Appropriate Language Instruction: Stephanie’s Story

Juanita C. García, M.A.

When my oldest granddaughter entered the fourth grade this year, her early reading difficulties became more complex. Her learning to read and write has been hindered by of a number of uncontrollable events in her early developmental years. It was not her fault that she was pulled from schools in mid-term several times, that her young parents had to follow good jobs and work late hours struggling to make a living for their growing family, or that during these tough times there was a limited number of significant adults to give her the quality interaction that was needed to lay a solid oral foundation for literacy and language development.

Now that there is more stability in her life, Stephanie is faced with the difficult task of reading in order to learn the academic content that is required for educational success at the same time she struggles to learn the basics of reading and writing. Research reveals that if she was not an independent reader by the end of third grade, her chances of catching up would be poor (Elfrieda, et al, 1998).

My granddaughter is one of the countless number of similar fourth graders who are not successful readers and are faced with more complex abstract learning. Children with the same dilemma are now labeled as at-risk of poor reading outcomes as well as the more frightening label of at-risk of dropping out of school (National Research Council, 1998). The task of learning to read and understand the complexities of text is put on children’s innocent shoulders despite the uncontrollable events in their young lives. They are then held accountable for their success.

How can we hold these young children accountable for learning to read? If children are not successful, then we have failed as teachers, parents, educators and citizens of this democratic society. Reading is essential to success in our society. We must do whatever it takes to help our children become successful readers and writers, or their educational careers will be imperiled because they do not read well enough to ensure understanding (National Research Council, 1998).

As I listened to my granddaughter’s principal and teachers, I could not help but count the endless number of excuses they made for her failure. Their answer was to hold her back a year. But according to IDRA’s policy brief, Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention, retention does not benefit students academically or socially. Students who are retained view it as a punishment and suffer lower self-esteem (1999). When it comes to our children, there are no excuses, and retention is not the answer. All children have a need and a right to learn to read. When educators come to terms with this, our children will succeed, and we will begin to close the gap.

Reading Success Network

The national network of federally-funded comprehensive centers is sponsoring the Reading Success Network to improve student reading achievement by developing a national network of trainers of teacher-coaches. These teacher-coaches are supporting classroom teachers’ efforts to provide powerful instruction in reading. The STAR Center is the comprehensive center funded by the U.S. Department of Education to serve Texas. It is a collaboration of the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation.

In my work with the STAR Center’s Reading Success Network, I have encountered some successful schools and quite a few not-so-successful schools. The children who succeed in reading are in classrooms that display a wide range of approaches to instruction. Excellent instruction is the best intervention for children who demonstrate problems learning to read (National Research Council, 1998). Reading pedagogy focuses on providing students with interesting texts. The role of the teacher is to help children read these texts to make them comprehensible so that the students understand the message (Krashen, 1998).

According to Krashen’s “input hypothesis,” the development of literacy and the development of language occur when we understand messages. In schools that are successful in fostering reading achievement there are five common characteristics:

  • all adults inside and outside the school work together;
  • the school builds systematic program links across grades;
  • everyone accepts responsibility for all children;
  • teachers provide excellent and motivating instruction; and
  • everyone monitors students’ progress (Elfrieda, et al, 1999).

The not-so-successful schools continue to blame outside forces that they cannot control and face each day with negative attitudes about the children they are teaching. Their focus should be on providing these children with opportunities to develop their language and their thinking along with helping students feel good about themselves and emulating the values of successful adults. This is what children desperately need. A successful teacher knows exactly where her students are and what they need, has high expectations, establishes partnerships with parents, views all children as intelligent, teaches with joy, awakens interest in reading and gives children hope for their future (Rodulfo, 1992).

My commitment to IDRA’s mission to help create schools that work for all children continues, and now it has a deeper urgency. Children deserve adults who work together and teachers who teach with hope. All of these children are our children. Their future is intricately interwoven with our success as an educated democratic society.


Elfrieda, H.H., and D. Pearson, B. Taylor, V. Richard, S.G. Paris. Every Child a Reader: Applying Reading Research in the Classroom (AnnArbor, Mich.: Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, 1998).

Krashen, S. “Has Whole Language Failed?” ESL Magazine (November-December, 1998) Vol. 1 No. 6.

McCollum, P. and A. Cortez, O.H. Maroney, F. Montes. Failing Our Children – Finding Alternatives to In-Grade Retention (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).

National Research Council. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998).

Rodulfo, L. “Barrio Teacher Encourages Localities to Instruct with Joy,” San Antonio Express-News (August 12, 1992).

Juanita C. García, M.A., is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]