Dear Elementary School Reading Teachers and Librarians – I need your help

We interrupt my unbelievably lackadaisical posting habits of late to send out a sincere and desperate plea to teachers and librarians who have used, or are using, or are familiar with the SRA Reading Mastery curriculum by McGraw-Hill. My son’s school switched over to it last year, and it has been extremely rough around these here parts. He went from reading novels on his own (Dahl, Gaiman, Rowling, Sachar) to coming home from school saying “I’m too stupid to read”.

And then my head exploded.

Now, as his mother, it is easy for me to blame the curriculum – and maybe to do so is valid. The problem, however, may not be the curriculum itself, but rather an ill-defined and poorly-execcuted interpretation of that curriculum in this particular school – one that could absolutely be remedied by additional teacher training and alternate strategies. I know from my teaching days that it takes a while to work out the kinks in a curriculum, and I have TONS OF COMPASSION for the dedicated teachers laboring in the fields, trying to make it work.


No child should come home saying things like that. And I will not have it. Not in my house. Not with my child.

What I would like to know from any of you who can help me is this:

  • What are your thoughts about this program? What works? What doesn’t?
  • What are the strategies you use in your building for kids who get stuck? In our experience, Leo became so demoralized that he was forced to repeat the same lesson over and over because he wasn’t able to get it at 100% accuracy – for a month. This seems crazy to me. And he wasn’t alone. What do you do for your kids to keep that from happening?
  • I know the program focuses on fluency as the sole indicator of good reading. What additional strategies do you use to supplement – to make sure that your kids are also demonstrating the other indicators of good reading – inference, analysis, criticism, intertextual connections, reasoning, etc.?
  • From what I understand, this program is really expensive. Is it worth it?
  • My main criticism of this curriculum is that it seems utterly devoid of joy. What are you doing in your classroom to build joyful readers?

If you are not a teacher or librarian, but know someone who is, please send this on. I’m really trying to gather as many perspectives as I can in anticipation of a meeting I have with the Administration, as well as several conversations that I will be having with different members of the Board. Also, if this curriculum has been used in your child’s school, I’d love to hear your perspective as a parent.

Thank you all so much, and I promise to resume my random posts about random stuff very soon.

Much love,

Kelly Barnhill


9 thoughts on “Dear Elementary School Reading Teachers and Librarians – I need your help

  1. that’s ridiculous. I’ve noticed that while I correct my tutoring kids when they read a word incorrectly – but in the spirit of the sentence – that I DO IT TOO. How many of us have been reading a story book out-loud, get a little tripped up, and fudge the words to keep the sentence going? It might be saying “wasn’t” when we see “was not,” or switching around a prepositional phrase. Demanding 100% accuracy to the point a kid feels tortured is RIDICULOUS.

    You know what our main focus for reading instruction should be?
    1. Making sure kids have a way to figure out the words in front of them: start with phonics, then teach “word attack strategies.”
    2. Finding books that will excite and entertain kids so they see themselves as readers, and so they see reading as an enjoyable activity.


    • I find myself in the same camp. I absolutely see the value in teaching phonics along with a rich reading curriculum. This was the old way of doing things at my kids’ school, and it is cool to see how much power it gives kids to have a solid handle on the phonetic structure of words – that they can read words that they have heard but have never seen in print before. They feel so proud of themselves. But this format of Fluency Or Else? Yeah, not so much. From what I’ve read, they’ve had some success with this program in ELL classrooms, which does make sense – but that’s not the population in this case. It’s just crazy to me to turn reading into drudgery.

  2. My son’s middle school has this program called “Reading Counts” where they encourage reading, but measure performance via a test. He did well until he got less than 70% on a test (it was test anxiety. The kid is crazy good at reading comprehension). From then on he started reading a book 3 or more times in order to make sure he passed the tests, which took ALL THE JOY out of his joy reading. Eventually he got over it, and now is less fearful of the tests, but for about six months he hardly read at all. To give you an idea, over the summer the kid read something like 20 or more novels.

