyms for many words. At first I thought she had expressive language disorder. But in evaluating her further I don't think that is the case. (Once I teach the word/concept a few times she can remember it and apply it.)
I believe her low vocabulary is the result of a poor home envirnoment and lack of teaching in the home and at school.

Her mom has never read to her, in fact she didn't even know that she should have been reading to her all along. No one in her immediate family even models reading. Her mom doesn't interact with her very much, and she never goes anywhere. Of course we know that good readers are in part the result of having lot of life experiences and background knowledge and having lots of exposure to LOTS of great books. She has had neither.

This student is also under a lot of pressure because in order to advance to the fourth grade she needs to pass the standardized test given to public school students called the FCAT. If she doesn't score at least 60% on this test she will have to repeat 3rd grade again. A devastating thought for the parent considering that she has already repeated 2nd grade. This would put her two years behind her peers in school. Her mom has invested a lot of money into her private tutoring to help her. However the last three years she has just sat - and now starting in August we began playing catch-up and had a 8-month window to learn 3 grade levels of reading.

She takes the FCAT in March and I am wanting to start training on test taking skills to help prepare her for this test, but her reading level and fluency needs is not ready yet. The test is written at a 3.2 level (and is vocabulary rich) but when I pull out test prep material she still struggles in reading it because of vocabulary and sentence structure. My sense is that she just needs ALOT of exposure to this reading level and all of these new words. But I wish there was some kind of program like what you do to go "poof" and she is there in three weeks! I think that the older kids are able to go that fast because they have the vocabulary and language skills to go that fast. Am I right? Or is there something else I can do to help her?

Incidentally, when I asked the mom if she was interested in doing homework at home with her daughter she said yes but has not followed through. She is still not reading books to her...

Another question off the topic: can we add a new blog to your blog site or do we always have to respond as a comment to a post? I am new to blogging so bear with me...

Thanks for your time and this blog!

Lynda M.

Kathy said...

Hi Lynda
I'm new to blogging too as this is only my second month! I was just in the process of writing a new post and was going to bring your previous question into it so we could put that up top again. It does seem that the comments are getting buried. I will do the same with your second comment- I'll bring it up top into a new post. I will do some sleuthing to see if I can find a better way to keep the conversations front and center for others to read. So, I will tell you my thoughts on the little girl you are working with in a new post.

JohnL said...

Y'all are raising really important questions here. I'm aghast about the maleducation that many teachers get—and, as a professor at a school or education, I'm part of the problem! There is actual evidence that teacher education doesn't do a good job with preparing teachers to teach reading and it bugs me.

Kathy said...

Thanks John,
I appreciate your honesty- and if one person like you could change an education system that is designed to NOT change- you'd get the Nobel Peace prize!
All we can do is keep this issue out front where people can see it, and STOP making nice with the system that is doing such a poor job.
Since leaving the public system, I am enjoying my right to say what's on my mind!