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Content vs. Skills Reading Instruction

A key discussion point regarding reading instruction today involves those favoring skills-based instruction and those favoring content-based instruction. This is not the old phonics-whole language debate. Other than a few hold-outs, such as Stephen Krashen, most in the reading field would agree that this debate has been largely settled. The current debate involves whether teachers at all levels should be teaching the how or the what of reading.

There are, indeed, some who would restrict reading to a measurable skill-set. These would pigeon-hole reading instruction into a continuum of increasingly complex rules, while ignoring the thinking process necessary to advanced reading. Teachers of this ilk love their phonics, context clues, and inference worksheets when they are not leading their students in fluency exercises, ad nauseum, whether the students need fluency practice or not.

On the other side of the debate are those who would claim that content is the real reading instruction. These would limit reading skill instruction in favor of pouring shared cultural knowledge into learners. They favor teacher read-alouds, Cornell note-taking, and direct instruction. They argue that subject area disciplines such as English literature, science, and history often provide the best reading instruction by the content that they teach.

Both are extremes. Students need some of each to become skilled and complex readers. One need not be at the expense of the other. However, if I had to side with one group, I would lean toward the skill teachers because at least those of their persuasions are trying to impact the students’ abilities to increase their own reading competencies. We need to teach developing readers of all levels how to access information and ideas on their own. Additionally, the content side raises thorny issues, such as what should be the content poured into students and who decides what content is and is not important? Some cultural literacy is certainly fine, but I feel more comfortable in playing the equipping role, rather than the inculcating role in reading instruction.

Furthermore, many in the content-only camp are under the false assumption that reading is a basic skill, such as simple addition. Once multiple digit addition with carrying over is mastered, the skill can be applied to more complex operations such as multiplication, division, and algebra. Although learning the phonetic code and the syllabication rules certainly serve as the basic skills to enable pronunciation of  multi-syllabic words, pronunciation is not reading. Reading is ultimately about meaning-making. And meaning-making is a complex process. Indeed, reading is a skill in the same manner as writing and thinking are each skills.

Although I lean toward the skill side of reading skills instruction, I do believe that at some point the spoon-feeding of skills-based reading instruction needs to morph into providing the recipes for critical-thinking readers to create on his or her own. Having taught reading and trained teachers of reading at elementary school, middle school, high school, and college levels, I am of the opinion that teaching more advanced reading skills are necessary to get students to this level of independence and that these skills are better “taught” than “caught.” Students of all ages need both “learning to read” and “reading to learn.”

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight to adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, adaptable to various instructional settings, and simple to use. With multiple choice reading assessments on two CDs, formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games (364 pages), even novice reading teachers and para-professionals will be able to use these user-friendly resources to effectively differentiate reading instruction with minimal preparation.

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