Bringing Back Some Teacher Control to Reading Instruction

Thumbnail- Wiley Blevins

by Guest Blogger Wiley Blevins—Author (A Fresh Look at Phonics) and
2016 Literacy for All Conference speaker

As teachers, we know our students better than anyone else. Yet in some schools, teachers are given curriculum and told to follow it with fidelity—meaning, do exactly what the teacher guide says and never veer. To compound this issue, principals and district personnel visit these teachers, observe their teaching, and criticize or punish them when the lesson hasn’t been followed verbatim.

This happens for a variety of reasons that are important to understand. A district reading coordinator, for example, is responsible for the academic growth of all the students in the school system. She purchases a packaged curriculum with research data to support its efficacy and believes that this program will have a strong, positive impact on student growth. She devotes a great deal of time and money to select, purchase, and train on the use of these new instructional materials and practices. So, it makes sense that the district administrator would want these materials used properly and implemented well. When principals and district-level personnel visit classrooms for observations, some have reading expertise, others do not. So, what do they do? They pick up the lesson and follow along as the teacher teaches. Of course, any deviation from that plan will be noticed. Over time, teachers begin feeling like these observations are increasingly punitive and decide it’s best to just “follow the plan.” In some instances the result is teachers who are going through the motions. It’s fear-based teaching and it’s the most disheartening thing I see in classrooms. So what do you do?

In some school districts I’ve worked with, I’ve recommended using an 80-20 principle of instruction. I didn’t make this up (I wish I had); it was something used by one of my principals back in the 80s and something common to high-tech companies today. Here’s the basics behind the 80-20 principle. Workers devote 80% of their time to the assignments given them by their managers. The other 20% of their time is theirs, time in which they can innovate to create new product ideas and grow and develop. This creates a situation in which the company is getting the work they need from their employees, and the employees are respected and highly engaged because they have time to be creative, use their training, and possibly create breakthrough ideas.

How does this apply to the teaching of reading? What this means is that 80% of the time teachers use the district approved materials and resources (including tools for differentiation). 20% of the time, teachers examine their student needs and use their own creative ideas and best practices to meet those needs. This can occur in many different forms.

In one district, teachers followed the curriculum 4 days a week (80% of the time). The 5th day was called a “Flex” day. The teachers could meet the stated learning objectives in any way they saw fit. Some teachers would “bank” their flex days for a month and have a “Flex Week” in which they would do an author study, book study, or larger project-based learning mini-unit.

In another district, they built in places in the lesson plans each day where teachers had choices. Some were simple places, such as the selection of the daily read aloud. The district’s curriculum only provided a read aloud for one day each week, yet students need to be read to every day. So, the district created a list of books from collections they had purchased, books available in the school library, and other recommended titles that the teachers could choose from related to the unit’s theme. The teachers could also choose any book of their own that they liked. The teachers were given a generic read aloud protocol (routine for selecting a book, identifying vocabulary words to highlight, writing text-based questions, etc.) to use with the books they chose. Teachers loved this freedom and the amount of reading aloud increased in the classrooms. That’s a simple fix.

In other places of the lesson, teachers were asked to think about the formative assessment data they had collected throughout the lesson or week and make decisions about what to do next based on their students’ needs, rather than what the curriculum suggested. For example, on the last day of an instructional cycle in any reading program (generally Day 5), teachers are given a series of review activities, one per main skill taught that week. In classrooms where teachers felt punished for not following the curriculum, they would simple march through these (often simple and boring) activities without regard to whether or not their students needed them. In an 80-20 situation, teachers instead look at which skills their students need reinforcement on (and which students need what), then select from the activities provided, a list of additional more-engaging activities provided by the district, or create their own activities to use. This is so much more fun for teachers and more purposeful for students! If a district observer entered the classroom and picked up the lesson plan, they knew this was a place the teacher was thinking about her students’ needs and innovating using her wealth of experience, resources, and expertise.

Another example of bigger choice involved the use of novel studies. For the last unit of the year (in which the district really wanted to reinforce the skills taught during the year in a longer text than those provided in basal reading anthologies), teachers could choose to do the unit provided in the basal or replace it with a novel study. The specific novel used was selected by the teachers after several were distributed for review and a vote taken. (Teachers must have a say in some of these decisions.) A few master teachers then worked together at the district level to create a lesson guide including some support for vocabulary selection and instruction, text-dependent questions, writing experiences, etc. However, teachers were asked to evaluate their students’ growth on all the major standards for the year and focus on those that students still needed work on. That means teachers could innovate on the plan provided. Additional support readings were provided to supplement the novel. These were often short, informational text pieces so those skills could be addressed, too.

We need to put systems in place like these in which teachers are respected, highly engaged, thinking professionals with the necessary support tools. This involves a system in which district level administrators also know that their efforts (time, money, expertise) are being utilized and publishers are comfortable that their materials are being implemented with enough efficacy to ensure their success. But remember, a textbook or instructional resource is only a tool. And no one tool will be perfect. You want to find and use the best tools possible for your students. But you and only you can take that tool to the next level by adjusting it to your students and their specific needs.


Wiley Blevins is speaking at the Literacy for All conference on:

Monday (10/24) from 10:30 am – 12:00 pm– The Key Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction and the 10 Common Causes of Failure (Grades K-2)

Monday (10/24) from 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm, Navigating Nonfiction (Grades 3-6)

Tuesday (10/25) from 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm– The Key Characteristics of Strong Phonics Instruction and the 10 Common Causes of Failure (Grades K-2) (repeated)

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