Thursday, February 22, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Increase Encounters with Text

In this final entry in the When Readers Struggle series, I want to reveal the silver bullet. The secret ingredient. The magic formula. The boss with the hot sauce. That is: the single best way to help students who struggle with reading. The answer is right in front of us and it is borne out by the research. It is deceptively simple, but too often ignored. The best way to help struggling readers improve is to (drum roll please) get them to read more.

Think about it.

What is the best way to improve student sight word knowledge? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve decoding ability? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve reading comprehension? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve vocabulary? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve reading fluency? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.

We know this is true from watching our best readers. How do our best readers get so good? Through daily reading of text that is relatively easy for them to read. The irony is that our weakest readers are often the ones who actually get to read the least in school. Instead of reading they are doing worksheets to strengthen skills, or participating in reading groups where they wait their turn to read orally, round-robin style, or being taught decoding strategies like tapping and scooping letters. When they actually get to read they are often interrupted with corrections from the teacher or other students.

Typically, good readers are left alone to read. They do more silent reading in their reading groups, spend more time in independent reading, and spend less time on worksheets and skill lessons. And yes, they spend more time reading outside of school than do most struggling readers. The result - they get better at reading because they get lots of actual reading practice.

In the single best article I have ever read on the struggling reader, Richard Allington's What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers (2013),  Allington says,

Struggling readers just participate in too little high-success reading activity every day...We fill struggling readers days with tasks that have little to do with reading.

Allington recommends eliminating workbooks, eliminating test prep, eliminating computer-based reading programs and focusing on getting struggling readers reading more each day in high-success reading activities like independent reading. Note the term high success. High success reading is reading where the reader knows 98% of the words on the page. Good readers spend most of their reading time reading in high success texts. Struggling readers spend much of their reading time reading texts that are too hard for them, especially if their content text books are "on grade level."

Of course, saying struggling readers need to read more and making it happen are two different things. As we all know struggling readers are often reluctant readers and finding books on the independent level can be a challenge.

What can a teacher do about motivation and materials? Researchers Linda Gambrell and Barbara Marinak have some suggestions.
  • Choice: Allowing children an element of choice in their reading has been shown to increase interest, engagement, and effort in reading.
  • Honoring Books: Research has shown that whenever teachers do something to make a book special like doing a quick book talk introduction to a book, or recommending the book, or even just placing the book upright on a table, students are more likely to choose that book to read.
  • Reading Aloud: Reading aloud allows the teacher to share her excitement about reading and to model fluent reading. Read aloud provides opportunities for students and teacher to collaboratively develop meaning. Gambrell and Marinak recommend reading aloud from a wide variety of fiction, informational and other types of texts daily.
  • A Balanced Book Collection: A classroom library should have a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction books on a wide variety of levels and topics, as well as other valuable reading material like magazines, newspapers, and electronic resources.
  • Make Your Passions Public: Gambrell and Marinak say that familiarity breeds reading motivation. Children like to know what their classmates are reading; they like to read books with the same characters and with the same authors, so be sure to advertise via bulletin board and other communication the classroom favorites as in a Top Ten Books list, a favorite author bulletin board and the like.
  • Use Proximal Incentives: If you want to use incentives to motivate reading, use incentives that actually encourage more reading. Proximal incentives for reading include extended reading time, the chance to choose the class read aloud, extended read aloud time, time to talk about books, extended library time, free books. These types of incentives have been shown to be more motivating for readers than stickers or pizza parties. 
Other ways to increase struggling reader reading time include having students reread books that have been used for guided reading instruction as a warm up for a new small group lesson, having a browsing box full of familiar books that a child can choose from and know that they can read successfully, and sending books home for reading aloud to parents. Buddy reading, the pairing of two readers of differing abilities sharing the reading load and book clubs, built on student interest rather than reading level, are other reading motivators.

