Ted Swartz – In a Reading Clinic

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Ted Swartz

Ted Swartz


I label myself, among other things, a reading clinician. Although many other people label themselves similarly, I have been struck more than once by the fact that I have something very different in mind from the ordinary use of these words when I speak of clinical work in reading. In fact, the realities behind the labels can be so different that I am uncertain that we should even use the same label. This is not to say that all the people who teach in the various clinics should think the same way or do the same things, but there would appear to be certain aspects of the work that transpires in a reading clinic where I work which distinguishes it from what presently goes on in most tutorial centers. I hope that examining these distinguishing aspects may yield insights into a way of working which can then have broader appeal and application both to tutors and regular classroom teachers.

1. In a reading clinic, the work is custom-tailored.

“Individualized instruction” is a worn-out phrase. Most educators would agree that, as an application or certain principles designed to make time devoted to learning more fruitful, the individualization of instruction is an end toward which to strive. However, its usefulness as a concept has been diluted by recipes for instruction, the proliferation of commercially prepared workbooks, teacher prepared worksheets and other materials, as well as various test-teach-retest models for teaching. As a result, it presently adds only a small amount of improvement to what generally transpires.

In a reading clinic, the actual, moment-to-moment needs of the learner are analyzed and met on the spot. The more traditional approach to individualization — usually referred to as diagnostic-prescriptive teaching — is thus replaced by a shifting and wholly flexible responsiveness to the changing needs of the learner. No preset instructional steps, no matter how pin pointedly defined, can replace a teacher who maintains a vulnerability to the real person with whom one is confronted, and who is prepared to reassess, reformulate, and modify his or her approach at any moment, according to the impacts received.

There is no special talent or hidden magic which allows the reading clinician constantly to mold his instruction according to the real course of events that transpire. It is only the maintenance of an attitude of suspended judgment, one which dictates an empirical approach that is continuously open to modification and refinement. Rather than thinking, “I know a priori just what to do for this student, based on the results of this or that assessment procedure,” the reading clinician accepts that it is only in the actual working together that the truth can be revealed, and that such truth can change as the very result of the work. By remaining open to the uniqueness of what goes on, one learns from each and every student how to custom-tailor the work for that particular individual.

2. In a reading clinic, the work is short-term and intensive.

Whatever problems may have prevented a student from reaching a sufficient mastery of reading, it is incumbent on the clinician to strike as directly as possible at the very heart of the matter. Remediation must be capsulized, so that the time required to achieve a solution can be thought of in terms of hours of work together, rather than months or years.

A sense of responsibility permeates the reading clinician regarding the use of the minutes available during a session with a student. Each minute is considered precious, both in terms of its relative scarcity and of its potential to yield significant learning. As much progress as the clinician is capable of initiating needs to be packed into each minute. But this compression of much learning into a relatively short span of time can only be accomplished through a sensitivity to, and a compassion for, the person worked with, so that the carefully orchestrated momentum is not felt as undue pressure.

The reading clinician knows that rapid remediation is possible only when the learner takes charge of her own learning. Therefore, exercises are given only when they can generate criteria, and lead to the situation where the student knows not only what is being asked of her, but why it is being asked. For example, because in English so many different sounds may be given to a particular letter or group of letters, and because context does not always provide meaning, one’s inherent quest for growth and independence actually forces one to refer, at appropriate times, to the dictionary. Once the relevant criteria regarding the nature of the language are established for a student, the clinician trusts that the student will use the dictionary whenever necessary, and will, in fact, teach herself, at a certain point, how to reach meaning through that portion of the written language which remains to be conquered. The clinician knows, at such a stage, that his job is completed.

The idea that the student in reality is teaching herself to read brings us to the last, and perhaps most significant, point.

3. In a reading clinic, it is not reading that is taught.

This bizarre sounding statement expresses a profound awareness on the part of the clinician: the content of the language is the concern of the learner, not of the person working with the learner. The clinician attends to such matters as: “Is this person looking at what is in front of her? Is this person listening to herself? Is she comparing what is seen to what is heard? Is she stubborn? Or confused? Or undisciplined?”

To the extent that such questions are entertained, the clinician can be said to be concerned with functionings of the student. Once the appropriate functionings are operative, the student plainly teaches herself how to read, and the clinician more or less delegates to himself the role of bystander for whatever short period of time he needs to be convinced that the student is on the right track.

The talents of the clinician are truly tapped only when he encounters a particularly persistent misuse, by a person, of his or her mental powers. A student may appear trapped, for example, in the bad habit of looking at the first few letters of a multisyllabic word and guessing at what the word is, with little or no regard for the semantic or syntactic content of what precedes or follows. Exercise after exercise and/or admonition after admonition may produce improved performance from time to time or for a selected set of words covered during the clinical sessions; but the student may nevertheless remain essentially entrenched in a way of functioning which causes her undue trouble when she attempts to use reading as a tool for one purpose or another. In such a situation, the clinician’s responsibility is to devise yet another technique, one which can affect the student at a deeper level of awareness, so that she is agitated enough to effect internally the necessary reconsideration of how she is relating to printed material. Thus, time is consumed in the reading clinic, not in acquiring subject matter, but in reaching that moment when the student finds within herself the clarity and the resources to relate appropriately to the challenges as they in fact descend upon her.

Tutors and regular classroom teachers may find, in the clinician’s way of working, certain things to benefit themselves in their own work. If individual students in a reading clinic can teach themselves how to read, why not look for the same from individual students in a tutorial situation? Or from small or even large groups of students in a regular class? Is it not possible to replace the framework that dictates an emphasis on subject matter with one that prompts a consideration of how the students are using their mental resources to cope with the subject matter? Is it not more of a burden to the teacher of 30 or more students to try to teach all of them all the same things at the same time, than it is to spend the same amount of time divided between making sure the students are functioning properly and then turning them loose to teach themselves?

If tutors and teachers were to function more as the clinician does, and were to custom tailor their teaching to the actual needs of their students, so that in a relatively brief period of time the students take charge of their own learning and teach themselves, who is to lose from such a state of affairs? It would seem that only people such as myself would lose, for the services I offer as a clinician would be forthcoming through sources more closely connected with the normal state of affairs. I am prepared to accept that fate.

© Ted Swartz
New York, 1993

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 12. Une Education Pour Demain, France. February, 1995.


Dr. Theodore (Ted) Swartz was the lead applicant and founder of the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, one of New York state’s highest achieving independent, public charter schools, with average English Language Arts (ELA) and math scores exceeding those of all comparison groups, including all of NYC schools, all of NYC charter schools and all of New York State public schools.

Dr. Swartz was a first grade teacher during Bronx Better Learning’s first two years of operation. Since then he has served as the school’s Executive Director for three years and now as the Director of Professional Development.

Just prior to his involvement with Bronx Better Learning, he was the Superintendent and Principal of a one-school, 400 student, K-8 district in Sussex County, New Jersey. Under Dr. Swartz’s leadership, the district established a strong track record of academic success, including its achieving the distinction of being the school, among 21 in the county, with the highest percentage of students meeting state standards in all sections tested, on both the fourth grade and the eighth grade statewide assessments.

He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, Special Education, from New York University.

Creative Commons License
“In a Reading Clinic” by Ted Swartz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.