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Teaching Them To Read (Sixth Edition)

by Dolores Durkin

Published by Allyn and Bacon

Boston, 1993. Hardcover, 434 pp.

Includes bibliographical references and index


Teaching Them To Read, now in its sixth edition, is an excellent textbook for people who are or will be teaching reading at elementary school. Although it is most often used as course material in universities and teachers' training colleges, it is so firmly grounded in basic principles that it would be helpful in many other settings as well.

The central theme of the book is that reading can be equated with comprehension, and that whatever a teacher does, whatever methods and materials are used, comprehension should be the overriding concern.

On the matter of methods, it was reassuring to find that Durkin does not take a side on the issue of whole language versus phonics. Her view is that teachers should be knowledgeable in many methods and techniques. Indeed, after reading her book, the whole language debate seems a wearisome, unnecessary sort of thing. It should really not be an issue at all, just as the "look-say versus phonics" debate of twenty years ago should never have become as divisive as it did.* Such controversies may be interesting for academics, but when rigid "either-or" ideologies find their way into the classroom it is the children who suffer. As Durkin puts it, "students and reading are both too complex and variable for successful teachers to rely on one method."

And that is the line the book takes: whole language and phonics both receive their due, along with several other methods and practices, in the context of their contribution to comprehension.

Among the topics covered are: the mental processes involved in acquiring information from text; different types of instruction (e.g. intentional and unintentional); silent versus oral reading; literacy programs in kindergarten; when, why and how to use whole word methodology; contextual cues; when, why and how to teach phonics (a difficult, technical topic needing deep study and lots of practice, but absolutely necessary for successful teaching); the need to pre-teach vocabulary, whether for basal readers, children's literature, or content area textbooks; teaching children how to learn by themselves with methods such as SQ3R; how to arrange classes and classrooms to give children as much individual attention as possible; and much more. Methods are described in detail and are illustrated with sample lessons and classroom observations, showing what a teacher might do in specific situations.

Durkin doesn't have much time for reading readiness programs, nor for worksheets, nor for round robin reading. Her objections are logically argued and are supported with observations from classrooms and references to the research literature. She suggests workable alternatives which should lead to better reading achievement and a greater desire to read.

Her views on children's literature were of particular interest to me. The modern trend in basal readers is to abridge or adapt classic tales, sometimes using discredited readability formulas. In describing one such reader Durkin makes a telling point: "With their easy words and short, disconnected sentences, the adaptations turned out to be not only less interesting but also less comprehensible." In a later chapter she goes on to say, "For teachers, the important point to keep in mind is that the reason for the recommended comparison is not to criticize basal readers but to help students acquire from their reading experiences an appreciation of text that is worth their time and effort." [emphasis added, p.369]. This gives voice to a feeling of mine that many of today's children's books are condescending and tend to underestimate children's intelligence.

Her conclusions always come back to the central place of comprehension in the teaching of reading. The teacher, she says, must be a flexible and knowledgeable decision maker and not a slave to commercial materials.

The discussion of how to teach the meaning of "function" words -- little words such as and, or, from -- is a good example of the quality of the instruction in Teaching Them To Read. It is easy to see how such seemingly simple words could be overlooked by a teacher, and easy to see how not teaching them could have profoundly negative consequences. The section is illustrated by a classroom observation of a child in second grade who could read words such as "helicopter" but who "constantly stumbled over function words such as in and on." The child soon lost interest since the story made no sense. It's the sort of problem that can cause severe failure of comprehension but that can be easily remedied once the diagnosis is made. It may also be a common cause of reading problems in older children, a reminder of the lifelong importance of basics.

The book is well thought out and is what the author would call a "considerate" text. There are six main parts, each containing two or more related chapters. Each chapter begins with an outline and a preview, and ends with a summary, review questions, and references. Headings and subheadings are in contrasting blue type and project into the white space of the generous left margin for easy scanning. The design is attractive but not fussy, the text is free of typographical errors, and the paper and binding are of excellent quality -- all of which contribute to the book's professional and pleasing look and feel.

The tone and writing style are professional and pleasing too, with precise language and an absence of jargon giving the book a quiet, unassuming air.

Although Teaching Them To Read is aimed primarily at teachers of reading in elementary school, it is based on sound principles which can be applied to a variety of teaching situations -- those involving, say, complex technical language, which can be made more comprehensible for students by teaching word roots and derived words in the ways recommended here. The book also shows how teachers of any subject can make use of teachable moments to expand world knowledge and oral and reading vocabularies generally.

In short, Teaching Them To Read is sufficiently comprehensive, detailed and explicit that anyone with the desire or the need to teach reading could train themselves to do it well by conscientious study of this book. It would also be a valuable addition to the teachers' shelf in school libraries.

M.A., 19 January, 1998, mod. 21 Jan, 98.

Order from Amazon, US$84.75

Footnote: Dolores Durkin is a widely known and respected figure in reading education circles. Among other achievements, her oft-cited Children Who Read Early (Teachers College Press,1966) was one of the first studies to show the benefits of reading aloud to children at home in the preschool years. The book itself gives no information about her except that she is based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (the unofficial Mecca of reading education research), and a passing mention in the preface that she teaches methods courses to undergraduates and teachers. The intention could be for the book to succeed strictly on its merits rather than relying on the credentials of its author.

*See Learning To Read: The Great Debate


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