Reading books is a powerful remediation for reading struggles. In one study, Allington and his colleagues sought to combat summer literacy loss by simply giving at risk children twelve self-selected books to take home with them over the summer. No instruction, no summer school was provided, just the books. The group of students who received the books showed reading gains by the end of the summer, while those who did not receive books showed the typical summer loss pattern.

None of what I say here should be construed to mean that struggling readers do not need instruction in decoding and comprehension strategies. They do. But if we really want to improve the chances that struggling readers will become able readers, we need to work very hard to make sure that they are engaged in actual reading, not just as much as our best readers, but even more than our best readers.

This may seem a daunting task. But research has shown that if we could just increase the amount of actual, engaged reading a below average reader does by 10 minutes per day, over the year that reader would be exposed to the same number of words in context as an above grade level reader. 

It is ironic that the best strategy for improving the reading ability of our most struggling readers is also the least valued. Teachers need to be diligent advocates for independent and voluntary reading as a major component of the instructional day. This is doubly important for our most vulnerable readers.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Americans Don't Care About Their Children

The continued gun violence visited upon America's schools and school children, along with the abject failure of the adults who run the country to do anything about it, leads me to one inescapable conclusion: In the United States of America, we don't care about our children. When I say "our children" here, I am referring to children in general, not individual children. As the grieving parents in Florida today will attest, we all care about our own children. What we do not seem to care about is all the other children.

I am hardly the first person to make this observation. In her 1992 New York Times essay, Everybody's Somebody's Baby, noted author Barbara Kingsolver was struck by the difference in how children were received in Spain as compared to the United States. She observes that

Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it's not their own they don't want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it. In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want. In an Arizona newspaper, I remember seeing a letter from a reader incensed by the possibility of a school budget override. "I don't have kids," he declared, "so why should I have to pay to educate other people's offspring?" The budget increase was voted down, the school district progressed from deficient to dismal and one is inclined to ask that smug non-father just whose offspring he expects to doctor the maladies of his old age.

In a recent editorial in the MINNPOST, Susan Perry, who writes on public health issues, cited the following statistics.
  • a baby born in the United States has a 76 percent greater risk of dying before their first birthday than one born in other wealthy, democratic countries.
  • a child aged 1 to 19 in the United States has a 57 greater risk of dying before adulthood than elsewhere in the developed world.
  • UNICEF has ranked the US 26 out of 29 developed countries (higher than only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania) with respect to overall child health and safety.
If we cared about our children in this country, school children would not be reporting to under-staffed, under-resourced, rat-infested, moldy, dilapidated school buildings in every urban area in the country. If we cared about our children, those children would not be walking to school through gang infested neighborhoods, fearing for their lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters. All we have been able to muster for these children is the non-choice of school choice, which unleashes usually ineffective, often unscrupulous, frequently disruptive "education-like" schemes on our neediest school children.

When America cares about a problem, the problem gets fixed. We entered World War II unprepared to wage the war that we found ourselves fighting and with a navy that had been crippled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we rallied, sacrificed, worked hard at home and abroad and prevailed. When smoking was finally and irrefutably identified as a killer, we took action that has greatly reduced the use of tobacco in the country. When Martin Luther King, Jr. forced us to come face to face with our pernicious racism, we took action, imperfect action perhaps, action that continues to be needed, but action that at least ended the most egregious aspects of Jim Crow, however haltingly, in the country.

The only way to explain the lack of action on gun violence in the schools is that we value our right to bear arms more than we value our children. Politicians seem to be unable to even have a conversation about bringing gun proliferation under control. Our founding fathers, I am sure, did not mean for the second amendment to require that we were to remain impotent in protecting our children from guns in the hands of society's disaffected. Surely. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" means freedom from fear of being shot in your own classroom. Surely the right to bear arms is a limited right, just as every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is limited by the simple fact that the unfettered exercise of that right could endanger others. So we have no right to cry, "Fire!" in a crowded theater and no right to refuse to wear a seat belt and we have even decided to give up the right to smoke in public places. Surely we can all do without the right to carry an AR-15 around with us. 

