Reading To Learn: Lessons from Exemplary Fourth-Grade Classrooms
reviewed by Lynn Norton-Manna - 2003
Title: Reading To Learn: Lessons from Exemplary Fourth-Grade Classrooms
Author(s): Richard L. Allington and Peter H. Johnson
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1572307625, Pages: 254, Year: 2002
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“Anything but Fourth Grade!” A strong emphasis on testing preparation, lack of curriculum freedom, and the pressure to produce high test results have caused many teachers to write these words on their end of the year preference sheets requesting a teaching position for the upcoming school year. The fourth grade post is now reserved for either the very confident or those who lack seniority. Standardized tests weigh heavily on the minds of everyone involved in education from the administrators who must accept responsibility to the 10-year-olds who have “testing boot camp” for weeks or even months prior to the test dates. For many children, daily instruction in the fourth grade consists of only test prep and math and begins and ends with reminders of what is at stake if they do not perform well enough. The pressure is palpable.
Reading to Learnoffers an encouraging glimpse into an alternative to the current test heavy approach to fourth grade instruction. The authors begin the book by acknowledging the emphasis on standardized testing nationwide and the resulting onslaught of instructional materials that were designed to get children “test ready.” The opening chapters focus on exploring the reality of teaching fourth grade in the current political climate and synthesizing what research has revealed about effective teachers. It is their argument that student achievement is reliant much more on the experience and characteristics of individual teachers than on any particular instructional material. The authors used observational studies, interviews, and surveys to study exemplary literacy instruction in fourth grade classrooms. The study involved thirty fourth-grade teachers in five states. The commonalities of these teachers were listed in careful detail in this section and were categorized into areas such as common beliefs, characteristics, and competencies of effective teachers. Some of these common characteristics, for example “believing all children can succeed,” seem on the surface to be obvious. However, other teacher characteristics such as having a hobby of one’s own or a lifelong learning activity were interesting prerequisites for being a stimulating teacher.
Each chapter in this section lets the reader visit a classroom and experience not only the teaching methods and materials used, but also learn about the teacher’s strong beliefs that drive instruction. All of the teachers, even the veteran ones, were described as constantly reevaluating their teaching and striving to improve. They all had high expectations and a firm yet nurturing approach, and they all placed a high importance on reading aloud to their students and allowing the children to engage in accountable talk during instruction.
One of the most important characteristics of these teachers was their ability to strike a balance between retaining their individual beliefs about their curriculum choices and still working within a larger system. They were able to gain the “widest discretion for themselves and their students without incurring the wrath of the system” (p. 25). It is easy for teachers to feel powerless and then blame administrators and parents around them and cite them as a reason for inertia and mediocrity. The teachers in this book see the students as their responsibility, regardless of the situation outside of the classroom. One observation of a teacher concluded “in all the time I worked with her, I never heard Sandy complain about educational policies or systems as beyond her control nor did she blame parents, colleagues, administrators or community for what they did or did not do to support her classroom” (p.122).
Creating a “child centered” classroom is a claim too easily thrown around in educational circles, but the teachers in this book can honestly describe their rooms with this term. The classes were communities of learners with the teachers letting the children know that they too were learning. It has been said that good teachers put themselves out of a job by allowing students to take over some of the responsibilities and decisions traditionally in the teacher’s control. They trusted and respected their students enough to allow them to make decisions, solve problems, and take risks. All placed an emphasis on “real-life” experiences and allowed the children’s inquiries and interests to drive their instruction. The teachers all interacted calmly and with respect with their students, and as a result, the children treated each other supportively and were able to cooperate in their learning throughout the day. Students were able to take risks without fearing negative reactions from classmates. All of the featured classroom teachers provided many daily opportunities for children to talk to each other during the school day. During discussions, the teachers served as facilitators, but allowed the children to take the talk in directions that weren’t written in the lesson plan book. Instruction centered on learning strategies instead of memorizing facts and was integrated throughout different subjects.
Part three of the book is a summary of what can be learned from the six classrooms described. Two major characteristics identified by the authors as integral to exemplary classrooms were the creation of a literate environment and integrating the curriculum. These two areas were thoroughly detailed in the closing chapters. Integrating the curriculum, in particular, was the reason the individual teachers were initially chosen to take part in the study and is thoroughly analyzed by the authors in this section. The pace of the book slows down considerably during this section.
While most of the book offers a realistic view of fourth grade classrooms today, the authors occasionally miss the mark. For example, they downplay the parents’ awareness of standardized test scores. They write, “Typically parents do not have information on the achievement test performances of students in different teacher’s rooms, so test scores seem an unlikely source of parental judgments about good teaching” (p.14). Anyone who has stood outside a school during dismissal and listened to parent conversations would know that they are often keenly aware of the test results from a particular teacher’s classroom as evidenced also by the resulting political wrangling that follows to get their child into preferable rooms. Another area that wasn’t explored in depth was the need for school wide instructional consistency. There needs to be a strong school commitment to the kind of excellent teaching and instructional environments found in the classrooms described. The best fourth grade teachers can spend half a year playing “catch up” if there isn’t strong instruction in the lower grades by like-minded teachers.
Overall, Reading To Learn is an inspiring look at what could be. The authors were correct in the closing of the book when they stated, “We must shift the focus away from “test prep” to “strong literacy teaching that is complex and multidimensional” (p. 223). Politicians and policy makers as well as school administrators need to give teachers the freedom and support necessary to establish the environments needed for successful teaching. Most schools do not allow the leeway given to the teachers in the book, and in particular, this freedom is not found in schools with low-test scores. These schools often have scripted literacy instruction that makes creative teaching almost impossible. This book should be required reading for teachers, and not only those responsible for fourth grade. It should also be read by those who make the big decisions that teachers must then implement. Unfortunately, until a shift is made towards thoughtful literacy instruction, we will not attract and keep our brightest most innovative teachers, and those who do stay will continue to write “Anything but Fourth grade!” each June.