The Case Against Skill and Drill Curriculum

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What was my problem last year? I asked for less worksheets and more real world literacy experiences (like books!) I brought in research, books, and ideas to support my position, even volunteered to train teachers for free. Now, I want to be sure you know why I’m adamantly against this skill and drill method of instruction and what the research says to back me up.

Skill and Drill Curriculum

Results of a Skill and Drill Curriculum 

JJ experienced what Kelly Gallagher calls “Readicide: the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.” Not only did she still not improve her reading ability over the 9 months of kindergarten, she grew to dislike reading and didn’t want to go to school. NOT okay with me.

The Case Against Pre-packaged Reading Programs in Kindergarten

What worries me and should worry you is what happens to children who are subjected to prepackaged curriculums. If I’d left JJ in a school that relied only on skill and drill worksheets to teach reading, I already saw what would happen – she wouldn’t be an enthusiastic reader, even a strong reader.

Readicide happens.

Decades of research clearly show that the best approach for kindergartners and all kids to learn reading is authentic reading. By authentic reading I’m talking about a mix of reading experiences in which most of the time, readers choose to read interesting and varied texts such as newspapers, blogs, books, magazines, or comics. Sometimes readers must read something not self-selected, too. This is what I mean by authentic and varied.

Choice, Time, Background Knowledge

Think about what you’ve read today.

I’ve read emails, blogs, the newspaper sections I like (all except sports and business,) picture books my kids asked me to read, and part of a YA book I need to review. Everything but the last two was my choice. If someone told me what to read all day long – and it all felt hard or uninteresting (sports section,) I would hate reading.

Wouldn’t you if I told you what to read every day?

Same with kids. They don’t want to be told what to read all the time either. Choice is essential as is interesting selections of text from which to choose.

Also, research shows that we must give kids more reading time in school, and bring back Sustained Silent Reading (SSR.) Choice reading during SSR allows students to build prior knowledge and vocabulary. The more free choice reading, the better students score on reading comprehension tests. Also, reading doesn’t always happen at home so time in school to read is important for these students.

And just a thought about building background knowledge. Without building knowledge of different topics, kids will not be able to comprehend when reading. Ask me to read something about cellular biology and I won’t comprehend it because I lack the background knowledge. But, if you ask me to read something about self-regulation and play and I’ll be able to comprehend it.

Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit (2007) shares a study of two groups of students which illustrate this point. One group was struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball and the other group was strong readers who knew very little about baseball. Guess which group scored better? The struggling readers! The prior knowledge a reader brings to the page is essential in comprehension as demonstrated by the readers knowing more about baseball.

Prevent Readicide in Your Child’s Life

“We have to be ready to step on toes and be prepared to have our toes stepped on,” says Gallagher in his book, Readicide.

Teachers, administrators, and parents need to take a stand against skill and drill curriculum and for a constructivist approach where students are allowed choice and real world (authentic) reading and writing experiences. Where strategies and skills are taught in context – not in isolation.

Big Lessons . . . 

Stand up for what is right for your child.

Even though I disagreed with the curriculum, it seemed hard for the teachers not to feel that my opinion was personally against them. I wish that it were different because it had nothing to do with any one person. The truth is there’s nothing I can do about their interpretation. I stand by my opinion. If I disagree with something you do, it doesn’t make me against you.

Gather a tribe.

I didn’t talk to other parents about my concerns because I was trying not to gossip. But, in order to get change to happen, I now think I should have rallied as many people to my cause as possible. Groups have a louder voice than single individuals.

There are excellent teachers and excellent schools, just not all teachers nor all schools.

We found a school that respected children and parents, and that continually reflects on their teaching practices to be sure they’re meeting the needs of all children and applying best practices from research. I literally burst in to tears twice on our tour, it was that amazing. (I’m sure I made a great first impression as a crazy, sobbing parent.)

Finally, Thank You

Thank you again all of you who got me through a really rough time last year. Thank you for your comments and for your emails. You have no idea how much that meant to me. If I didn’t have you encouraging me and sharing your stories, I would have felt so alone in the world. You gave me strength and you helped me know that I wasn’t alone or crazy. Thank you for being my friends. I love and appreciate our community here so very much.

~ Melissa

Research and Resources:

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

The 6 Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction

The Damage of No Child Left Behind and Reading First (Menu of articles)

The Case for Play: How Pre-K and Kindergarten Was Saved from Skill and Drill Curriculum in Hoboken

The Crisis in Kindergarten

Resisting Reading Mandates, How to Triumph With the Truth by Elaine M. Garan

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers by Richard Allington

The Reading Zone, Helping Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers by Nancy Atwell

Skill and Drill Curriculum
photo by DarkElfPhoto


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 A Constructivist Approach to Learning

 Is My Child’s Teacher A Good Teacher?

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  1. I am curious about your statement about kill-and-drill, or readicide programs. The definition seems vague, and the ages you address with your concerns also seems unclear, but I imagine you would find my approach horrible.

    I use Siegfried Englemann’s direct instruction approach, and my four-year-old daughter has grown into a beautiful love of reading. She didn’t/doesn’t adore every lesson, but reading Little Bear and Frog and Toad (on an instructional level) is the highlight of her day. And, truthfully, mine.

    And although it might not sound like it so far, I suppose I walk a middle road. Direct Instruction is, in my view, an incredible way to build the foundation of skill necessary for all the depth, beauty, and variety a constructivist education can offer. I see direct instruction as playing a vital role in early reading instruction as well as basic math facts. Past that, bring on the inferring, the peer tutoring, the analysis and deconstruction. Kids can do so much more advanced thinking than we give them credit for!

    But I’ve seen first-hand the result of programs that offered too much abstract thought without first tying the children to a consistent method. (Read: ill-run Investigations math) The majority of these fifth-graders couldn’t do simple multiplication — and some struggled with adding/subtracting three-digit numbers –and I was busy using a curriculum that wanted to investigate three or four different (and marvelous, I truthfully say) different algorithms for division.

    1. I agree that kids need direct instruction and modeling.
      I’m talking about a curriculum without instruction that uses recall worksheets which are lower level thinking skills. (Convergent thinking)

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Great article! I agree that kids need to choose what they want to read and have opportunities for different types of reading like blogs or websites.

    I’m thinking this applies to math too. My son had a drill test for addition in 1st grade. It’s making me think what’s the point. Where else in life are we drilled to solve a math problem – unless we’re tipping at a restaurant.

    1. Thanks, Tracey!Unfortunately, I think that some of the math facts – while for sure need to be understood conceptually with the concrete before the abstract – have to be memorized.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article about skill, drill and kill curriculum. My sons experienced the same thing at their school and after getting nowhere, we finally left when they were in 3rd and kindergarten. It was a really difficult decision but we had to go, we saw things getting worse and worse each year for my 3rd grader who had fallen several years behind in reading and writing. We ended up at our neighborhood/public school and experienced the best year ever! What a wonderful group of caring, professional, creative teachers committed to helping every child achieve their best. They use a variety of meaningful instructional methods that make learning interesting for the students. By the end of the year, my son was reading and writing on grade level. Best of all, he was excited about school and so proud of himself. I’m so inspired to read about other parents standing up for what is best for our children, meaningful and effective learning experiences.