This is a list of terms specific to reading instruction and their definitions.
Commercial Reading Program
A commercial reading program is a reading curriculum that is marketed towards and sold to school districts. Some examples are: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Superkids, and Scholastic Literacy. School districts purchase and adopt these programs for use throughout their school system. They invest money in professional development to make sure teachers use the program correctly. The advantage of these programs is that they provide continuity as students advance through the grade levels. They provide consistency in instruction across a school division if students or teachers must change schools. These programs include textbooks, leveled readers and/or workbooks. Some include online activities. However, these programs don't usually include hands on materials or manipulatives that engage the student and allow for multiple modes of learning through touch, sight and sound. They often rely on incidental phonics instruction (see definition below) which is not deliberate or structured enough to be effective with struggling readers. These programs are usually not diagnostic or prescriptive (see definition below) because they are designed to teach an entire class of students with the assumption that all students have mastered the skills taught in the previous grades. The COVID pandemic caused significant disruptions in learning and produced skill gaps that are difficult to find and repair using a commercial reading program.
Systemic vs. Incidental Phonics Instruction
Phonics is the part of reading instruction that teaches the relationship between sounds and the letters that represent them. Most commercial reading programs use incidental phonics instruction. An example of incidental phonics instruction would be if the teacher was reading the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to the class. While reading the story, the teacher takes the opportunity to point out the letter "C" and says the sound it makes in the word "caterpillar." For many children, the occasional mention of the letter and it's sound in the context of one story will be enough for them to remember it and apply it. However, children who struggle with sound/symbol relationships, will need a more deliberate strategy that includes teaching the sounds in a logical sequence that reinforces previously learned sounds while gradually building on that core knowledge to add new sounds. Systemic phonics instruction deliberately teaches the most frequently used letters and sounds first. Only when students can blend and manipulate those core sounds, will new sounds be added. The scope and sequence of phonics instruction is designed to make sure students master the most common phonics patterns, (cat, sat, bat) before introducing more complex patterns such as blends, (flat, splat, brat) and multi- syllable words, (Batman, catnip.)
This means that reading instruction includes methods that engage multiple senses. For example, when a student forms letters by tracing them in sand, the action provides sensory input that stimulates the brain to store the directional information needed to consistently form that letter in the future. When a student taps out a word with his/her fingers, it cues the student to segment the word into individual sounds while also strengthening the left to right directionality necessary to read words correctly. Saying the sound while simultaneously writing the letter in sand, creates a powerful neural connection by fusing visual, auditory and tactile information together. This provides multiple pathways for the student to recall the information later.
Diagnostic and Prescriptive
Diagnostic means that the student is assessed to see what skills they already know and what skills they still need to master. Prescriptive means that lessons are planned to specifically address the weaknesses detected during the assessment. Sometimes in the classroom, the whole class is instructed on a skill whether they know it or not which is wasted time for a student who has already mastered that skill. Sometimes the teacher moves on to the next skill because they are pressured to cover everything before the end of the school year even though some students have not mastered the previous skill. This creates problems for a student who needs more time and practice to master a skill.
Guided reading is done with leveled readers in a small-group lesson. The teacher assigns a leveled book that matches the instructional reading level of the group. These books may use the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system of A (kindergarten) to Z+-(high school). The teacher engages the group with the text and reads it with the group, encouraging more independence with repeated readings. This process is intended to prepare students for new texts with increasingly challenging levels of difficulty. The downside of this approach for struggling readers is that it does not teach the decoding skills these readers need to be successful at reading.
Balanced Literacy is a theory of teaching reading and writing that arose in the 1990's. It is sometimes referred to as the Whole Language approach. It was intended to shift reading instruction to focus more on meaning and comprehension and away from phonics and decoding. It was also intended to integrate writing instruction with reading instruction. The downside of this approach for struggling readers is that is does not emphasize explicit instruction in sound/symbol relationships. It assumes that students will intuitively learn them from exposure to literature. While many students can and do learn to read this way, this approach falls short for many readers.