`Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science,' professor insists

The Education Beat

Breakthrough: An expert in the field is intent on dispelling myths about how children learn to read, and the best ways to teach them to do so.

August 15, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LOUISA C. MOATS HAS heard the heresy so many times she's sick of it: Teaching reading is easier than teaching mathematics or science because most children develop the skill naturally and easily, the way they learn to speak.

She begs -- passionately -- to disagree, and at the request of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she has produced a little primer for anyone interested in the fundamental skill on which all education depends. Moats' booklet is called "Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science."

Moats has the background to make such a pronouncement. She's an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas, Houston, but is best known for a long-term (and much debated) study of reading programs in Houston and Washington, D.C., financed by the National Institutes of Health.

Here are Moats' major points, some of which may surprise or offend: Learning to read is neither natural nor easy for most children. Reading is an acquired skill.

Teaching reading "is a job for an expert," requiring considerable knowledge and skill, which must be acquired over several years through focused study and supervised practice. Yet a single course in reading "methods" is often all that is offered to prospective teachers in many states. (Maryland now requires four such courses.)

Teachers must understand the basic psychological processes involved in reading, how children develop reading skills, the ways in which good readers differ from poor readers, and how the English language is structured in spoken and written forms. Many teachers have no such understanding.

Most of today's textbooks for teacher preparation are "very weak or simply wrong when it comes to the structure of English and how children actually learn to read the words on the page."

Only recently has basic research allowed reading scientists and educators to agree on how to improve the way educators teach reading.

You can understand why Moats is not the darling of much of the reading establishment. Many think that American teachers and the people who train them are doing just fine, thank you, and wish Moats would butt out.

In an interview last week, Moats praised the teachers' union for having the "commitment and boldness" to publish the booklet. "Teachers' organizations are much more supportive of a rich curriculum in teacher preparation than the [professors] in teachers' colleges," she said.

"There are some wonderful exceptions, but too often novice teachers have gotten some instruction in methods but very little in content. They're simply unaware that this body of knowledge exists. It's amazing."

"Teaching Reading" is only 32 pages long, but it goes into considerable detail, particularly when discussing language structure. English is an idiosyncratic language, but it has its unbendable rules. It doesn't permit written words to end in "v," for example. Thus, "love" and "give" are completely predictable.

Fortunately, Moats' little book is written in language that is comprehensible to nonscientists and noneducators. It poses about a dozen questions that Moats says thoroughly grounded reading teachers should be able to answer.

Examples:

How fast should a second- or third-grader be able to read? A minimum goal can be established by multiplying the child's age by 10. For example, a 7-year-old second-grader should be reading about 70 words per minute.

Why do some children spell "dress" with a "j" or "g" at the beginning? It's the pucker factor. We pucker before the "r" and make a sound more like "j" or soft "g" than the "d" in "desk." Children can be asked to think about this and watch what their mouths do before practicing the recognition and spelling of "tr" and "dr" words.

What does it mean if a 5-year-old child writes "pez tak me yet u"? (Please take me with you.) This is early phonetic or letter name spelling, showing fairly well-developed awareness of speech sounds but little knowledge of standard spelling. Nothing to worry about, but specific instruction is required over the next year.

Which words do good readers skip as they read along at a good pace? Almost none. At faster- than-lightning speed, good readers process every letter of almost every word as they read.

"Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science" can be purchased for $5 a copy, or $3 each when ordering five or more copies. Send orders to L. Ellis, American Federation of Teachers, 555 New Jersey Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001-2079.

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