Both…and #SOL19 20/31

In the next room, my younger son is saying “win-dow.”
“Good! Tap it,” responds his tutor.
A few minutes later she says “pay-per. Now, would you double that?”
“No!” He is confident.
“Right! Explain why!” she cheers.

They will continue on this way for the next hour. It’s a lot of work for him, but he loves this phonics-based tutoring and looks forward to his tutor’s arrival twice a week. Because of this intensive intervention, he is currently reading at grade level. We plan to keep it up and hope that eventually his brain makes all the connections he needs to be a fluent reader.

As they work, my thoughts keep returning to a Twitter “discussion” I was involved in this weekend. A well-known figure in the world of education tweeted a quote from a speaker at a conference she was attending: I would argue that most students who are in intervention wouldn’t be there if we just had good classroom libraries.

I nodded in agreement as I read this, but something niggled at the back of my brain. What was bothering me? I am actively working to develop my own classroom library, and my kids’ bedrooms are filled with books – “bedroom libraries,” I guess. For Christmas, a group of us parents gave one of our kids’ elementary school teachers a bunch of books from her wish list and a gift certificate to purchase more because we wanted to support her classroom library. All evidence shows that I clearly believe in classroom libraries. Yet my younger child, surrounded by books, still needs intervention in order to learn how to read.

I rarely respond to people on Twitter, but this time I really wanted to say something. After all, this person is widely followed; lots of teachers would read her tweet. So I tweeted back:

As the mother of a child with dyslexia & an English teacher with a classroom library I’m proud of, I really want to emphasize the “most” in this tweet. No number of good books will make my child a reader. He needs phonics for that. The books, however, will keep him reading.

This did not seem revolutionary to me.

Her quick response was XXX was not talking about children with disabilities, with IEPs, with dyslexia. Of COURSE all kids need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. But they also need time to read books they can and want to read.

All three tweets received some attention – a lot by my standards, probably not much by hers. And really, the tweets are all true enough. But…the more I think, the more my mind fills with questions.

  • How many kids who are in intervention do NOT have some sort of disability? I’d bet many of them do have disabilities. So… intervention might be necessary, right? It’s not a bad thing. And probably having a classroom library in and of itself won’t fix that.
  • How many kids are receiving “explicit, systematic phonics instruction” in school? Mine did not.
  • How many kids have access to good classroom libraries? I honestly don’t know. Probably not nearly enough.
  • Is having a classroom library enough to build readers, as the original tweet implied? Because I think we’re using “classroom library” as shorthand for having teachers who love reading, have the time to read regularly and share the books they discover with their students. And libraries also imply funding and time. I don’t want to undersell what teachers actually have to DO with classroom libraries to help kids learn.

I don’t know the answers to all these questions. To begin with, I teach high school, not elementary school, so my perspective is different. I’m not trained in teaching reading. (…yet! I’m signing up for a course that starts in April.) And I live in Canada, not the US, so I think intervention has a slightly different meaning.

Nevertheless, as I listened to my son learn, the niggling in the back of my mind finally resolved itself: the tweeted response – the one that says that the speaker was not talking about kids with disabilities – I don’t like that. I am uncomfortable with solutions that work for everyone except kids with disabilities. We already risk leaving these kids as afterthoughts when the truth is that students who fit this description are in most classes, and they deserve solutions that work for them, too. Equating the mere presence of classroom libraries, even good ones, to a dramatic decrease in the need for reading intervention veers dangerously close to the idea that these kids just aren’t working hard enough.

“Just have a lot of books available” sounds great on Twitter, but for up to 20% of our students (dyslexia alone affects between 5 and 20% of students depending on whose research you read), that’s not enough. My child is lucky: our family has the time and money to support his learning. I see high school students every day who have not had the same access to research-based reading instruction and who are suffering because of this. My classroom library will never make up for this, no matter how many good books I put into their hands.

That said, I don’t want to undersell classroom libraries. My son’s reading is thriving in part because of the books available to him, and I can personally point to high school students who have grown enormously when allowed to choose books that have meaning for them. I’m looking for a both…and solution. I want literacy instruction that helps all kids become readers – and I really don’t want the “all” part to be an afterthought.

I could keep thinking myself in circles here – though writing this has helped straighten my thoughts a little. I have considerable respect for the tweeter (and I’m not familiar with the presenter she quoted, but I’ll bet she’s thoughtful and concerned, too). I know that Twitter can erase nuance through enforced brevity and rapid responses. For me, this tweet seemed worth digging into.