Small minds look at these types of issues and respond with a wall building mentality. Illegal immigration? Build a wall. Armed, mentally-ill gunmen in the school corridors? Turn the school into an armed camp. We would be better off by far to reject the wall-builders and embrace the bridge builders. Surely we can find a bridge between the second amendment and truly valuing the lives of our school children.

Don't just cry for the children of Parkland, Florida. Do something. Start building bridges. One thing you can do is join me at the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence on April 20 (The anniversary of the Columbine shooting). You can sign up here.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 3, Talking and Writing After Reading

In part 1 of this three part series on reading comprehension, I discussed what the teacher can do to help students develop the background and disciplinary knowledge needed for comprehension before reading. In part 2, I discussed the strategies teachers can teach students to use while they are reading. In part 3, here, I will take on what teachers can do after the reading to develop readers' comprehension of text.
Typically, post-reading activities focus on questioning to assess student understanding, but while questioning students may give the teacher some idea of what readers have understood and what they have not, it does not develop student comprehension. It does not help students become better comprehenders. What research has consistently shown does improve readers' ability to comprehend is discussion and writing after reading.

Frameworks for Discussion

First I think it is important to define what is meant by discussion. Most of what we call discussion in schools is actually recitation. Recitation involves students responding to the teacher and the teacher responding to the individual student and then directing a question to another student. While students get to talk, the teacher is at the center and all information flows to and from the teacher. In discussion, the teacher may indeed initiate, but the students not only respond to the teacher, but to each other, building on the contributions of the other students in the class as well as providing evidence for what they say from the text. The role of the teacher then becomes to facilitate and redirect the student discussion and to add needed insight when appropriate.

With this definition of discussion we can look at two useful frameworks for class discussion: Questioning the Author and Discussion Web.

Questioning the Author

Questioning the Author (QtA) was developed by researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown at the University of Pittsburgh. The key concept behind this instructional design is that good comprehenders of text work to figure out what the author of the text is trying to communicate to them. Through a series of generic queries teachers lead students to collaboratively examine the text, section by section, with a focus on the author's message. Queries differ from questions because they are open ended, with multiple possible answers and because they encourage talk rather than one right answer. Here are some possible queries.
  • What is the author trying to say?
  • What is the author's message?
  • What is the author talking about?
  • This is what the author says, but what does the author mean?
  • How does this connect with what the author already told us?
  • Does what the author said make sense?
  • Has the author said this in a way that is clear to you?
  • Did the author tell us that?
  • Did the author give us the answer to that?
Implicit in the QtA process is that both the reader and the author are responsible for comprehension. It is the reader's task to determine what the author is trying to say, but it is the author's job to write clearly so that readers can understand, to write a text considerate of the reader. I have discussed this concept of considerate text in a previous post here.

You can read more about implementing QtA by reading Beck and McKeown's book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author or check out this brief overview in Reading Rockets to get you started.

Discussion Web

A discussion web is a great way to get students talking to each other to gain a fuller understanding of a text. The procedure works best with a text that is either ambiguous or controversial in nature that allows students to view an argument form two sides. I have often used it successfully with poetry and with persuasive essays, but any text that allows students to view the text from more than one angle will do.

Discussion Web Procedure:
  • Choose a reading that will elicit clearly defined opposing viewpoints.
  • Prepare students for reading by activating background knowledge, eliciting predictions, introducing vocabulary.
  • Read selection aloud or have students read independently
  • With the students, identify the main question addressed and have all write the question on the Discussion Web graphic organizer.
  • Divide the group into pairs. Have the pairs determine at least three reasons in the text that the question could be answered yes and three reasons the question could be answered no.
  • Combine the pairs into groups of four and have them compare their evidence and add to their worksheets. 
  • The group of four must then work to write a consensus conclusion based on the evidence in the text and on their worksheet.
  • A spokesperson for the group can then present their viewpoint to the class as a whole.

