Richard Robinson


I’m Richard Robinson. R-I-C-H-A-R-D R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N. And I’m from the University of Missouri Columbia, Columbia, Missouri.

Well, you’re asking about how, uh, students develop in literacy from, uh, early on, and I think it’s very important that, um, teachers are aware that it’s a continuous process; that, uh, as a secondary teacher at one time I used to blame, uh, uh, elementary teachers for not doing their jobs, uh, and that was the results I was getting as a secondary teacher. But I think it’s very important to note that reading really is a continuous process, something that begins obviously at birth and continues through--through adulthood, and that, as teachers, we need to be aware that, uh, we’re really all in this together, and particularly early on that--uh, how important elementary teachers are as well as middle school and secondary teachers.

Well, you know we say, uh, uh, I think that, um, you know, that in the early years in school, uh, students are learning to read and then as they get farther along they’re reading to learn. But particularly in the high school and the content areas, uh, myself as a high school, uh, history teacher one time felt that that wasn’t my job to teach literacy. But I think it’s an extremely important part of content, secondary reading, that teachers are aware that it’s part of their responsibility to help their students read appropriately in the materials that they are using in their classes.

Well, I think, uh, in your asking about content literacy and what that, uh, entails, uh, I think is more than just knowledge of content. In fact, I wrote a book on content literacy that, uh, it’s important to teach students how to learn in the appropriate content area that you are literate in; not just the knowledge of science and math, but how to learn in science and math so you are teaching them to become literate in the appropriate content area.

Uh, as, um--you’re asking what they needed in order to read historical text? Well, I think they need to know the intent of the author. I think they need to know how the materials are organized. I think they need to know, for instance, how to use a textbook; how to use related materials; how to use a lot of different things, uh, in terms of history, uh, rather than just simply the textbook; to read critically; to be able to, uh, uh, make appropriate decisions whether the material is accurate or not, for instance, would be one example that you might use.

I think one of the things, particularly with content teachers, uh, that they need to know, the big ideas, is the fact that all teachers are teachers of reading. I mean it’s a simple thing to say, but yet a very, very important concept. And that the teaching of reading in the content area is not separate from content. Uh, one of the big arguments people get is the fact that I don’t have time to teach American History and also teach reading. Well, in reality, you do it together. And many of the things that, uh, good teachers do anyway are rarely, uh, literacy oriented; the vocabulary, uh, reading for meaning, whatever, and that, uh, for me, the critical thing is to understand that you’re not giving up your content, but that you are incorporating it in a--in a logical manner, uh, right along with your regular teaching and I--and I think in the long run, it really makes, uh, obviously it makes for students a much richer opportunity to learn, uh, as they, uh, interact with material. But that is the role of the content teacher is the help--help the student be able to accurately and adequately read the material that they’re asked to do.

Um, we certainly, um, uh, unfortunately--uh, if you look at it historically at what we’ve done in--in literacy, uh, we kind of continue to seemingly reinvent the wheel. Uh, obviously today we’re involved in a major phonics battle type of situation throughout the country. Uh, I’ve been in the field long enough--this is about the third time we’ve come back to the same thing over and over again--and, uh, it bothers me that seemingly that in reading, in particular, education, in general, that we don’t learn from the past. Most of the battles that we’re fighting today, uh, over phonics is a good example, we’ve been through repeatedly. In my historical work you find the very same questions three, four hundred years ago. People were asking almost the same things as they’re doing today. And yet, here we are again and seemingly we’ve moved from one extreme to the other all the time without learning much of what we’ve done in the past.

I think we need to learn from what we’ve done. Uh, fortunately, in--in the large question here--you know, why do we seem to be going back and forth. I think it’s politics as much as anything. Uh, it isn’t, uh, the, um, uh, curriculum or the--the curricular ideas, the teaching ideas so much, as pressure from, uh, outside forces; um, politicians, uh, textbook publishers, whatever, that’s really driving the curriculum. It isn’t what I think we should be working on. So, to me--to me what we need to do is come together as teachers and to look and see what is good in a lot of different things. But it doesn’t seem to be happening very often. And certainly not today.

