WHY NOT learn to teach reading from a script? What role does improvisation play in teaching reading with a lesson plan or even with a script? Does a teacher who knows more about phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation teach more effectively from a script than one who knows less about these domains of reading?
As an external evaluator for Georgia's "Reading First Initiative," funded under the No Child Left Behind Act, and as a university teacher educator, I find myself pondering these questions. Every school receiving Reading First funds in Georgia must use a core reading program. Some core programs require teachers to read from a script to deliver explicit, systematic reading instruction (e.g., Reading Mastery Plus and the Voyager Core K-3 Reading Program).
The scripted reading instruction of today comes, in one way or another, from Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter, who in the 1960s developed the direct instruction method of teaching reading to raise the academic success of inner-city children. (1) The pedagogy of a fully scripted teacher's guide has an even longer history. In 1888 Samuel and Adeline Monroe published one of the earliest texts for teachers with complete scripts for teaching reading readiness, phonics, and oral reading. (2)
My observations of scripted reading lessons have me thinking anew about prior assumptions. My history with the scripted teaching of reading consists of three experiences. The first experience was in 1990 while I was studying for a doctoral degree in literacy education. I was curious to see for myself what a direct instruction approach to teaching reading was, because of the critiques I was hearing. I visited a school where the program, Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR), was well established. (3) The teacher I observed was reading from a script in the teacher's manual. She was animated, and the children responded confidently, fulfilling their part as the audience. While I admired the lively interactions, I thought the text bizarre. It was about the adventures of a fly. The teacher asked questions about where the fly went and what misadventures he had. It seemed they were engaged in such low-level comprehension as identifying explicit question-answer relationships. (4) It seemed doubtful to me that reading an anthropomorphic story about a day in the life of a fly was edifying.
My observation of the DISTAR reading lesson occurred at a time when I was researching teaching for critical thinking through dialogical discussions of text. (5) I was presenting schoolchildren labeled "learning disabled" with stories that had content that allowed us to discuss a central question in which there were at least two plausible conclusions. For example, we read Sheila Greenwald's simple and short book, The Hot Day. (6) We identified reasons to support two possibilities. Did the central character run away because he was scared or angry? Then we evaluated the truth and relevance of our reasons to arrive at a defensible conclusion.
The scripted questions about the adventures of a fly seemed antithetical to teaching critical thinking. These were questions that could be answered directly from the text, and this was a far cry from my interest in teaching a philosophical conception of critical thinking to teachers so they could facilitate discussions of text that elicited "reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to do or think." (7) I had read a study of a direct instruction approach to teaching critical reading (8) and found it unsatisfactory because dimensions of critical thinking were taught as separate skills, as opposed to the way they occur in concert in real discussions and arguments.
My second experience with scripted teaching occurred much later. In 2003 I showed my university students a video that profiled teachers at Walton Elementary School in Central Texas using Reading Mastery (formerly called DISTAR) and teachers at Bearden Elementary in Alabama using Project Read, published by Language Circle Enterprises. …