Integrating Reading and Writing

Novelist and Essayist Joan Didion has famously said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." The same could be said for all readers. Research has consistently shown that writing about what we have read enhances our comprehension of what has been read. Instruction in reading comprehension is simply more effective when it is combined with writing. When readers struggle with reading comprehension, we can help to support them by including writing as a part of our reading comprehension instruction. In fact according to research, these two things have a symbiotic relationship. Reading comprehension instruction improves writing and writing instruction improves comprehension.

The Double Entry Journal

One tool that is particularly valuable for enhancing the comprehension of fiction texts is the double entry journal. Despite what has been said by the chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, "Nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel about your reading", teachers should care very much how children think and feel because in communicating these things the children are developing their ability to comprehend text and express their understanding. 

The double entry journal is one framework teachers can use to tap into student thinking about the text. In a double entry journal a notebook page is divided into two sides. The left side is used for jotting down key information from the text including summaries, key events or details, quotations, vocabulary, etc. The right hand side is used for student reflection on what has been read including the reader's reactions, thoughts and feelings, discussion of the author's message, interpretations of meaning, all backed up by evidence from the text. 

As with all useful strategies, the good use of the double entry journal must be modeled by the teacher several times and then the students must be supported in their developing ability to use the journal. If students struggle with the concept, additional modeling and support may be required. Exemplar double entry journal pages created by the teacher, should be displayed as anchor charts in the room.

Unsent Letters

Unset letters is a strategy that I have found particularly effective in helping students synthesize their understanding of complex issues in reading in the content areas. Unsent letters sets up a role play scenario where the student plays the role of a petitioner writing a letter to the editor or a letter to a historical figure, or even a letter to the school principal in which they explain their understanding of an issue from their reading and ask the imaginary recipient to take some action. Students demonstrate their understanding of the reading through their communication.

An unsent letter requires accuracy in reading, imagination, interpretation, and critical thinking. They are particularly effective when students are reading about controversial topics in science like the environment, pollution, water quality or in social studies such as racism, war, Manifest Destiny, etc. As with all strategies like this, the teacher should model unsent letters and closely guide initial efforts to help student perform their best with the strategy.

When students are asked to convert thought into spoken or written language, they must reflect on what they have read, process it, and make it their own. By helping students talk and write about their reading, we are greatly improving their chances of understanding and retaining what they have read. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 2

In part one of this discussion of reading comprehension, I discussed the teacher's role in building the disciplinary and world knowledge necessary for students to comprehend text. In Part 2, I would like to address strategies that all students can use to comprehend better, even when their background knowledge may fall a bit short. My bias here is that if students have difficulty comprehending a text, it is the teacher's responsibility to help make the text accessible for the reader. One way to make text accessible is by teaching strategies that are useful for students.

Research has reached a general consensus on what strategies are worth teaching.
  • Setting purposes for reading
  • Previewing and predicting
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Monitoring, clarifying, and fixing
  • Visualizing
  • Drawing inferences
  • Self-questioning and thinking aloud
  • Summarizing and retelling
Other possible strategies worth teaching include story elements for narrative text and skimming and scanning for informational text. 

While many students come to the use of these strategies more or less intuitively, many do not, hence the need for specific instruction. What does that instruction look like? Again research would support a model that has been around for more than 30 years, the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983). Gradual release of responsibility instruction follows five steps.
  1. An explicit description of the strategy including when and how it should be used.
  2. The teacher modeling the strategy in action.
  3. Collaborative (teacher/student) use of the strategy.
  4. Guided practice of the strategy with gradual release of responsibility.
  5. Independent use of the strategy.
The Think Aloud

