There is nothing wrong with the book The Pushcart War by Jean Merril or any of the other required reading books that my ninth grade students needed to read during my first year of teaching at John F. Kennedy H.S., Bronx, N.Y., in 1985. It's just that my striving readers were unable to decode or understand a single paragraph in these mandatory texts.
Equipped with a Bachelor of Science (Teacher Preparation) and a semester of successful student teaching experience at JFK High School, I ventured out to rock the world and make a significant impact on my students' literacy and life's skills. That was until I realized that my students couldn't decode any words in the texts I was required to teach and that I didn't have the skills to teach them otherwise.
As a new teacher, I did what most new teachers do: I tweaked my lessons, added a positive behavior plan in my classes, simplified assignments, and continued on teaching without differentiating instruction that would have made any sense to my students. To these students, I offer my apologies... now.
Perplexed as to what to do, I pursued a Master's Degree in Reading, and in the interim, was selected among many staff, to teach PALS (Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System) to students in the following school year. PALS was one of the first CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction) reading/writing programs to reach the thirsty schools of NYC. With the little computer skills I had, I eagerly implemented the PALS program and got many of my students typing and writing narrative stories. The students' stories were published in beautiful magazines which were shared with the creators of the PALS program, as well as, administrators in Districts across NYC. The PALS program was great! My students were learning computer skills, they could type and write out their ideas, and they were also learning some elements of the Alphabet Principle Literacy System. But at the end of two years, the fact that they couldn't apply any of the decoding skills to unfamiliar text, nor had they developed a desire to read independently, left me with a hunger to devour any system or program that would help me surmount this challenge.
During my eight years at JFK HS, I became immersed in the entire Whole Language movement, and on the side, had some colleagues try to brainwash me into learning and applying the Orton Gillingham approach to teaching decoding skills to my high school students. Unfortunately, the Orton Gillingham teachers were in the minority, and the Whole Language philosophy won with me, but not with my striving readers. Another apology to my former students...
Fast forward to the year 2008, when I began to teach the READ 180 program to students at Manhasset Middle School, NY. After my initial training on the READ 180 Enterprise Edition, I felt somewhat equipped to systematically teach reading comprehension and decoding strategies to my adolescent learners. A quote from Alberto Manguel states:
"At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book- that string of confused, alien ciphers-shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader."
The READ 180 program with its outstanding resources and training, helped emerging adolescent learners to unlock the secrets of reading which eventually opened the world to them. These students became, irrevocably, readers!
Since 2008, my district has purchased the System 44 Enterprise program and later upgraded to System 44 NG. Soon after, we upgraded to READ 180 NG and then to READ 180 Universal. With each upgrade, came more opportunities to teach decoding and reading strategies to my striving readers.
Unfortunately, teacher preparation programs focus on the philosophies of learning and theories which do not adequately address the "how to's" of actually teaching students reading, writing, and study skills that they need to achieve success in school
The READ 180 and System 44 programs unlock the mysteries of learning how to read and provide resources for teachers to effectively teach these skills. To be honest, how many reading/English/ ENL teachers learn linguistics in undergraduate and post-graduate programs?
Before my training in System 44, I couldn't tell anyone how many speech sounds are in the word "ox" (3) or the difference between open and closed syllables. Thankfully, nine years into these fabulous programs, both my students and I explore the language of linguistics as it pertains to their needs as readers and learners.
The Pushcart War by Jean Merril, and other wonderful novels should be offered to our students as books to read. There is absolutely nothing wrong with books or designed curriculum for grade levels that teachers need to teach. The problem lies with requiring students to read texts that they cannot decode or understand. The solution is to teach teachers of all grade levels how to explicitly teach reading skills to students who are struggling to acquire these skills.
The READ 180 and System 44 programs provide resources for teachers to help their students master the intricacies of linguistics and to then move forward as life-long readers, critical thinkers, and writers. Malala Yousafzai states "One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world." It's time to change the world by giving our students the literacy skills they need to succeed.