Sunday, December 5, 2010

Teaching Reading with Constructivist Methods

Instruction in current reading intervention classes at the secondary level lean significantly towards a direct instruction model. While direct instruction is well used and proven, there are other theories which are pedagogically sound and have virtues of their own. Constructivism is one such theory that is accepted widely in the educational community. The purpose of this paper is to examine the current high frequency of direct instruction in reading intervention programs and whether a constructivist model could be as successful or even more so.

To determine whether one proven method of instruction could replace another proven model may seem trivial. However, there are a number of reasons why this is not the case. First, differentiation not only encourages teaching students at different levels of ability, but also to teach them in different ways. Teaching reading both through direct instruction and constructivism would meet this requirement. Second, some researchers would place direct instruction and constructivist practice at different ends of the spectrum. In the culture of best practice, some educators and administrators may consider one theory better than another. Third, direct instruction may appear more appealing to districts and teachers for reasons completely separate from student learning or achievement. Surely, these are valid reasons to explore the possibility of teaching reading differently.

Differentiated instruction asks that teachers meet all students at their current level. Teaching the same lesson to all students in a class and asking all students to complete the same assignments will likely produce a bell curve of learning. For some students, the lesson will be at an independent level – they could complete the task without the lesson if asked. Other students will be at an instructional level – the lesson is meaningful and helpful and aids them in completing the assignment and learn new information. A final group of students will be at the frustration level – they will only be able to complete part of the assignment because they lack the prior foundational knowledge other students learned from different experiences to fully comprehend the lesson.

In differentiated instruction, students often complete similar tasks requiring differing levels of ability. Because all students learn different subjects at a different pace, in a differentiated classroom students will all learn at their own instructional level. Not only do all students learn at different rates, but in different ways. To teach an entire course using the same instructional theory will likely benefit some students while putting others at a severe disadvantage. Wormeli (2007) addresses this in his book Differentiation: “Many teacher's follow Madeline Hunter's direct instruction model. It's a logical and well loved approach that can be part of a differentiated classroom. It is ineffective, however, if it becomes the only model we use” (p. 72, author's italics). Balancing instructional methods across a curriculum will benefit all students equally. This is one reason the teaching of reading through a constructivist model is important.

While differentiating instruction is one reason for examining the issue of instructional theory in literacy education, the fact that some consider direct instruction and constructivism on opposing sides of the educational spectrum is another. Johnson (2004) attempts to find a happy medium between these two opposing views: “ideally and ultimately, the two sides create an array of instructional possibilities, a series of dynamic tensions, which result in balance, and order, and enhanced curricular alternatives” (p. 83).

Some teachers and administrators may favor direct instruction not because of a philosophical preference, but because of accessibility or control rather than student learning or achievement. The apparent abundance of packaged reading curriculum following a direct instruction model suggests this is either the best way to teach reading or the easiest way to produce and sell reading curriculum. There may also be a tendency for teachers to gravitate toward direct instruction due to the greater teacher control it offers in classrooms filled completely with at-risk students.

Language arts classes at the high school level consist primarily of literature analysis and composition. Literacy is generally seen as a skill that should have already been acquired. But in an attempt to meet increasing demands for adequate yearly progress on state test scores as required under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many secondary schools are having to do what they have not in the past: teach reading. The general population of secondary educators are not prepared for this.

For this reason, many companies in the business of offering boxed curriculum packages are selling an array of reading programs. And according to Brooks and Brooks (1999), many districts are buying, even before NCLB was passed. “To increase the percentages of students passing state assessments – and to keep schools off the states' lists of failing schools – local district spending on student remediation, student test-taking skills, and faculty preparation for the new assessments increases” (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p. 20). In the interests of making the transition from literature teacher to literacy teacher easy, the majority of these programs contain some scripting, lessons and units that encourage some degree of the transmission model, and formative and summative assessments that predict how the student will perform on the state test.

Yet there are questions whether packaged curricula and more spending on remediation really improve student learning. “Despite rising test scores in subsequent years, there is little or no evidence of increased student learning. A recent study by Kentucky's Office of Educational Accountability (Hambleton et al., 1995) suggests that test-score gains in that state are a function of students' increasing skills as test takers rather than evidence of increased learning” (Brooks & Brooks, 1999, p. 20). This raises the question: is direct instruction a better way to teach remediation, or is it just easier and more reproducible than constructivism or other theoretical instructional alternatives?

At the secondary level, response to intervention programs typically gravitate towards a standard protocol model where students requiring remediation outside the general education classroom are all placed in an additional course rather than receiving individualized additional instruction specific to their literacy strengths and weakness. This practice creates classrooms with generally two (stereo)types of students: those who lack the skills independent readers have because they did not learn the skills inherently and require explicit instruction; and students who either did not try on the screening exam or lack the skills because they lack motivation in traditional educational settings. This practice creates classrooms that can be much more challenging to manage behaviorally because a small handful of the students want to learn and improve their skills while the rest of the students are increasing each others' energy levels until they spiral out of control. While a constructivist model encourages more social interaction and almost equal control of the learning between the students and teacher, a direct instruction model grants the teacher greater control of the lesson. This greater control may be attractive from a classroom management standpoint, but does it create an increase in student learning?