The best way to model what good readers do to comprehend text is the think aloud. A think aloud allows the teacher to demonstrate exactly what a skilled reader does when trying to comprehend a text. As the teacher reads a text to the class, she takes the opportunity to stop and say aloud to the students the thought processes she is using to help her understand the text. The teacher models activating prior knowledge, monitoring for understanding, rereading, figuring-out vocabulary in context, predicting, confirming, summarizing, retelling, and drawing inferences. A good think aloud requires thoughtful and thorough planning. We are fortunate that a new book is available to help with that. Think Big with Think Alouds, by Molly Ness, has just been released by Corwin Press. Ness prescribes a three step process to planning a think aloud.
  1. Read Once: Identifying Juicy Stopping Points
  2. Read Twice: Determining Where and When to Think Aloud
  3. Read Three Times: Writing the Scripts on Sticky Notes
Whether you are brand new to think alouds, have been using think alouds for awhile without the kind of results you would like, or you just want to add to your think aloud repertoire, I highly recommend Ness' book. The final chapter of the book also makes suggestions for having students do their own think alouds, which I have indicated above is a reading comprehension best practice. 

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Reciprocal teaching combines several of the reading comprehension strategies cited above including summarizing, self-questioning, predicting, and clarifying. Reciprocal teaching has also, in itself, been proven to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

Reciprocal teaching takes time to implement, but the payoff in improved student reading performance is well worth the time. Students are taught four different strategies to use when trying to comprehend text. Each strategy is taught independently and then the four strategies are combined for a reciprocal teaching session. The key concept behind reciprocal teaching is that reciprocity - students are reading to understand and helping each other to understand better with the guidance of the teacher. 

The four key strategies in reciprocal teaching are predicting, summarizing, questioning, and clarifying. Students are taught to make predictions, generate questions, summarize text and clarify the meanings of words or concepts. Students prepare for a group session by preparing their predictions, summaries, questions, etc. and then bring them to a group session to share and learn form other readers in their group. Together the group develops a cogent understanding of the texts. 

If you would like to try reciprocal teaching many resources are available. I recommend Lori Oczkus' book, Reciprocal Teaching At Work  as the best possible introduction to the strategy. For a brief overview of the strategy you may want to look here at this Reading Rockets page.  You can also find a decent introduction to the strategy on you tube here.

Teach Text Structure

Good readers use their knowledge of text structure to aid them in comprehending a text. Weaker readers can be taught to use text structure through skillful instruction. Text structure is learned through exposure to many different kinds of texts, but it can also be learned through explicit instruction in the various structures and through the use of graphic organizers that help readers create a visual representation of the text. 

Narrative texts generally have only one structure, long established and relatively easy for most students to understand because of frequent exposure to stories. 

Characters: Who is the story is about?
Setting: Where does the story takes place?
Problem/Conflict/Quest: What does the main character want to accomplish?
Plot: How does the character go about solving the problem?
Resolution: How was the problem solved?
Theme: What is the general lesson to be learned from the story?

Informational texts, however, present a special challenge because they can vary so much in structure. The chart below presents a number of these structures, clue words to help students identify them and suggested graphic organizers to use with each structure.

I have discussed other strategies for building comprehension through probes in this post: Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning. You can also read my take on the currently fashionable close reading instruction here: The Blue Guitar: Toward a Reader Response Approach to Close Reading.

There are, of course, many other strategies we can teach children to aid their comprehension, but by focusing on what research tells us is worth teaching, by modeling through think alouds, by employing a well-documented, effective design like reciprocal teaching, and by focusing on the structure of text we can guide students to improved understanding of text.

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology. 8(3), 317-344.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 1

There is no reading without comprehension. We read for understanding, for enjoyment, for learning. We cannot do any of these without comprehending the text. Many students, even many who have developed automaticity in decoding text, struggle with comprehension. The good news is that research indicates that good teaching can help children improve their reading comprehension. Like reading comprehension itself, reading comprehension instruction is hard work. It demands knowledgeable, consistent, insistent effort on the part of the teacher, but the rewards in student reading growth can be great.

Comprehension instruction is a large topic and I will take three posts to address it properly, if still only in broad strokes. I take my cue from the work of literacy researchers, Nell Duke, P. David Pearson, Stephanie L. Strachan and Allison K. Billman in their outstanding article Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension, published in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (2011). In Part 1, here, I will address the teacher's role in building the disciplinary and world knowledge children need to comprehend text. Part 2 will address the teaching of strategies readers can employ to improve comprehension. Part 3 will look at instructional strategies for building and extending comprehension through discussion and the integration of reading and writing.

