The Wisdom of a Movable Walkway: why individualized instruction is so important

Imagine yourself rushing to catch a plane in the airport. Say for instance you’re at DIA, and you step onto the movable walkway to speed up your trip to the gate. You’re moving at a brisk pace now. There’s no carry on, all your bags are checked, and you’re holding a book you’ve been waiting to read on your flight. Out of the corner of your vision, you see people heading your direction, but you’re speeding past them. There’s a woman carrying a child and a diaper bag walking with a man pulling two giant rolling suitcases trying to balance both and walk at the same time. They take a few steps and stop to readjust things and move forward. Their progress to the gate is painstakingly slow. There’s also a group of school age students with instruments all casually walking together about the same rate as the walkway is moving.

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You decide to pick up the pace and begin walking on the movable walkway. There’s a sense that you are rocketing through the airport now. You’re passing people standing on the walkway along for the ride. You make it to the gate in record time, and are one of the first to board the plane. You leisurely open your book and don’t give the walk to the gate a second thought. You watch the school band group get on and take their seats. The doors are almost closed when the couple carrying the baby and suitcases boards the plane breathlessly.

Let’s change this situation and make an analogy to learning to read. A lot of readers are able to pick up the skill with little help needed. They may move at a casual rate like a band group walking to catch a flight. Others go to it like a fish to water. They move briskly and seem to speed past others, like the person with no bags trotting on the movable walkway. For many, however, they move slowly and struggle the whole way. They are like the couple pulling bags behind them. They need to stop every so often and readjust. They can sometimes get help from people to carry their bags with them.

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Developing the skill of reading requires a number of other skills working together. If an emerging reader is dealing with a weakness in any of the underlying skills (say for instance phonological processing, memory issues, dyslexia, and many others), then this reader has extra bags to carry on their way to the “departure gate for reading.” For many students, standard reading instruction works well. Students who have a few extra bags to carry along may need some extra help.
Focusing on the exact underlying skill that needs to be developed is central to instruction. This is what is meant by individualized instruction. The reader discovers what needs to be worked on, and they work with a specialist to develop their skills. Like a physical fitness trainer for the mind, reading specialist work out the muscles needed for reading. Every reader learns at their own pace, just like travelers moving through an airport. As the foundational skills are made stronger, readers begin to grow stronger generally, and are able to reach their potential. 

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