From Whole Language to Science of Reading: Finding a Middle Ground in Middle Schools

Reading is one of the fundamental skills we teach in schools, but unfortunately, it’s also one of the most polarizing topics. For decades, there has been a heated debate between supporters of “Whole Language” acquisition and a “Science of Reading” approach. Unfortunately, this divide has made it difficult for educators to develop a consistent and clear reading philosophy. But, as we’ll see in this post, there is a way to find a balance and ensure that our students become proficient readers.

Have you ever wondered why some students struggle with reading, even in high school? The urgency surrounding reading practice is valid because some students are slipping through the cracks in the school system. The stakes are high, and we can’t ignore this problem.

Figure 1 Retrieved from The Reading Notebook

That’s why we need a comprehensive approach to teaching reading that combines the best of both worlds. So, our district has developed a Comprehensive Reading Approach comprising five key strands: Phonological/Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. These strands are well-researched and have appeared in numerous studies, including John Hattie’s latest book on effect sizes, Visible Learning: The Sequel (page 269).

But why is this important? Research has shown that teachers need to look at the evidence to assist them in selecting high-yield pedagogies. In a recent podcast interview, Dylan Wiliam explained that teachers should use the research to weed out the practices that don’t work and use the methods that do to point them in the right direction. We must ask ourselves whether our teachers and principals use these five key reading strands to plan lessons, purchase resources, and create common formative assessments and professional development sessions. And when we visit classrooms, can we find evidence of all components of reading from kindergarten to grade 12?

Jacque Demers – the Stanley Cup winning coach of the Montreal Canadians was functionally illiterate; something he hid from the world for his professional career.

A comprehensive reading approach is critical because many students who struggle with reading adapt to the school setting to avoid being found out by teachers. Some students mimic, parrot, or copy letters/words they don’t understand. Others have friends who quietly assist them. Unfortunately, many have learned that the best way to go unnoticed is to create a distraction. These distractions can escalate to poor attendance or behavioral consequences and sometimes result in leaving the school system altogether.

The urgency surrounding reading practice is real. In our district, we’ve noticed a need for targeted foundational reading instruction in our middle schools. Our staff is beginning to assess our students for reading ability, flagging those students who struggle and intervening with targeted interventions. A vital piece of this formative assessment is that teachers must listen to their students read. This task is not as simple as it sounds (pardon the pun) because middle school-aged students are very aware of the social structures that surround them. In addition, teachers need to do this work in a safe space where students will be free from potential embarrassment and ridicule from their peers. Generally, the safe space required means that the lesson happens in a one-on-one setting to ensure success. And – following our reading framework, this work often starts with phonemic awareness and phonics. To achieve this goal, we first understand that all students need something different depending on their current ability. Then we prioritize resources, put forth a lot of effort, and see results.

Max (pseudonym) is a 6th-grade student at a local middle school. This year, it became clear that he couldn’t read at all and was relying on his friends for help. He had poor attendance, often missing more days than he attended. However, after receiving one-on-one reading support for six weeks (no missed days!), he’s made significant progress. He’s now able to recognize all his letter sounds and is working on his CVC (consonant/vowel/consonant) blends. His learning support teacher is proud of his progress and optimistic about his future as a reader.

In conclusion, the debate over teaching reading in schools doesn’t have to be divisive. We can find a balance using a Comprehensive Reading Approach that combines the best of both worlds. First, we can ensure our students become proficient readers by incorporating the five key reading strands in our planning. Then, it’s up to us to use the research to weed out what doesn’t work and use what does to point us in the right direction. If we work together, I believe that we can ensure that no student falls through the cracks and that everyone can become a confident reader.

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