    If your kid likes to read, and he’s coming home hating reading, my guess is the problem is more likely in the instruction. I’d ask for a meeting with his teacher, explain your problem in terms that do not indicate he/she is the problem, and ask for their help in a solution. Usually this is enough. You know how schools work, and you know your way around them, and you know most teachers are wonderfully professional, and like to help. Be involved, and unless absolutely impossible, do it without stepping on toes (which I doubt you would do).

    • The thing is? These programs are just products. They’re developed by large companies and hocked to schools because ….well, hell I don’t even know. They don’t trust their teachers to develop their own curriculum. Can you imagine telling college professors “No, you must teach it THIS way, with THESE materials.” It’s the corporatization of the educational process via the Testing Industrial Complex, and it’s a massive financial drain on the schools. And I am sick of it.

      • Sure, its a teaching product, but its a teaching product administered by an individual. An individual who has the power to skew the results any way they can reasonably justify. Not to justify your district’s actions, but I understand why schools love junk like this, because its an easy way for them to claim they are meeting the state standard. But at the end of the day my son isn’t learning algebra from the state, or from the state standard. He’s learning it from his teacher.

        Believe me, I’m on your side. You want your children to get a good education, and to not have the love of reading beat out of them. Heck, for me that’s reason enough to grab a pitchfork. And I can tell you from having a bunch of teachers in my family (really an insane number of teachers), that teachers usually do not like having to force-feed pre-made crap to their charges any more than you do. I just think you’ll get quicker and more positive results by going directly to his teacher and explaining your fears.

        Now if you have enough energy to fix the district for every other kid, more power to you. Go and smash this stupid sounding curriculum. I’ll cheer from the sidelines.

  3. Sounds awful. Some well-meaning educators do some crazy things in the name of teaching reading. I remember reading and wanting to read CS Lewis and The Hobbit, and my teacher insisting that I had to take home every boring reader in about a hundred book ‘reader series’ (starting with “Cat can jump” or similar) and THEN read the entire “Young Australian” class set (another 50 or so books, I think) before I was allowed to choose books I enjoyed. What kind of insanity is that? Luckily I was hell-determined to get to choose my own books, but it took me over a year to get through the list and created a deep hatred of traditional Australian literature that I am only just beginning to shake. Then there are teachers who aren’t even well-meaning – who are just… well… arses: one didn’t believe that I’d read a certain number of pages during quiet reading time in my reader diary, so he announced to the whole class that I was a liar and during the next lesson made me sit up the front and read aloud for the next 40 minutes, and at the end of the time looked at what page I was up to and told me THAT was how much I’d read today. And told me I shouldn’t pretend to be clever. I was seven. Who does that to a seven year old? Who does that to ANYONE? If anyone ever does that to my kid I can tell you right now that I will do everything in my power to have them deregistered and out of work.

    • Remember that scene in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, when the teacher tells Scout that her father had ruined her education because he had taught her “wrong”? That scene kills me every time, and I find myself thinking about it quite a bit lately.

  4. I’m a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee who’s married to a Hamline MFAC grad. He wanted my opinion on this. I taught a McGraw Hill direct instruction program for 2 years to inner city kids and frankly this curriculum is insulting to both the kids and teachers who are fed word for word what to say. Direct instruction can work for some kids but this program seems to be written for intervention groups and not a whole class. I think the retaking of tests is more of an implementation thing, or if it’s written into the program most smart schools would find a way to tweak it to make it work better for their kids. Progress should be measured not just by a test, but by many factors. 100% is too high of a benchmark; I would be frustrated by this as an adult. And, as my new principal likes to say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Good luck!

    • This is REALLY helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights. I was looking through the scripts they give to the teachers, and I was just shaking my head. I would NEVER have been able to do it when I was in the classroom. I was such a shoot-from-the-hip kinda teacher, often tweaking my curriculum from moment to moment, based on what I was getting from my kids. So part of my initial aversion to the program has a lot to do with ME, I’m sure, in addition to the fact that it simply isn’t working for my zany-brainy boy.

      Seriously, thank you. And thanks for your work in the classroom.


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