Shortly after earning my teaching license, I took a long-term substitute position at a school in the same district in which I had completed my student teaching. Before my arrival in the Spring semester, the full-time teacher had quit her job over winter break and my new students had had at least a dozen or more substitute teachers fill in for the month of January. I was hired because my resume showed that I had recently completed coursework in reading and literacy. My position was as a Language Arts teacher for sixth and seventh grades (at the time sixth grade was still considered “secondary” so I could teach that level under my license), but primarily I was to be a reading instructor for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade reading classes.
Most new teachers go through a period of trial-by-fire. This was mine. I wish I could say I did well during this period, but I was, in the fullest extent of the word, a very pathetic teacher. I think we watched more movies by the end than read books.
The truth was, my classes didn’t prepare me for the day-in-day-out work of providing material for my students. I knew how to teach them how to read a text they could already read – that is, my graduate classes assumed my students already knew how to read well, and that my job would be helping them to interpret the text. No problem, I could take apart Milton and Thoreau to a captive audience, but I couldn’t teach someone how to decode the words they used, or to be interested in it if they weren’t already.
Homeschooling has revealed to me all my weaknesses from that time. We’re using a curriculum called All About Reading by Marie Rippel which has actually taught me more about reading than I ever recall learning. I’m sure somewhere in my past I learned all the uses for a silent-e, but I don’t remember learning about them. I just remember being interested enough in stories to want to be a better reader. I used to read Dave Barry’s humor books aloud to my parents on long car-trips. If I got hung up on a word or understanding, my mom would help me out, but otherwise it was through reading that I became a better reader. Until teaching my own kids, I couldn’t have told you why we use “ai” in the middle of words and “ay” at the end, or that those two letter combinations are called digraphs. I couldn’t have told you that there are two kinds of syllables (open and closed) and the kind of syllable will determine whether the vowel is long (open) or short (closed). I couldn’t explain why we write two ‘l’s’ in the word ‘sell’ but only one ‘l’ in the word ‘seal.’ I always thought it was just that the words originated from two different languages (actually they are both from Middle English, and ‘l’s, s’s, and f’s’ are doubled in single syllable words that contain only one vowel).
I wish I had had Rippel’s curriculum with me when I taught middle school reading. This isn’t a commercial for her curriculum (I’m not receiving anything in return for this), but what my students needed most was to learn how words work, rather than how themes develop in longer texts. I even tried humor, music, pop-culture, comic books – anything – but the genre of a text will not inspire someone to learn to read on their own without help in decoding the words themselves. You can’t just throw a book at a young teenager, no matter how interesting the book, and expect them to take it apart on their own. It takes good teachers to help with that, and a good teacher needs to be a generalist more than a specialist when it comes to Language Arts. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a young teacher, but I’m glad I have a better opportunity now, thanks in part to Rippel’s work, to help my own kids learn to read more effectively.