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Opening the dialogue

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 24 June 2010

Elfrieda H. Hiebert, TextProject & University of California, Berkeley

There are some children who come to school who officially learn to read in school but who have had hundreds of hours of experiences with books, print, and language play. Tobias, a 26-month-old in my acquaintance, is in this group. He was fascinated with his mittens this week (understandable in that he lives in Chicago which had arctic-like temperatures). He described his mittens as his “hand pants” and his pants as his “leg mittens.” Whatever the texts that Tobias is given when he enters kindergarten, he will transition to conventional literacy quickly (if he isn’t already reading when he’s three).

It is with the children who “depend on schools to become conventionally literate” that the content and style of textbooks matter the most. The texts of school provide the data on which they develop reading skills and an interest (or disinterest) in reading. The pace, content, and amount of texts of the typical beginning reading curriculum currently work for children like Tobias. They are not, however, working for the children whose conventional literacy occurs in school settings. I am not stating that these students will be illiterate. Even at mid-first-grade, students in the bottom quartile consistently recognize words on assessments such as DIBELS (Hiebert, Stewart, & Uzicanin, 2010). However, they cannot read the typical texts of first-grade and they leave first grade reading substantially less and slower than peers at and above the 50th percentile. Over the next years of school, they acquire some reading proficiency but they never attain the levels of literacy needed for full participation in the marketplace and communities of the 21st century. Evidence of this shortfall is the failure of a third of an American age group to attain even the basic standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Since policy initiatives in California and Texas in the late 1980s, readability formulas have not been used in selecting the texts for beginning reading programs. The hold of readability formulas on the style and content of beginning reading texts needed to be loosened (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985). Unfortunately, there was no alternative system available to publishers, writers, and educators for identifying the appropriate texts for the reading diets of those students most in need.

Over this summer, I will continue to explore topics related to the texts for beginning and struggling readers as the 2010s begin. I’ve already begun with the first three topics (this column really introduces the series). Here’s a preliminary list (subject to change and likely not to be presented in this order):

  1. Whatever happened to Dick and Jane? (posted on June 4, 2010)
  2. Have the texts of beginning reading been dumbed down over the past 50 years?(posted on June 11, 2010)
  3. What exactly are decodable texts? (posted on June 17, 2010)
  4. Shifts in educational policies may lead to new viruses
  5. Ways in which publishers/writers determine appropriate texts for beginning readers
  6. Text diets for beginning readers who depend on schools to become literate
  7. Watch out! You’re about to be hit by the swing of the pendulum
  8. If they aren’t reading: Push it down earlier
  9. Fear of dumbing down: Keep everyone on the same page
  10. Why the delay of the English/language arts textbook adoption is a good thing for California
  11. What exactly does it mean to be a struggling middle-grade reader?
  12. Why phoneme-based programs won’t make much of a difference with struggling middle-grade readers