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.