Building the Knowledge Necessary for Reading Comprehension

Simply put, the more students know about a topic before reading about the topic, the more likely they will be to comprehend what they are reading. And this knowledge is a gift that keeps on giving, because successful reading of new material allows readers to add to the considerable knowledge they already have. And so, the knowledge rich keep getting richer. We have all seen this in our classes, when a child has a deep interest bordering on obsession in a topic like dinosaurs, and is able to read and comprehend well above supposed "level", because of this deep knowledge and interest.

We know that many of our struggling readers have a limited store of background knowledge to bring to their reading. We also know that skilled readers tend to read a lot more than unskilled readers and thus build their knowledge through more exposure to texts. So when students struggle in reading comprehension and background knowledge seems to be a contributing factor, what is the teacher to do?

Here are a few ideas.

Provide Exposure to a Large Volume and Wide Range of Texts

Research has clearly shown that the amount of time that kids interact with text, both in school and outside of school significantly correlates with overall reading success. Successful reading comprehension instruction must, therefore, include lots of opportunities for students to engage with texts. Classroom activities that support volume of reading include independent reading, book clubs, buddy reading, and read aloud.

With struggling readers, who tend to read less and be less motivated to read, teachers need to find creative ways to make sure that students are engaged in their reading. Making sure children are reading a book of high interest and a book which they can successfully read helps. So does such things as "buddy reading" where readers can share the reading and support each other. Having a "browsing box" of familiar books for these readers to re-read may be an effective way to help them find books of interest on an appropriate level. Another strategy is a poetry folder of poems that have been read in class (as part of a read aloud, shared reading, or fluency lesson) for students to read and re-read during choice reading time.

Reading at home and over the summer matters, too. Allington et al., (2010) found that increasing the volume of books that children had access to over the summer significantly improved overall reading achievement. For teachers fighting summer loss, it may be helpful to think of ways to get a variety of books into kids hands over the summer.

When it comes to the range of texts, we will want to make sure that students are exposed to narrative genres like fairy tales, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, etc., whose primary purpose is to entertain. We will also want to have students read a great deal of informational texts, whose primary purpose is to convey information about the world, as in websites, books, and articles about plants, animals, or places or that explain history or human interactions. The range of books would also include what Duke and Pearson call "hybrid books" like biography and autobiography that use a narrative structure to provide us with lessons on how people have dealt with challenges in their lives. Other informational texts include those that tell us how to do something and those that want to persuade us. Other types of reading students should experience include poetry and drama.

Texts should also vary in difficulty, from clear and straightforward to more dense and difficult, so that students can learn to employ the comprehension strategies you have taught. Readers should have texts that are easy for them and also be exposed to texts that provide a challenge, especially when the teacher is there to help them grapple with difficult text.

Combine Literacy Instruction with Content Instruction

Many school curriculum directors and schedulers have responded to initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Reading First, by providing increased time for reading instruction, which often comes at the expense of time for science and social studies instruction. If the goal is to improve reading instruction this is the exact wrong way to go. Learning to read for meaning can and should be inextricably linked to learning new information. As Duke and Pearson, et al., have said, "Words are not the point of words; ideas are." By tying literacy instruction to the ideas contained in real learning situations in science and social studies, students not only improve reading ability, but also learn new concepts, which can aid their future understanding.

Several instructional designs that take an integrated approach to reading comprehension/concept development have shown promise in research. Among these are Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading, and Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). You can read more about each of these 
by clicking on the links, but with or without a designated program, the take away for all classroom teachers here is that combining good reading strategy instruction with rich content is a more effective way to improve students knowledge base and reading comprehension.

Provide Motivating Texts and Tasks for Reading

As teachers and observers of children, we know that motivation is critical to learning. Research indicated that motivation is particularly important to reading comprehension. As Duke and Pearson, et al., put it" "we must be concerned with the will and thrill, not just the skill of comprehension."

