Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well
reviewed by Jacqueline Edmondson - 2003
Title: Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well
Author(s): Regie Routman
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325004927, Pages: 272, Year: 2002
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For classroom teachers, there are many ways of knowing. At times, some seek out sociological and anthropological understandings, while at other times, historical and ethical knowledge is most helpful in making instructional decisions. Yet within today’s current political climate in education, scientific knowledge has assumed precedence over these other ways of knowing. Federal money for schools is attached to scientifically-based reading programs, states are emphasizing high stakes standardized tests to measure discrete skills, and research attention is directed toward experimental designs. Within this context, Regie Routman’s latest book, Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well, is a timely and important reminder that there are other ways of knowing and being when teaching reading well to children. Early in the text, Routman is clear about her agenda:
[As teachers, we] devalue our own knowledge and experiences while over-relying on scientific research. We fail to see teacher research as credible, and we ignore decades of literacy research from around the world. We’ve made teaching and learning more difficult than it needs to be. It’s time for a change – a return to the basics of relying on professional common sense, credible classroom research as well as scientifically based research, teachers as decision makers, and reading as a meaning-making process right from the start. (p. 5)
This book continues Routman’s significant contributions to literacy education and her advocacy for teachers and children (see Routman,1988; Routman, 1991,1994; Routman, 1996; Routman, 2000). Those who turn to Routman’s books because they provide a solid, down-to-earth, theory-based understanding of language learning along with a wealth of practical ideas will find her latest book to be a welcome addition to their library.
Following is a brief summary of the major themes of this text.
In the first part of the book, Routman discusses what she calls “The Essential Reading Life.” This section is devoted to reminding teachers what should matter most: being knowledgeable in order to make good decisions for students; questioning research; understanding that decisions for teaching should be based on our contexts; and focusing on the well-being of the children in our classrooms. Routman emphasizes the importance of treating students and their families with respect and care, valuing and having faith in them (or what she calls “bonding”). She also encourages teachers to share their own reading lives with their students. While much of this seems like common sense knowledge to those who teach well, it is a welcome affirmation during a time when so much of our teaching lives and our work with students is devalued. Routman encourages teachers to think and to care, rather than fall prey to current efforts that deskill teachers and further alienate them from their work. Instead, Routman reminds us that reading, and the teaching of reading, is always a human and very social experience, one that should be enjoyed by teachers and children alike.
In Part Two, Routman describes how the ideas emphasized in the first section of her book might materialize in a classroom. She encourages teachers to teach with “a sense of urgency,” to make every moment with students count. Some of her suggestions for ‘things to do’ to ensure that students become excellent readers include:
· introducing students to a variety of genres
· having an excellent classroom library with many books for children to read
· reading good literature to students
· allowing students time to read and talk about books
· teaching the strategies students need to know
· evaluating students regularly in ways that give feedback and inform goals
· telling kids “you are a reader.”
Throughout the text, Routman emphasizes a model for teaching that encourages a ‘gradual handover of responsibility.’ This model has four seamlessly integrated phases: demonstration, shared demonstration, guided practice, and independent practice. Through this model, Routman encourages teachers to integrate skill instruction in a challenging and relevant curriculum, to focus on language acquisition and language play, and to connect reading with writing. Routman encourages teachers to have high expectations, especially for those students who struggle with reading, and to engage careful and strategic assessment that continually informs instruction. She offers examples and summaries that make her suggestions quite clear, particularly for beginning teachers.
Part Three details what Routman considers to be teaching essentials. In this section, she explains that comprehension needs to be taught from the beginning of reading instruction, an important reminder in the midst of reading reports and policies that focus exclusively on word calling, automaticity, and fluency in early grades. She reminds teachers of the constructivist practice of beginning where a reader is, and then building from the reader’s current knowledge base to teach comprehension strategies. Routman also emphasizes shared reading, which invites children to read a text along with the teacher or another expert reader to help improve fluency, to learn how texts work, to figure out vocabulary, to learn new information, and more. Finally, this section encourages teachers to examine guided reading, which Routman construes broadly as “any learning context in which the teacher guides one or more students through some aspect of the reading process” (p. 151).
The final section of Routman’s book, “Advocacy is Essential,” reflects some of the pressing concerns of our times. Routman encourages teachers to thoughtfully engage best practices, which includes being caring teachers, matching students with books they can read, integrating basic skills into a relevant and challenging curriculum, and more. She reminds teachers that quality teachers teach reading, not programs. According to Routman, it is up to teachers to be informed about current research and policies, to take a stand based on their own beliefs, and to advocate for the children in their classrooms. She asks teachers to trust their own experiences and their own ways of knowing. Finally, Routman asks teachers to engage in professional development, to read for both personal and professional reasons, and to enjoy. She concludes the book with these words: “Enjoy your students, enjoy your teaching, and enjoy your life” (p. 221).
Routman, R. (2000). Conversations: Strategies for teaching, learning, and evaluating.
Routman, R. (1996). Literacy at the crossroads: Crucial talk about reading, writing, and other teaching dilemmas.
Routman, R. (1991,1994). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners K-12.
Routman, R. (1988). Transitions: From literature to literacy.