In the next room, I hear clapping.
“Pi-rate,” says the tutor. “Which syllable has the stress on it?”
He can’t quite figure it out. They practice saying the word different ways and in funny voices, and he giggles when they get the stress wrong. Then, they do it again.

Phonics, multi-sensory learning and a lot of books.

He’s going to be a reader, this kid. He really is. 



10 thoughts on “Both…and #SOL19 20/31

  1. You raise some really great points. I agree, a classroom library alone isn’t the answer. You can have the best books and if you don’t instill that love and help give kids that superpower, of being a reader- it’s useless. I always whisper to kids, “the secret to becoming a stronger reader is to read more.” I believe this. Often, the kids who need to be reading the most are reading the least- for so many reasons. Those kids need intervention- whether it be explicit Phonics instruction or time in finding the book that will hook them. Reading is complicated. But when kids get it, it’s a gift. Thanks for pushing me to think on this.


    1. First, I thought of you the whole time I wrote this, so ‘I’m glad you’ve responded. I was more upset than I realized by the response to that tweet we got in the middle of this weekend (sorry you were tagged so many times). Second, I whisper (well, sometimes more than whisper) the *exact same phrase* to my high school students. And third, I think my not-very-earth-shattering conclusion is here exactly what you said, “reading is complicated.” But it’s worth keeping at it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post hit home. Yesterday morning I working with a small group of students that needed support in reading. We have over 3,000 books in our classroom and an amazing school library. The challenge for them is the phonics. How is a student to know that “ph” makes the “f” sound or “tion” makes “shin”??? Most likely a teacher or parent helped guide them through these parts of English. We also use an amazing online program called Lexia. Great resource if you haven’t used it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am so glad you were brave enough to write this post. I saw the Twitter frenzy over this tweet and understand that you are not disregarding the intent of its author; however, there is so much more to the story. You are living it, and learning how to navigate these waters better than any big name researcher, in my humble opinion.


  4. Thanks for sharing your slice and thanks for responding to that tweet.
    I wish the expert had been more willing to listen and adjust. I’ve had similar experiences with “Twitter-famous educators.” Sometimes they have a platform and following based on one idea (no homework or no grades or whatever), and that becomes their panacea.


  5. Spot on, Amanda! I applaud your post. I saw the initial tweet of that quote and did a double-take… I found it disturbing. But I didn’t respond and didn’t see your response or the thread. Many educators don’t really know what systematic, explicit phonics is. They think of it only in terms of the phonics instruction your son is receiving. They don’t know what it looks like in classroom instruction with all students. Oh, man, this is impossible in a few words… I have spent nearly 30 years in the educational trenches teaching / training in systematic, explicit phonics (and grammar) for the classroom. I’ve never said it was all-in-all, but I do maintain it is foundational for ALL students. Will some read without it. Yes, I did. Will they have gaps because of the lack of it. Yes, though I excelled as a student, there were word skills that always were just out of my grasp, ones I learned to compensate for because of my lack of a thorough knowledge of the code. And, oh, knowing the code (phonics) is not just about reading; it is about writing also! Do I believe in the importance of libraries. Yes, yes!! I’ve spent thousands $ on books. But I do know that a book never taught a child to read. Because I know the code and how to teach it systematically and explicitly, I can go any where in the world and teach others how to read and write English with just a stick and sand.


  6. This is so interesting. I have no qualifications to give an opinion and I don’t use Twitter (find it a bit scary), but I do wholeheartedly support phonics and do my best with my students who HAVE to learn in English (not their first language and mainly with illiterate parents). I don’t know what I would do if a child came with dyslexia or how it is dealt with elsewhere in this country…I’m sure it’s not! Our students love books, they have none at home, but they still have to be taught how to read and phonics seems to be really working…!


  7. From Twitter, which usually tends not to offer much more than the tips of very big, complicated icebergs, to your slice’s extended effort to unpack complexity, and back again to brevity: the nine spot-on words in your penultimate line — this piece has lots worthwhile going on. One bit sticking with me is how classroom libraries themselves arguably hold less influence than the people who curate them along with the hopefully contagious forces animating those curators.


  8. Yes, reading is complicated. And I think there is a great insight here about what we really mean when we talk about the magic of classroom libraries: what we may mean is a teacher who reads and book matchmakes and book pushes. I had a classroom library that I was very proud of in my first year of teaching. I never booktalked or asked kids questions about their reading. Kids didn’t read. As magical as I think books are, I think the true magic is the relationship with the teacher and all of the subtle and not so subtle ways effective reading teachers intervene, teach, lead, cheerlead, coach, question, and more.


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