I like to be optimistic and say that we are better than we were at one time, uh, even though, uh, there are days I become very cynical about it, and I just really wonder how much we are doing. And I--I blame a lot of this on the training of, uh, content teachers. As a history teacher I had very little pedagogy. Uh, I was in a situation--I was mainly content area types of things. Uh, I think we’re more aware, obviously, of, uh, problems, uh, from societal standpoints in terms of secondary students, but instead of doing something about it, uh, we tend to, uh, oh, cover these things up. Uh, at one point, uh, historically, students in the secondary school, they weren’t doing very well, if they even got that far, were eliminated, uh, easily absorbed into the community in terms of jobs and whatever, but that isn’t true today, certainly. Um, if you’re--don’t have a high school diploma, and you drop out of school it becomes a very, very major, uh, difficulty. Uh, I might add, uh, I think secondary reading, uh, is a fairly rare area. Um, I--my masters degree is in secondary reading, uh, and I know of nobody else that has a degree like that. We certainly, at the university, do not have much training for secondary teachers in reading. Uh, I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of change, really, over the years.

Well, as I mentioned, uh, I--this--this continual battle between pedagogy and, um, uh, content is something that, uh, universities face all the time. Um, some schools have a--would have a large, um, emphasis on learning history, for instance, or learning science in that the teaching part is kind of a secondary thing that, um, to be a teacher you stand in front of the students and lecture type of thing. Uh, I would like to see, uh, a happy medium where, yes, you are rich in the content knowledge, but you also are, uh, trained as a teacher, uh, appropriately and one, of course, is reading. Uh, other--I think one of the problems, though, is the fact that many secondary people don’t think that’s part of their job, is really, then have them learn to read by the time they get to me, that’s too bad, unfortunately.

Well, as to be real I--I think differently about it is to realize that that is part of their job, uh, as a good teacher is to help them be as knowledgeable about, uh, and, as we say in our book, to be content literate, which does not mean knowledge of content, but to learn how to acquire knowledge in the content fields.

You asked me about the knowledge base that content teachers need to know, and I think it’s quite a rich base that we do have. Uh, is not--content reading is not something that is a new, uh, person on the block. We’ve had, uh, a long history of the study of secondary content reading. I think teachers need to be aware of what is known, obviously, the kinds of things about how students at this point in their life how they, uh, uh, acquire knowledge, how they use literacy, whatever. I think, particularly, the difficult point is the fact that--and I think historically we have seen this--is that at the secondary level, when you’re dealing with a--a person who’s been school for a while, particularly ones who are having trouble, it’s more than a literacy problem. Uh, you have an overlay of years of failure, sometimes. You have problems with parents. You have, uh, discouragement. It is, in some sense, having worked in a reading clinic with older students, the reading problem is important, but it’s not the critical point, and so I think, uh, content teachers need to be aware of the person they’re dealing with. And it sounds very simple to say, but in--often times we don’t really, as teachers, know our students very well. And we assume we’re doing certain things with them, when in reality, they’re very different people, and so I would hope that they would understand that every student they have in class is not headed to Harvard, for instance, and that there are going to be students that are going to have difficulties in literacy, and they aren’t all going to be reading at their grade level or whatever, but that they need to, uh, adjust their instruction to meet the needs of the students they have. That, to me, would be the critical thing.

Well, I think you obviously need to--you’re talking about cultural background of second language learners. You need to be aware of that. Uh, I think even though people say that we are not, uh, uh, making, uh, uh, decisions about what is a better language or less appropriate language, we’re still doing that. Uh, just because they have a second language, it probably just as rich in--not probably, is as rich as, uh, English for instance. Uh, but I think we need to be aware of that. We need (phone rings) to take that into account. We need to, uh, be supportive of second language people and again, to adjust our curriculum. Uh, what we do, I think, so often is we try to jam students into what we think is an appropriate curriculum for us, when in reality we’re need--the school’s there for the student--is to make appropriate adjustments for that second language learner who may have just--and probably has just as much to offer as anybody else, but schools don’t do that very often.

