DUMB. That’s the title of an op-ed piece by Daniel Willingham in The New York Times. WIllingham argues that teacher training is actually the “dumb” component in education, especially in reading instruction. He sites some disturbing data. Referencing the 2000 National Reading Panel recommendations, teachers should not only implicitly understand syntax, morphology and phonological skills, but be able to teach them. Willingham cites a study in which only 42% of teachers could define “phonological awareness.” The author goes on to say that those who teach teachers are even worse off. Willingham writes: “Emily Binks-Cantrell of Texas A&M University and her colleagues tested 66 professors of reading instruction for their knowledge of literacy concepts. When asked to identify the number of phonemes in a word, they were correct 62 percent of the time. They struggled more with morphemes, correctly identifying them 27 percent of the time.” He also points out that math teacher training is not up to par, either.
What to do? Willingham has two recommendations. First, assess teachers, not their students. Second, use existing research to determine what teachers should know. He concludes that teachers are not dumb, but simply not taught effectively.
I would add another sticky issue to what happens to reading instruction in many schools. An emphasis upon vocabulary and context replaces solid instruction in both phonemic and phonological awareness. When teachers use leveled texts to determine phonics instruction, they end up shifting their focus from silent e words to vowel teams to consonant blends. This haphazard approach to phonics places greater demands upon language skills for decoding, effectively limiting access to meaning for dyslexic and low income students. Now that’s not smart.