Deja Vu All Over Again: Individualized Reading Resurfaces as Reading Workshop (by Selma Wassermann)

It was important enough to get onto front page of the New York Times: “Reading Workshop – an innovative approach to teaching reading that allows students to pick their own books, in order to cultivate enthusiasm for reading.”

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I was there fifty years ago, when May Lazar, Assistant Director, Bureau of Educational Research in the New York City Board of Education, pioneered this approach, then called “individualized reading,” and advanced its growth in elementary classrooms in the five boroughs, it seemed like déjà vu all over again.

It was a revelation to the author of the Times’ article that students in Reading Workshop programs loved the idea of selecting their own reading materials, that they enjoyed reading more, and that their reading performance improved. But hey, we knew all of that 50 years ago. The mystery lies in what happened to individualized reading, what accounts for its 50 year-old quiescence, and what explains its resurrection albeit under a new name.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, individualized reading had strong support among the academic elite in the field of reading: Leland Jacobs, Alice Miel, Jeannette Veatch, Willard Olsen, Nancy Larrick – to name a few. Under their influence, individualized reading “took off” in selected classrooms and schools throughout the United States and Canada. For teachers for whom the traditional grouping system (e.g. the Blackbirds, the Robins, the Chickadees) was found to be seriously wanting in meeting individual learning needs, this new approach made much more sense. A program that promised more enthusiasm for reading, where students could select their own books from a variety of high quality literature, where word analysis, phonic skills and comprehension were taught and tailored more to individual learning needs, captured the minds and hearts of teachers. Students’ enthusiasm was palpable and teachers were stoked by the successes they saw. The data from a limited group of studies bore out teachers’ observations; there were positive gains in reading scores and positive attitudes toward reading soared. The research was not extensive, but it was compelling.For more than a decade, individualized reading endured as an alternate approach to the traditional 3-ability group, basal reader framework of instruction.Then, slowly, its appearance in classrooms began to wane, and finally, vanish from sight — both in classroom practice and in the educational literature.

Historians have provided insights into the many reasons for the disappearance of healthy, vital, and strong programs that, over the years, have proved effective in promoting the learning gains we say we all want for students. And it is probably true that individualized reading was felled by the same swords: cut down by administrative indifference and injunctions against the “new,” inadequacies in teacher education and in-service education, the repeated and incessant intrusion of standardized tests with their emphasis on single-correct answers, the scare-mongering of self-serving politicos, and not least, the insidious and rarely spoken of need to control students, rather than liberate them in the educational process – death by a thousand cuts.

Not to mention that teaching students, each with a different book, and using one’s own professional expertise to make diagnoses of individual word analysis and comprehension skills, is a much more challenging teaching strategy than using a basal reader and following a Teacher’s Manual. In the sum of it, good programs erode when there is insufficient support – in a variety of forms — for teachers to carry them out.

So what explains its resurrection? Truth be told, individualized reading has not been totally dormant for all these years; it has, actually been embedded in more recent student-centered reading programs like “organic teaching” (Sylvia Ashton-Warner), “whole language” and “language experience” (Goodman & Goodman) – each having its own heyday and each lapsing into oblivion, pushed out by renewed insistence on more skill and drill methods (same old, same old) and an insupportable confidence in the effectiveness of the basal reader. It takes about 10 years or so before the deficiencies and follies of the more regimented programs, advanced as the new holy grails, are once again, finally admitted and are allowed to give way to more enlightened methods. So now, in search of something better to counter persistent reading failure and negative attitudes about reading comes Reading Workshop, and we march forward, or backward, as the case may be – giving us the illusion of progress, but merely keeping us oddly stuck at “Go.”

How long before Reading Workshop too passes into history, and yet another skill and drill program with a different name once again, rises to the top, like yesterday’s soured milk?

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