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A group of Baltimore County educators spent today in reading presentations by literacy expert Dr. Richard Allington, whom I spoke with for a recent story about independent reading programs.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston introduced Allington, a professor of literacy studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as "the Bill Gates of reading."

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He added that Allington is one of the few individuals in the country who truly understands the significance of that skill and has mastered the teaching of it -- "and is willing to share it with those of us who are in the trenches."

Allington does not mince words when it comes to his belief in the importance of properly teaching children how to read: allowing them to read what interests them, and giving them access to such material at their reading levels.

His morning session to BCPS administrators and principals did not spare anyone, as he condemned widely used, "one size fits all" reading programs that, he said, essentially do nothing for children. I thought I'd share some of his noteworthy observations here, as well as some references and links to material he cited during his presentation.

*"There is no such thing as a learning disability or dyslexia," Allington told the group, citing research and his own 45-year experience of never finding anyone he couldn't teach to read.

"If your teachers don't have Warhammer in your fourth-grade classroom, and you've got boys that you think are dyslexic, [they] just haven't found anything socially inappropriate enough to read," he said.

*On high school textbooks: Many teachers think their job is not to teach children, but "to ram kids through a packaged program that's too hard for most of the kids," he said.  Teachers choose books written at a level often incomprehensible to students. But no program is truly proven or up to the federal "gold" standard (see also the government's What Works Clearinghouse.)

*Science texts should be 2.5 years below grade reading level, not above, as the chosen ones tend to be.

"You can't learn much from a book you can't read," Allington said (also the title of an article he wrote on the subject).

*His principles for getting responses to instruction/intervention:

  • Match texts to readers
  • Dramatically expand reading activity
  • Use very small groups or tutoring
  • Coordinate interests with classroom curriculum
  • Expert teacher provides instruction (i.e., a certified reading specialist)
  • Focus on meaning

For more info on Allington or for materials on reading, you can check out his site.

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