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"They 'should'​ know how to read....."​ The Danger of 'Should'​ in Literacy

“These students should know how to read.”

My entire literacy career sprouted from a ‘should’ at the expense of one of my students (as is oftentimes the case). My third year of teaching third grade began with the expectations of the inexperienced and the ill-prepared. I expected that my third-graders would be able to learn by reading and answering the questions at the end of the chapter of the grade level text that I was given to use in my third-grade classroom. Then enters Devin. He enrolled in my classroom later in the year. And he could not read. 

“He 'should' be able to read this.”

‘Should’ is a comfy place when you don’t know any better.  I didn’t know what to do with a third-grader who couldn't’ read. My instruction consisted of “read these pages, then answer the questions at the end of the chapter”.  I didn’t know how to teach anything well, especially reading. Devin needed explicit instruction and I wasn’t prepared to meet him where he was academically. So I made assumptions about where I thought he ‘should’ be. 

The danger of ‘should’ does not only apply to our expectations for students. Unfortunately, it is also used when expressing expectations for teachers.

“She 'should' be able to teach reading.”

I taught a kindergarten class the year before so my principal assumed that I would do what I did with my kindergarten students to teach Devin. I 'should' be able to teach reading since I taught kindergarteners, right? Wrong. In my kindergarten class, I told students what to do then I passed out practice worksheets. I didn’t ‘teach’ reading or much of anything in kindergarten or the following year in third grade. I didn’t know how. I knew nothing of modeling of reading strategies or a focus on reading skills. I 'should' have been able to teach reading, but I approached reading instruction in third grade much the same ineffective way I approached reading instruction in kindergarten. 

“Teachers ‘should’ be able to teach reading.”

This is a dangerous one.

Most teacher preparation programs include only one or two reading classes in teacher education coursework. As a result, most teachers do not have the knowledge they need to actually teach reading. Not to be confused with following a reading curriculum, many teachers will admit that they did not begin their teaching careers with the knowledge they needed to teach reading effectively. And yet, we expect teachers to do what some are clearly unprepared to do. 

When we are bound by ‘should’ we lose the ability to assess the true reality of the situation as well as the opportunities this knowledge provides for us. When your focus is on what ‘should’ be or what 'should' have happened (or what a parent or another teacher ‘should’ have already done), you step outside of your locus of control. Actions that ARE in our control include finding out what students and teachers actually can do, then deciding how to proceed from there. Implementing research-based reading interventions, administering and analyzing diagnostic and formative reading assessment data, literacy coaching, and targeted professional development are all ways to address literacy needs in schools. What ‘should’ be is not as important as what CAN be when we are prepared to put the 'shoulds' aside and provide the appropriate literacy supports for our teachers and students.

Yes, first graders should be able to decode by the end of first grade. But sometimes they don’t. Yes, third graders should know all their letter sounds. But sometimes they don’t.Yes, fifth graders should be able to apply word-solving strategies to unknown words when reading content area, grade-level text. But sometimes they don’t. Yes, seventh graders should be able to read a nonfiction text and write a full summary. But sometimes they don’t. Yes, ninth graders should be able to conduct research and write a cohesive research paper. But sometimes they don’t.

And even if they ‘should’, sometimes they just don’t. 

Erase ‘should’ from your vocabulary. 

Have a funeral for the word ‘should’

Write ‘should’ on a piece of paper, attach to a balloon, and set it free.

And set yourself free to see and serve the needs of all your students. 

Even the ones who ‘should’.

About the Author

Kimberly A. Chase, Ed.D. is a veteran classroom teacher, reading specialist, administrator, school improvement specialist, and literacy expert with more than 20 years of experience working with principals and teachers on improving literacy instruction in their schools. Currently, she consults with principals, reading specialists, teachers, and students in and out of school on all things related to literacy. Improving reading begins here: 888.442.READ (7323);

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