Uh, you talk about parents and their role. Uh, I think the obvious answer is tremendous. And yet in reality, uh, we live in a society where, uh, the home factor--uh, particularly as students get older--changes. Uh, many parents feel that, uh, that early on they read to their children. They’re supportive, they take them to the library, they do all kinds of things. But once they get to school, is that’s kind of their job has ended and now it’s the school’s responsibility. Uh, a good teacher probably in five minutes can tell students at any level about their home situation by the way they act in class and all kinds of other things. The answer is yes, I think parents at all levels need to really be supportive and as much so in the junior and senior high schools, uh, educationally as well as many other ways. Uh, the family that, uh, has support of parents provides a literate environment, uh, for students. Uh, it certainly gives them a great advantage over those that don’t. And so I think, even at that stage, parents need to be encouraged and I say that, uh, meaning they have to be very positive; you have to be very, um, direct in how they can help their students. I mean, I think so often we simply say, ‘Well, we want them to love them and we want them to be supportive,’ and we drop it, but let’s give them 10 ways of doing that. I think we need to be very clear, and I think that’s one of the responsibilities of teachers is to let them know how they can help their teen-ager, for instance, which, you know, I’ve got a teen-ager myself, and that can be kind of difficult at times, but I still think that is very, very appropriate.

I think, obviously, good communication, parents in schools, uh, communication not when there’re problems only, but when there’re good things that happen. Uh, that doesn’t happen very often. I think parents need to part of a school program. Uh, many teachers, I think, unfortunately don’t realize the rich resource that parents are, uh, in terms of visiting in class, sharing things, uh, doing all kinds of things with the school. Uh, we just don’t do very much of that. Uh, as I mentioned a moment ago, I think we--we’re certainly in contact with the homes when things are not going well; let us be in contact with homes when things are going well. Uh, and that’s for all of our students: the--the student with the four point average that’s homecoming queen, that’s whatever, there’s probably a lot of contact; but what about the student that’s not having, uh, those kinds of success who may be just as, uh, good a student, we need to also be in contact with the home in a--in a very appropriate way, not in a very threatening way, which for a lot of parents see school as being a very threatening place, and I don’t think we do a very good job sometimes at schools trying to keep parents in the loop, so to speak.

Uh, whole language, um, as I well know, having been involved in a number of debates and things--particularly I was in a major debate here at the National Reading Conference several years ago--is, uh, and has been--people think of it at times of being approached, but as a philosophy of language. Uh, I think it’s like a lot of things that has come and has generally gone as a major emphasis area. I think whole language had a lot to offer and still does. Uh, the emphasis on, uh, writing; the emphasis on real literature, whatever. Uh, I worked with a man, Ace Artley (sp), who, uh, was one of the Dick and Jane authors. So things come about every 10 years and they go. And what good teachers do is they take what works ,and they forget the rest. And I think whole language has a lot to offer, uh, but is--is not one of the hot issues certainly today.

Phonics is the major, uh, keyword, uh. Phonics, uh, is nothing new. We’ve been at it for a long time. Uh, phonics is something that’s part of reading; it’s not the whole picture. The very simple answer to a very complex problem. I think in terms of reading, phonics has a place but it’s certainly not the major empha--or should be the major emphasis. And yet, uh, it certainly is today.

Uh, emergent literacy is something that, uh, really has come into its own. Uh, it used to be reading readiness. There was a point in time where students were supposedly ready to read or they weren’t. Uh, emergent literacy, emergent language, uh, from birth back. There’s some thinking that maybe even before birth that we can be doing some things. Uh, it’s certainly a new way of looking at reading. Uh, it’s--it’s not really related just to young children; we all as adults are emergent literacy people in certain areas. Reading our income tax, for instance, whatever. So, it is a much broader, and I think, a much clearer picture of really what reading is all about.

Uh, with--literacy assessment is a political term. Uh, we are involved nationally in assessing our students on how well we’re doing, uh, in various ways. I think that’s perfectly appropriate to find out how kids are doing. I think it’s inappropriate to give teachers salaries based on literacy assessment. I think it’s inappropriate to, uh, evaluate schools on literacy assessment. Um, it is, again, a very political term. Uh, there’s lots of discussion. A student, if they don’t reach a certain level or whatever we’re going to do all kinds of terrible things to them. Uh, there’s good literacy assessment and there is inappropriate literacy assessment.

Uh, again, national standards is a--is a good political term. I think on the positive side, yes, I think we need to have some standards. Uh, as to a nation to be working on, unfortunately, is quite rapidly moved into all kinds of political things where, uh, people--and I--I see it coming, we will have a national curriculum in reading. We have in some other areas. Uh, will be just established by, uh, political forces telling teachers this is what you will teach. Uh, I think that is clearly inappropriate. I’m a very strong supporter of the classroom teacher as being the decider on what they do with their students. Uh, so there’re two sides to this question, certainly. Uh, I’d like to say, in a positive way, it’s something that we need, but on the other hand, it’s certainly gotten out of hand here.

