Point of View

What NC teachers need: Restored assistants, smaller classes, fewer tests

May 13, 2014 

Judge Howard Manning last week made a powerful statement about the importance of teaching children to read when he said, “Bottom line requirement: Do the formative assessments and use the information to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the individual child.”

As an early childhood educator for 26 years, it has been my privilege and joy to watch the “lightbulb” go off when my students discover the keys to decoding and understanding the written word. Assessments that identify specific skills, such as producing rhyming words and associating letters and sounds, have helped me plan individualized instruction that is appropriate for my young students.

Reading is a developmental milestone, like learning to talk and walk. Just as we coo and pronounce short words carefully to infants and help toddlers stand and practice steps, we need to provide students with appropriate support as they build strong foundations for reading. Teachers need to develop vocabulary and phonemic awareness (distinguishing between sounds), in addition to teaching the basics of decoding texts.

The biggest obstacles that currently frustrate and deter me from delivering the best reading instruction have been the reduction of teaching assistants, larger class sizes and the increasing demands of required assessments.

• In 1987, when I first started teaching in North Carolina, there was a full-time teaching assistant in every classroom, kindergarten through third grade. Why? Because during those formative years, without additional support, instruction stops constantly. Teachers are juggling too many things, from lost teeth and untied shoes to emotional outbursts and difficulties focusing on tasks. Teaching a well-balanced, differentiated literacy program in an early childhood classroom requires a licensed teacher, a trained teaching assistant and, when possible, good volunteers.

In North Carolina we no longer have full-time assistants in the early grades, not even in kindergarten. The few teaching assistants in our schools are pulled from one classroom to the next to offer reading support, to ensure the safe movement of students to and from school, to assist children in the cafeteria, to provide clerical support, to substitute in any classrooms for which a substitute teacher is not available and the list goes on. Without adequate support in the classroom, it is extremely difficult for teachers to successfully assess, plan and deliver individualized instruction.

• In addition, we have too many students in early childhood classrooms. For many years, North Carolina worked hard on reducing class size. At one point the state tried to limit class size in the early grades to 18 children. Now that cap has been lifted. The number of students in a class directly affects the amount of individualized instruction available per student.

In my kindergarten class, the optimal guided reading group has three to four students – and often several children need one-on-one support. The more children, the fewer times I can meet with each child face-to-face for differentiated instruction each week. During guided reading lessons, teachers tailor instruction to very specific needs, such as identifying and producing rhyming words, identifying letters and sounds, and blending and segmenting words. They teach children strategies for decoding texts, and they focus on the importance of comprehending what is read. Because these groups are small, teachers are better able to evaluate and modify their lessons based on student understanding.

• Finally, the constant addition of required assessments is taking away more and more instructional time. Formative assessments are critical to delivering appropriate individualized instruction, but those assessments should be a balanced part of the program. We need to monitor carefully which assessments are helpful and how much time they take away from instruction.

How children learn to read and the best practices for teaching reading are well-researched and well-documented. Early childhood experts know that support from birth to age 8 is critical to the life-long success of students. As North Carolinians, we must decide whether we care enough to put our resources into programs that will make a difference for our children.

Let’s get back to the real basics of providing support to our early childhood programs and addressing the special needs of our children born into poverty. Let’s teach our children to read!

Serena Buckner of Raleigh is a National Board Certified Teacher and early childhood generalist.

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