The New Three Rs: Readin’, Ritin’ & Rote


Fall 2003 (Vol. IV, No. 3) Table of Contents

Can a standardized, scripted reading program meet the diverse needs of a class full of unique students? During my credential program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I was able to observe a scripted reading class on a daily basis for six weeks while serving as an observer/student teacher as in a “Reading for Success” class.

This class was composed of students who tested below their grade level on the standardized language assessment test administered at the end of the previous year. These lower level readers and writers are placed in the “Reading for Success” class to develop their basic language skills.

The state of California has developed a basic phonics and vocabulary development program, called “Breaking the Code,” which relies on alphabet cards and scripted instruction to teach phonics, spelling and vocabulary. The “Reading for Success” class and its curriculum were based on the program, “Breaking the Code.”

The role of the teacher in a scripted reading class is dramatically different than that of a traditional teacher. The teacher gets all the materials necessary to orchestrate a lesson, as well as a script to follow. Prior to the first day of class, I met the teacher I would be observing. She was a young, fresh, excited teacher who had just earned the title of “reading specialist.” She was given the sole responsibility for improving the school’s reading scores by implementing this new scripted reading program, a daunting task for one person, since the school had close to a thousand students.

On the first day of class, I entered the classroom prepared to “observe” every detail and learn from this woman the secrets of teaching kids to read. Needless to say I was disappointed.

She began reading from this script, which can only be described as bland and impersonal. The students never had a chance to get excited or interested in the class because from the first minute, it was as though they were watching an informational video. The teacher had no room to deviate from the dull and detailed script, which dictated instruction down to the minute.

I felt very disappointed that I would have to spend the next six weeks sitting in the back of this classroom watching this scripted program, instead of observing the fresh ideas and enthusiasm of this young teacher. I could not even begin to imagine how the students were feeling. I could not help but think about the best teachers I had in school. The most memorable teachers, the ones whose names I still remember, were the people with the most dynamic personalities. Those teachers were passionate about their subject matter and were effective in infusing students with a curiosity and desire to explore the subject.

This scripted program sucked all the personality out of the class because there were no opportunities or time for this teacher to incorporate parts of herself into the lesson.

The “Breaking the Code” program also provides materials for teachers to hang on their classroom walls to facilitate instruction. Among these materials were large alphabet cards, which were reminiscent of the alphabet cards found on the walls in kindergarten and first grade. Despite the students’ below average test scores and inability to read and write at their grade level, many of the students expressed their belief that they did not belong in such a remedial class. I believe this is a direct result of the inappropriate level of materials used in the “Breaking the Code” program.

Although the students in the class definitely needed basic phonics, decoding and reading skills, the materials provided by the program were misguided and not geared to the proper age level of the students. The result was a classroom full of students who felt insulted by and frustrated with the base material.

The materials used in a classroom and the exercises used to develop student learning must appeal to the students’ age level and interest. I am convinced that successful language development must present the material in an interesting and engaging way. Language development in scripted classes tends to focus on very basic skills and use mundane methods to practice those skills. Variety in terms of lessons, activities, and assignments are all necessary elements of any successful language development class. Unfortunately many state-adopted programs, like “Breaking the Code,” lack the mental stimulation and variety necessary to sustain student interest.

After spending six weeks observing this scripted reading class I would argue that such a standardized reading program is not an effective tool for teaching students to read or motivating them academically.

I have since had many conversations with veteran teachers who have been forced to teach scripted programs after years of experience developing their own curricula. I recently spoke with one woman who teaches at the elementary level. She eloquently equated teaching a scripted program with the feeling of being a butterfly trapped in a glass box, continually and futilely beating her wings against the glass.

She said she feels as though she is dying creatively due to the lack of freedom she feels in her own classroom. She has over 20 years of teaching experience and is no longer able to use that experience to design lessons or personalize instruction.

After listening to her frustrations, I was left with this question: Why are experienced teachers or even human beings needed to facilitate this type of instruction? It seems ridiculous to require someone to continue his/her education to enter the field of teaching if he/she will be required to read from a script and use only designated materials for instruction. In teaching credential programs, student teachers learn – and are urged – to use their love of a subject to design dynamic lessons that will effectively engage all students. A large component of teacher training in my experience at UCSB focused on child psychology, diversity of learning styles, creative lesson design, etc… Scripted programs do not require that teachers know or put any of this knowledge into practice.

The enthusiasm, experience and personality of the instructor are missing from scripted programs. How can teachers pass on their love of reading to their students if they are unable to personalize their lessons? Every student is different and has a slightly different learning style, which should be reflected in the instruction of any subject.

The personal element, which the “Breaking the Code” program lacks, is necessary to create a nurturing classroom environment. This program reflects some of the larger problems facing the educational system in America, which is moving away from personalized towards standardized instruction and assessment. As an English teacher, I feel this is a dangerous shift that will result in increased student apathy towards reading and writing due to lack of interest.


Catlin Rice teaches 9th & 10th grade English at a Northern California high school. She received her Bachelor’s degree from UCLA, earned her Masters and teaching certificate at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website