Teaching Reading

Phonics or whole language? It’s all moot.
Since I teach English to eleventh and twelfth grade students at a private k-12 school where we expect our students to be fully bilingual, by the time the students enter my classroom they are competent readers, so the whole phonics vs. whole language debate is moot. But our English Department is committed to direct teaching of grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing skills, which in our school means that we spend time teaching discrete skills as well as integrating them in context.

For example, our students have separate grammar workbooks, vocabulary workbooks, and literature textbooks, as well as supplementary readings (novels and plays). My students take weekly vocabulary quizzes on twenty new words and monthly vocabulary review tests, and every few weeks we practice targeted grammar concepts through worksheets and writing. I integrate all the skills through the literature units, which are heavy on discussion and writing; it is through the literature that we use the new vocabulary, practice grammar, and apply metacognitive reading and writing strategies. In addition, this year I implemented a sustained silent reading program, where for the first ten minutes of every single class, my students and I read self-chosen fun books. The purpose of this in-class reading time is to encourage students to become lifelong readers (and learners) and also to create an environment amenable to what Stott, Krashen, and other scholars have called “extensive reading.”

Krashen on extensive reading
In “The Reading-Spelling Connection,” Stephen Krashen argues that since research shows that direct teaching of spelling and spelling rules is ineffective in increasing students’ language skills, a more practical and successful approach for building spelling competence would be to focus on developing students’ natural “spelling sense” –a feel for “the correct spelling of a word when presented with alternatives on a spell-checker” (np)—through extensive reading. As Krashen points out, the best-read writers have the fewest spelling-related problems. Therefore, Krashen suggests a two-pronged approach to the spelling issue, based on the age of the student:
• in the early years, “let spelling develop naturally through massive reading,” while
• in later years, “provide older students with some guidance in the use of spell-checkers and spelling dictionaries” and teach them that “good writers delay editing concerns [including fixing spelling issues] until the final draft” (np).

I agree with Krashen and Stott on the importance of extensive reading, because “until students read in quantity, they will not become fluent readers” (Bamford and Day, as quoted in Stott, np). That’s why this year my kids and I spend time every day reading for pleasure in the classroom. It’s also the reason why I have invested in creating a classroom lending library full of books designed to tempt teenage girls into developing a reading habit. I call our sacred reading time DIVA time, which stands for Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. After all, that’s what reading is –the opportunity to live vicariously through someone else’s words.

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