The Culture that Kills Pt2: Student Blaming

Recently, in my pre-breakfast glance at social media and emails that have come in overnight, I happened to catch a post on the Levelled Literacy Intervention for Teachers Facebook page that warrants some attention. It neatly highlights the difference between the culture of the science of reading, and cultures who reject that science.

I read their posts because A) I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, and B) I’m always hoping for a positive change in the culture that is balanced literacy. I’m probably going to get booted from the group for bringing this to light, but I honestly am beyond caring. It has gone too far.

The query went like this:

‘I am working with a 2nd grader who really struggled with letting go of tracking with his finger, but I think the habit is pretty much gone. Fast forward to now–>his group has just started working in Level I, and he is having a hard time with skipping clusters of words within lines. This was never a problem till the last week or so. I’m questioning whether or not he may have a muscular problem with his eyes. I tried giving him a card to keep under the line as he reads with limited success. I’m just not sure where I should be going with this. Input?
(Example: A truck sprays water road, instead of A truck sprays water on the road. And yes, I’ve prompted for self monitoring for meaning and structure–Did that sound right, make sense, etc. Also, cross checking with “You said…..did that match?”)’

So let me get this straight: You deliberately caused a child to have a problem with reading by forcing him to remove a support he knew he needed. And further, in your previous interactions with him, you have actively encouraged him to look away from and skip words by prompting him to look at pictures, look at first letters only and skip tricky words by going to the end of the sentence and seeing if the rest of the sentence will help him fill in the blanks. And now that the problem is getting bigger, you want to allay your sense of failure by blaming the student’s ‘eye muscles’ and crowd-sourcing your community’s reassurance that it’s not you it’s him. Right?

When Terri Beeler, an admin for the LLI Facebook page carelessly said that education shouldn’t have to accommodate dyslexic students in her out loud voice, I wrote about how she was not a rogue operator, but part of a culture in which this kind of sick attitude thrives. Here is yet more evidence of that culture.

It goes like this: “If what you’re doing isn’t working, our specially patented mental gymnastics will help you out of a tight spot.” Cue the quacks. Here is a selection of ‘helpful’ answers:

  • “Have you tried color overlays? The ones that track a line not for a whole page.”
  • “Whenever I have a kid who is skipping words or lines, I ask OT for advice. I will also call the parents and ask when is the last time the child had an eye exam (not a screening). It’s usually out of my expertise range.”
  • “Behavioral optometrist can also help. They provide comprehensive testing for problems of focusing, eye coordination, eye power and eye movements which might affect a person’s ability to use their eyes for reading and writing.”
  • “Is his / her home language a language other than English?”

When you search for finger tracking and LLI you get quotes from LLI admins such as this:

“… if we allow them to continue to point to the words, they will develop a habit of slow, word-by-word reading. In fact, we must begin to teach them how to ‘look at a phrase.’ Phrasing will also help children anticipate what the next word will be.”

According to this unsubstantiated wisdom, pointing interferes with guessing. Pointing makes them, heaven forbid, look at the words.

The Science of Reading ‘folks’, gazed upon contemptuously by balanced literacy advocates would never countenance such a culture. Science is knowledge. Science is finding out and sharing what has positive effects and science is discarding practice that leads to negative effects. Case in point: It is well known the eyes have very little to do with ongoing lack of progress in reading. It is well known that good readers often keep track of what they are reading by finger-pointing and that there is not a shred of evidence that pointing impairs reading.

Suggesting, after a wrong-headed intervention has caused more problems, that somehow the problem is within the child is treading that softly bigoted path of low expectations. After all, how much easier is it to say that it couldn’t possibly be the result of inadequate teaching? If your culture accepts your student’s lack of progress as being due to his eye muscles, then what’s to stop your culture from saying, “It’s his parents/his poverty/his attitude/his confidence/his grit/his resilience/his laziness…his skin?”

Had this teacher asked a similar question in a science of reading group, her colleagues most likely would have said, “Has it occurred to you that he may have needed to use his finger under the text for extra support, and you ‘teaching hard’ for him to drop it, has caused his difficulties now?”

What else don’t they know? What else is acceptable if they don’t feel any need to look beyond their initial training?

Seeking the truth about reading requires confronting certain uncomfortable facts, and one of them is that if your student isn’t progressing, the most likely scenario is that it’s you, not them. In science of reading circles, when practitioners ask why their students aren’t making expected gains, the answers are about changing practice. Research articles, links to high quality resources, practical tips are offered. The advice is never about turning it all back on the student.

How can we afford that luxury? Because science is another word for knowledge, not another word for excuses.

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