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Local Expert Discusses Challenges to Reading in America
For nearly a decade, Renee O’Rourke has led Manhattanville’s Rose Institute, which trains teachers on the latest philosophy and science of reading instruction to improve reading comprehension in society.
We spoke with O’Rourke about the institute, its mission and its increasing relevance as reading is under assault on various fronts, from the politicization of books at schools to the after-effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on education
Can you summarize the work of the Rose Institute – its premise and its goals and aims?
The Rose Institute for Learning and Literacy was founded by the late Sandra Priest Rose, Manhattanville ‘73, who believed that almost all children could learn to read, write, spell and comprehend. In 1981, she, with other teachers and community members, founded Reading Reform Foundation of New York (RRF) to help teachers learn to teach reading using structured, multisensory strategies. These offerings were delivered in a pioneering, highly successful, respected partnership with the New York City Department of Education in schools over the five boroughs of New York City for over 25 years.
Thirty years after RRF’s founding, Mrs. Rose envisioned a lasting legacy for the RRF program at an academic institution to provide this vital information to teachers earlier in their careers. Recalling her vivid experience at Manhattanville, Mrs. Rose approached Manhattanville with her idea. The then-president connected Mrs. Rose with a member of institutional advancement and the Dean of the School of Education, who worked closely with Mrs. Rose to develop a plan for continuing her legacy.
Mrs. Rose made a generous donation which launched the Rose Institute for Learning and Literacy at Manhattanville’s School of Education in 2014. The program’s cornerstone is to support and teach teachers and, through them, to support children in learning to read.
The institute is committed to training teachers to use direct-explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics when teaching children how to read. The institute, with the School of Education’s Department of Literacy and English Education, provides workshops for teachers on the key components of the Science of Reading: fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and writing. These workshops are available in various venues, including a summer workshop series and annual literacy conference, and can be brought directly to the school districts.
What have you/the institute identified as the biggest threats against reading comprehension and ability in the U.S.?
Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading. However, to comprehend, one must be able to read the words accurately and fluently. The last few decades have seen a shift away from explicit instruction in phonics. Phonics is an essential pillar of the reading process and is not automatic for most beginning readers. The institute provides the opportunity for teachers to learn how to teach phonics explicitly and systematically.
Comprehension is a complex process and requires instruction as well. The institute affords teachers the opportunity to delve into this multifaceted component of literacy instruction through its workshops, which can be delivered to school districts and are also available during our Summer Workshop Series and our annual Election Day Literacy Conference.
What about the after-effects of the COVID lockdown? Several studies have been reported in the news, showing a significant drop in reading comprehension (among other things) because of it. How do we bounce back from that? Is it too late for those kids to catch up at this point?
It is understandable that there was an academic decline during COVID, and there truly is no one to blame. We continued to work with the schools during COVID, and I never ceased to be amazed at what teachers were doing to provide as much instruction as possible for the students.
Kids can catch up. A knowledgeable teacher, a district with a well-thought-out curriculum, coherent staff development and a plan and resources for intervention and remediation can make that happen.
Speaking of teachers, long before COVID they were the ones traditionally blamed for reading deficits among students. Has research shown that there are better philosophies and techniques to teach students how to read?
This question brings us directly to the science of reading. It is important to know exactly what it is. It is NOT a course. Specifically, it is a phrase that represents a body of evidence that describes the reading brain, how reading develops in typical and atypical readers and best practices for reading instruction.
The Rose Institute is aligned with the science of reading and recognizes the multifaceted nature of the reading process. Among the factors are phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. The research in the science of reading addresses each of these components and identifies the best practices for instruction in each. The institute brings courses on explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness and workshops on vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and writing instruction to districts and teachers to help them include these evidenced-based practices in their instruction.
Technology – from the Internet and audiobooks to now AI – would you say it’s a friend or foe of reading?
It all depends on how it is used. For example, technology can be used to develop background knowledge and vocabulary, two essential components of comprehension instruction. It can be used for drill and practice. Audiobooks can help with fluency and prosody. There are many ways it can enhance and support instruction. The key is to use it wisely.
What are the most important takeaways you and the institute have gleaned from all the research into reading comprehension?
Some of the key takeaways from the research on literacy are:
All children have the right to learn how to read.
- Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. It requires both adequate word reading and language comprehension.
- Our brains are not hard-wired for reading. Skilled readers are made, not born.
- All reading begins with phonological processing. Those with reading difficulties (especially dyslexics) present a deficit in the phonological component of language.
- Language comprehension is enhanced by developing background knowledge.
- Parents are our first teachers and advocates
There has been so much written about literacy instruction. The personal stories of literacy struggles are sad and sometimes disheartening. The various articles have been very successful at raising awareness and encouraging change. It is important for parents to be informed and to know that they can make a difference for all children.
The foundation for phonological processing can begin at home. Nursery rhymes, children’s songs with rhyme and pattern are a great and natural beginning. Whether in the nursery, at the kitchen table (after the meal!), in the playroom or while driving in the car, these are ways to begin to lay the foundation for children to be able to discriminate between and among sounds, an essential skill in reading words. Please note that all of these activities are auditory. They do not and should not include flashcards of any sort. It is all about hearing and manipulating the sounds of our language.
Because we never want to lose sight of the main reason for reading – comprehension – we must also be aware of the need to develop background knowledge which naturally increases vocabulary. Again, parents will begin this process from day one through their verbal interaction with their child. Hands-on, in-person experiences at different venues, from the farm to the zoo, from the forest to the beach, from a museum to a restored historical village, all contribute to background knowledge, an essential component of comprehension.
The power of reading to children can never be diminished. This habit can be established early in a child’s life and continued throughout the years by both parents and teachers. Libraries and bookstores are valuable resources for suggested titles and story-time sessions.