Teacher Preparatory Programs Must Do Better

When I was studying to become a teacher, which feels like many moons ago, I completed observation hours at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. I remember thinking that I was glad I wasn’t going to be an elementary school teacher because teaching foundational literacy skills seemed so difficult. What I didn’t realize at the time was how naive I was to think that as a high school teacher I’d be exempt from teaching those skills.

Now that I’ve been teaching for nine years, I know the harsh and true reality. Over the course of my years as a high school teacher, I have come across many students who, though in high school, have only elementary level literacy skills. Despite my experience, I was still blown away by the recent National Council on Teacher Quality report titled “Teacher Prep Review 2020” which found that “43 million American adults are essentially illiterate, and cannot read well enough to decipher a ballot, file their tax returns, or read their own mail.” This is evidence that the problem is much larger than the walls of my classroom experience, and that everyday students all over the country are not receiving the critical literacy instruction they need to be successful adults. This is a crisis.

The report emphasizes the need for teacher preparation programs to teach research-based instructional literacy methods as a way to reduce the illiteracy rate in America. Specifically, they argue that elementary school teachers should focus on five components of reading science: 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) fluency, 4) vocabulary, and 5) comprehension. These foundational skills can make the difference between a student’s success or failure in school, and NCTQ claims these are at the heart of the literacy crisis.

Tragically, many students move on to middle school and high school without this important set of skills, which I see in my own classroom. Therefore, when I am focused on teaching students to analyze a text in order to understand complex ideas, but they struggle with fluency (or any other foundational skill), they continue to fall behind.

Not only do our students suffer academically if not properly taught foundational literacy skills but the emotional ripples are just as damaging. I see it in my classroom on a daily basis as students struggle or flat out refuse to read out loud. I have seen my students hurt when they review their reading diagnostic data only to learn that they read at a third-grade level.

In the last few years, our district has made literacy a focus for students across all grade levels. As we review data and identify students that have literacy deficits, we determine which supports are necessary to begin to close those gaps. We are using diagnostic reading assessments commonly used at the elementary school level to pinpoint which of the five components of literacy students struggle with. Working as a team, teachers, instructional coaches, and multi-tiered system of support specialists (formerly RTI interventionists), we implement strategies and monitor improvement.

To be honest, it isn’t work I thought I’d be doing at the high school level, but when you consider the alternative of sending students with low literacy skills into the real world unprepared for life, it becomes clear that our students deserve all the supports we can provide.

The gaps created in a student’s learning from a lack of solid foundational literacy skills extend beyond school. The repercussion of these gaps is what results in such a high rate of illiteracy in America, which increases the likelihood of other issues, including unemployment and homelessness to name a few. We owe it to our students to continue to hold them to high standards in order to help them succeed, but we also owe it to them to continue to support their needs at all levels of school and to advocate for better teacher preparatory programs that ensure teachers are equipped to provide all students with the reading skills they need to be successful in high school and after.

Vilma Godoy is a coffee-loving high school English teacher in Shelbyville, KY. Born in Guatemala, raised in California, and transplanted to Kentucky, Vilma has a wide range of experiences that inform her teaching style and philosophy. She is passionate about providing rigorous opportunities for students to learn and grow, not only as English students, but as well-informed members of society. Her desire is that all students leave her classroom better prepared to face the world.