But how do we accomplish this with struggling readers, who have had a difficult time reading and comprehending effectively and may be turned off to the whole idea of reading. Here we need to take a two fold approach, one that not only considers what text we want the student to read, but also the task we want them to accomplish as part of the reading.

Interesting Texts

Interest is individual and unique. In order to help children find texts that are interesting to them, we must know something about the reader and the reader's interests. Some teachers accomplish this by conducting interest surveys, but there is no better way to accomplish this than by getting to know the children by listening to them and observing them over time. One of the best ways I found to help a child find a text that is interesting is to hold a conversation in the classroom or school library with the child, surrounded by tons of books and lots of options.

I once had such an encounter with a struggling and reluctant reader named PJ. PJ told me he didn't like to read and rarely chose to read on his own. I asked him, "What do you like to do after school?" He responded, "Play with my dog?" From there we had a five minute discussion about his dog, about how he was responsible for the care and feeding of his dog, about what fun he had with the dog. I pulled a book off the shelf called Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt. It is a middle reader mystery about a boy who solves crimes with the help of his trusty dog, Sinbad. I talked about the book to PJ. We looked at the front and back cover and the few illustrations. I asked him to give it try. He read it and came back to me asking for more dog stories.

When we aim for high interest in texts with children, we can worry less about the book being at the right level. Interest and appropriate prior knowledge can help to overcome some reading challenges. It worked for PJ. A number of research studies have demonstrated that comprehension is much higher when reading about topics of interest.

Interesting Tasks

Of course, we can't always provide interesting texts for every individual student in the class in all reading situations. A second factor we can consider, though, is the task we ask the students to perform as a part of the reading. Duke and Pearson et al, suggest that what we need to do is provide the students with "compelling reasons to comprehend." Compelling reasons must go well beyond grades and questions at the end of the reading. Compelling tasks might be to learn some information to teach to the rest of the class or to a group of younger children. Compelling reasons might be to read to learn how to make something to give to a friend or family member. Compelling reasons also might be to be absorbed in a great story, which you have introduced to them, perhaps even reading the first chapter to them to lure the students into the story.

To sum up then, struggling readers need teachers to plan instruction that helps them build the knowledge necessary for comprehension, instruction that exposes them to a wide variety of text types, instruction that integrates literacy learning with content learning, and instruction that helps them find interesting texts and provides motivating tasks to complete.

Next time we will look at the strategies all readers can learn to improve their comprehension as they interact with text.


Allington, R. et al., (2010). Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Reading Psychology. 31 (5), 411-427.

Duke, N., Pearson P. D., Strachan, L., and Billman, A. (2011) Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension. In Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A.E. What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.


Monday, January 29, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Fluency

In previous posts on this blog and as a guest author on Valinda Kimmel's wonderful blog, That Thing You Do, I have discussed fluency as the "bridge" between decoding and comprehension. When students struggle with decoding, or when they seem to have hit a plateau in their reading development, it seems logical to double down on decoding instruction to help them move forward. There is another choice we could try, however, and that is to provide fluency instruction: practice in reading a passage "so it sounds like talking."

What is fluency?

Fluency is the smooth, accurate, expressive processing of connected text. Fluency includes automaticity (rapid and accurate decoding) along with prosody (the melodic features of oral language). As I tell my students, fluency is "reading so it sounds like talking." To read with fluency we must be able to decode quickly and accurately and understand what we are reading so we know where to pause and when to raise and lower our voices.

Why does fluency matter?

Fluent reading allows the reader to gather meaning on the run. Gathering meaning not only facilitates comprehension, but it also aids decoding. As I have said in the posts on word solving,  decoding is best seen as a meaning driven process that involves visual information (What would look right?), syntactical information (What would sound right?), and meaning (What would make sense?). Fluent reading allows the reader to push through the text to quickly identify words and gather meaning.