A number of researchers argue for more teaching from a constructivist standpoint in reading intervention. One reason is social-constructivism can produce more reliable and actionable assessment results in the screening and diagnostic stages of reading intervention. Another is that educators who already lean towards constructivism of course encourage it in remediation. Even Johnson (2004), whose diplomatic close to her paper is quoted previously, seems to encourage more constructivism in the teaching of reading. Another researcher finds that social interaction promotes the construction of knowledge in her developmental readers. And finally, one researcher has found that students in a constructivist modeled classroom have greater motivation and “more fun” than the same students do in a direct instruction modeled class.

One criticism of the current institutionalized model for reading remediation is norm-based testing – that white, middle class students often outperform their peers from diverse backgrounds. Macrine and Sabbatino (2008) mitigate these concerns by proposing a dynamic assessment and remediation approach (DARA). “Dynamic assessment is a procedure that determines whether substantive changes occur in examinee behavior if feedback is provided across an array of increasingly complex or challenging tasks” (Macrine & Sabbatino, 2008, p. 61). Macrine and Sabbatino (2008) argue that this approach is fairer for minority students (and perhaps all students) because the teacher provides learner support as they build meaning from a piece of text. In this model of assessment, the teacher gets a clear view of the specific reading strategies a student possesses rather than just a black and white determination of whether they understand a text or not. Certainly the teacher has more information when a constructivist perspective is applied to the initial screening and diagnostic assessments.

Some educators believe broad-based institutional reform is required to bring about constructivist teaching. For Brooks and Brooks (1999), “serious educational reform targets cognitive changes in students' thinking. Perceived educational reform targets numerical changes in students' test scores” (p. 23). They argue that constructivist modeled classrooms increase student learning, though maybe not always test scores.

Johnson (2004), too, seems biased towards the constructivist approach. She goes so far to equate direct instruction with the transmission model of student learning where teachers are like pitchers of information, filling their cup-like students with knowledge. Few teachers today accept the transmission model. Yet Johnson (2004) finds it “ugly but effective” (Schug et al., 2001, as cited in Johnson, 2004, p. 77). Johnson (2004) attempts to find middle ground between direct instruction and constructivism. “Teachers, as well as students, are drawn to instructional approaches that focus on active student involvement and meaningful learning [like constructivism] . . . And yet, the evaluative outcome research clearly establishes the benefits of [direct instruction]” (Johnson, 2004, p. 77). Is this mix of the two the furthest a remedial teacher can get to the constructivist end of the spectrum?

Apparently not. Kaiden (1998) found that “the transformation of passive readers into active readers and learners is clearly enhanced through the dynamics of social interaction with peers” (p. 479). In her experience, students' reading was enhanced when they controlled the classroom and the direction of the discussion.

Likewise, Donalson (2008) found students' motivation was higher when taught from the constructivist theory. Yet students didn't see this as learning. “When they were constructing learning through inquiry and engagement, they viewed the activity as fun; however, they equated learning with a transmission model” (Donalson, 2008, p. 213). Hands-on activities were found to provide intrinsic motivation for reading (Guthrie et al., 2006, as cited in Donalson, 2008, p. 212) though students viewed the completion of worksheets and direct instruction as learning activities. Not only this, but Donalson (2008) found that the curriculum taught using constructivist theory “was much more aligned with the reading research in regards to the instructional recommendations for readers who struggle” (p. 206), while the purchased curriculum later used was less aligned.

This overview of a few studies is certainly not meta-analytical; in fact, it is superficial. However, some implications can be drawn. Foremost, it would appear reading intervention can be taught from a constructivist perspective. However, the hesitation of some teachers to implement this practices in intervention classrooms may be warranted. In a significant number of these studies, the participants “were motivated, strategic, knowledgeable, and social interactive” (Kaiden, 1998, p. 477). Brooks and Brooks (1999) admit that “organizing a constructivist classroom is difficult work for the teacher and requires the rigorous intellectual commitment and perseverance of students” (p. 22). Teachers who shy away from constructivist models because of lack of student motivation and increasing behavioral problems in intervention classes may need to mix transmission and constructivist models merely to maintain order, or even do away with constructivism completely. Yet some research suggests there is a critical mass in motivation; if students view the learning as fun as Donalson (2008) found, a constructivist classroom may both improve learning and manage itself.


Brooks, M. G. & Brooks, J. G. (1999). "The courage to be constructivist." Educational Leadership, 57(3), 18-24.

Donaldson, K. (2008). “Opportunities gained and lost: Perceptions and experiences of sixth grade students enrolled in a title I reading class.” (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ERIC. (ED502310).

Johnson, G. (2004). “Constructivist remediation: Correction in context.” International Journal of Special Education, 19(1), 72-88.

Kaiden, E. (1998). “Engaging developmental readers in the social construction of meaning.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 41, 477-49.

Macrine, S. L. & Sabbatino, E. D. (2008) “Dynamic assessment and remediation approach: Using the DARA approach to assist struggling readers.” Reading and Writing Quarterly, 24(1), 52-76.

Wormeli, R. (2007). Differentiation. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

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