Uh, characteristics of a gifted reader? Uh, I would hope that, uh, there are many. I mean, uh, you can measure them, uh, by tests and whatever, which I think, uh, you can, you know, IQ and other kinds of things. To me, the gifted person is something is very innovative, a very different kind of, uh, creative person. Uh, it may not show up on tests, standardized, paper, pencil, whatever. A gifted reader is a kind of person that, uh, uh, would, uh, react and would interact with text and other kinds of activities in a classroom in a very different--in a--in a very unusual way that you might not expect. Uh, I can tell a little story. I have a kindergarten teacher friend who, uh, has a gifted child this semester, and, a very, very strong student. And this little boy came in the other day from recess crying and she was asking why. Well, he couldn’t get three kids to play bridge with him at recess. Well, here’s a little boy who brings his newspaper every day and reads the St. Louis Post Dispatch. These are signs, obviously, that you have a child that is not the typical kindergartner. And, to me, a gifted student is one of these kind. Uh, many teachers, unfortunately, react negatively to the gifted student. They don’t fit in very well. They, uh, have lots of, uh, uh, innovative, creative, different ways of approaching things.
So, that, to me, is what a gifted child really is, and one that we need to take into account. Uh, and American education really hasn’t done a very good job with the gifted reader--uh, the gifted student in general.

I think the critical thing is that, uh, the gifted student, in many respects, is a forgotten student. Uh, he can do well. He’s going to do well on his own. He’s going to do fine. I really don’t have to do much because he’s doing so well. When in reality, the gifted student needs as much of a curriculum as any other student does. Uh, the average, uh, classroom teacher’s time is spent mainly with the middle and low level students. The gifted student needs just as much attention and just as much direction as anybody else does. But it’s a very easy thing to forget sometimes. Uh, again because they’re doing so well, um, the gifted student, uh, as I, uh, uh--the gifted student is one that is often forgotten from the teacher. A lot of independent work and whatever. They can do their own whatever. And that, I think, is--is inappropriate. So, they need to be encouraged and supported. And because they’re the gifted in academic work, for instance, or even in one area, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be that way in everything, and they need to be supported socially, and they need to be supported, uh, in terms of physical kinds of things. Uh, they may be just the same as the rest of the students, that way, but yet a lot of times we forget that.

Uh, what’s the one issue that I think is most dominant or that I think is most important, uh, for content teachers. I guess I would say that, uh, the importance of the role of the content teacher in literacy, uh, is where I really, uh, center in. Uh, I am a very, very strong advocate of the role of the teacher. I’ve always been that. Uh, that’s why I am a teacher. I think teachers are the best people on Earth. I think they’re often forgotten people many times in all kinds of ways. And my real passion here, for the content teacher, uh, particularly, uh--and you know, we often think of it as on the secondary level--but content teaching goes through the curriculum. In fact, the irony of the fact is that the elementary teacher is as much a content teacher as the secondary teacher is. Uh, and the--the--the--the problem is, sometimes, is that the good language reading teacher, the second, third grade teacher, takes her language hat off and puts on her science hat and tends to forget everything she was doing in language. Uh, my conclusion here would be how much of an influence teachers have in the content fields to me are a window of opportunity. If you can really turn a child on through the content area, and that’s fry--frequently where it happens. Uh, they get interested in dinosaurs. They get interested in Pokemon. They get interested in the whatever, and they want to read everything they can find on that topic. All you got to do is sit back and supply them with the materials and that’s where the content teacher can change things; can literally change a child or a young person’s life through reading. Uh, we’ve done a number of research studies with older readers, 80 and older. And the thing that really--you know, you talk to people in the field and they worry about their, uh, organization and their discipline and whatever is important. The thing that I would really worry about that we would get from these older people is that there was one teacher that either did it or didn’t do it that changed their entire lives as readers. And I’m sure that teacher never even thought about what happened. They said something, they did something and inadvertently, they turned people off or turned them on and that was where I see content people coming from. They have that opportunity to change kids or young people, students’ lives on the spot, and that every day they need to be thinking about that, that what their influence is through language. And it can be tremendous. I mean, my wife tells me if I buy another book she’s going to leave me, you know. So, I’ve got to be careful here.