Sunday, October 21, 2012

To program or not to program?

Not to be a broken record, but I strongly dislike prepackaged reading programs. I don't like the way they script lessons, or how it takes thought and planning away from the teacher. I don't like how they encourage me to be passive, or how they follow a formula that isn't based off of the kids in the class. I associate them with lazy teaching. I've written about this quite a bit and I know you're probably tired of hearing me whine about them.

There are some programs I don't mind. I am a fan of Early Literacy Skills Builder as well as LLI (OK, for LLI I really just like the books it supplies to use as guided reading books. And it's software. And that it does encourage teacher thought). 

But I still don't fully buy into the concept of using a program. I've had years of quality literacy training. I don't want to give myself too much credit, but I like to think of myself as a good reading teacher. Teaching emergent reading skills- it's something I can do. I understand how kids learn to read and I can design instruction based off what small skills and steps they need to take to get from point a to point b.

Now that I'm teaching in a program for children with Intellectual Disabilities I have to re-look at how I view teaching reading. I am teaching children whose parents and teachers decided traditional methods in a traditional classroom were not going to work, so it would be important for the child's education to be in another setting with different instruction. That's not something I can overlook lightly.

It doesn't mean I can't teach traditional guided reading when it is appropriate, but it does mean that I need to take into account the possibility that it might not be appropriate. 

I'm torn between whether or not to use a program for a few of my students. We can do traditional guided reading- which I love and feel I am good at teaching. Or I can use a boxed program, or some combination of the two. The children in question are learning decoding skills, which is traditionally difficult for students with intellectual disabilities. The more we dive into practicing these skills the more I see just how difficult it is for my students. The special ed solution to this difficulty is to teach whole-language and teach specific words in isolation.

Despite my personal aversion to programs that teach words in isolation I want to do what is best for the children. Am I holding them back by trying to teach them to decode words? Or am I slowly building a strong base of literacy skills they will be able to use and apply to all words? Can I adapt my guided reading plans and a boxed program to give the students both whole-word instruction and decoding skills? 

I realize what a gap I have in my understanding of how children with intellectual disabilities learn to read. I've been introduced to the programs but I've never been taught why these programs are chosen over others. What in the neurological development makes it difficult for children to learn to decode words and makes whole word instruction better? What is the research on these programs that shows the benefits of teaching one way verse another? 

I don't want to limit my children's skills but I also don't want to limit their opportunities for growth. I worry that if I teach them using whole-word instruction that we can't go back and teach decoding principals. I want them to be able to understand sounds, rhymes, and word play. I don't want to give up on those skills just because they are in our program.

I'm trying to find a way to balance both the pre-programmed kit and the student-driven guided reading in order to give my students the best of both worlds.


Anonymous said...

This post is a little baffling. It has been my understanding, for quite some time, that phonics-based instruction delivered very precisely (some would say in a lock-step script, and for portions of it I wouldn't disagree) is known to be best for children with intellectual disabilities. Not that you don't also do more indivdually-oriented literacy activiteis, but that you use a basis of sound-letter correspondences and are careful to leave no gaps. Of course, you always add sight word recognition if the child shows a real skill in that direction, but the basis has to be phonics (preceded by phonemic recognition) because children with that disbility don't have as extensive a working memory as typical children do, and can't memorize the appearance of as many words. It's strange to hear that there is a scripted curriculum that is based on sight words.

The much-maligned Direct Instruction programs from the University of Oregon and other sources were in fact very effective and they were originally designed for children who were far behind (although usually for reasons of family poverty rather than diagnosed disability. They were and are based on the idea that scripting can help teachers avoid presenting material in a way that allows ambiguity or confusion to invade the instrucitonal process -- something that is especially important for children with intellectual disabilities.

organized chaos said...

Anonymous- I would love to see the research you are talking about. Since I am new to teaching in an intellectual disabilities specific program I am relying on what a lot of veteran teachers tell me and what they keep telling me is that sight word instruction is best. The programs we have available to us are EdMark, PCI, Reading Mastery, and Early Literacy Skills Builder.
What programs are from the University of Oregon. I'd love to know more.
I've been told again and again that using phonics can slow down my children's ability to learn to read. I would love to see research on the subject.

I always want to do what is best for kids, but I personally hate teaching programs. I will do them and I will follow them like I should, but my personal belief is that if you hire quality teachers- teach them how to study children responses to lessons and teach them the fundamentals of how young children learn to read, then put those teachers in a situation where they can collaboratively analyze student achievement and make decisions about how to move forward with instruction- then the actual teaching will be stronger than using a manual.
One can argue that this method isn't good for students with ID but I actually wonder if it simply just doesn't work with how we've set up our ID programs. ID programs don't allow for the collaboration and careful analysis of student achievement and progress that general education classrooms have. It is harder to find teachers who will teach in these programs so in some cases it may be easier for a district to trust the program over a teacher's ability to use her professional knowledge.
Again, I want to do what is best for kids and if it is using a program then that is what I will do. It's one of the differences I'm struggling with moving from gen ed to special ed.

Please share research- I'd love to read it.