Fluency and Struggling Readers

Many struggling readers fail to achieve fluency in reading because so much of their attention is focused on decoding the words, often through laborious efforts to "sound-it-out." Research indicates that fluency instruction, including lots of repeated reading, can help students process text more rapidly, improve decoding abilities, and strengthen comprehension. Most importantly, fluency instruction seems to transfer to other reading activities, improving overall decoding and comprehension abilities (Rasinski and Samuels, 2011).

Teaching for Fluency

Repeated Reading Activity

Like all good instruction, good fluency instruction includes teacher modeling, guided practice, independent practice, follow-up and feedback. It is best to choose short passages or poems or song lyrics for fluency practice. Poems and songs support fluency through rhythm and rhyme. In my book, Snack Attack and other poems for developing fluency in beginning readers, I suggest the following instructional procedure. In preparing for the lesson, I put the poem on chart paper or display on a Smart Board. I also make a copy of the poem for each student.

1.      Pre-reading Activities: Before reading the poem, activate background knowledge and interest through discussion. Using the title, illustration or an appropriate question as a stimulus, have the children make predictions about what they will read in the poem.

2.      Teacher Modeling: Read the poem aloud to the class at least once. Emphasize meaning. Read expressively. As you read, point to the words on the chart or screen in a smooth, left to right motion. Children need to hear the poem read fluently and expressively so that they can learn what fluent reading sounds like.

3.      Comprehension Instruction: After listening to your oral reading of the poem, have the children check their original predictions about the poem’s content. In a guided discussion help students to retell what happened in the poem. Discuss difficult vocabulary and figurative language. An understanding of the meaning of the poem will support students in developing their reading fluency.

4.      Echo Reading: Read aloud one line of the poem and have the children echo back what has been read. Read the next line, have the children echo again and so on throughout the poem. Be sure to point to each line and keep students focusing on the text. Some students may not look at the text during echo reading, relying instead on listening memory. Guide them to keep their eyes on the words as they echo.

5.      Choral Reading: Lead a re-reading of the poem. Invite all students to join in the re-reading. Weaker readers can rely on classmates to help them over the difficult passages or may choose to be silent or listen. Again, remember to point to the words as you and the children read them together.

6.      Paired Reading: Children are each given a copy of the poem and are asked to choose a partner. Alternatively, the teacher may assign partners. Have children find a comfortable place to read and then take turns reading the poem to each other. The listening partner is asked to play the role of helper, listening and following along closely to provide help if the reader needs it. Partners are encouraged to keep reading to each other until each can read the poem fluently.

7.      Teacher Conference: When children feel they have mastered the poem, they request a teacher conference. During the conference, the child reads the passage aloud, while the teacher keeps a record of general fluency, miscues and decoding strategies employed. The teacher provides specific feedback to the student on their fluency and use of strategies.

Choral and echo reading may be repeated several times until the teacher feels that most students will be able to combine memory, sight vocabulary, and decoding strategies to read the poem independently. After a few choral readings, the teacher can stop reading and have the children read chorally without the teacher’s guiding voice.

Vary choral reading as the poem warrants. Have different small groups of students alternate verses or lines or have students take the parts of speaking characters in the poem. Have pairs of students read parts of the poem or have the boys read one time and the girls another. Variety in choral reading will help keep interest and attention high.

Rasinski (1994) has recommended that follow-up work include a brief period of word work (adding words to the word wall, explaining word families, word sorting, word games) as a part of the lesson. These lessons can last over a period of several days, revisiting the poem each day with choral, echo and independent readings and word work activity.

Prompting During Reading

Fluency instruction can also happen when you are "listening in" while a student reads, either in a small group session or during independent reading. When students read in a word-for-word or choppy fashion, try the following prompts.
  • Read that again and make it sound like talking.
  • Read that again like you were telling me the story.
  • Read that again and be sure to pay attention too the punctuation.
  • Listen to me read that and see if you can read it like I did.
If you would like to try a fluency lesson such as the one outlined above, here is a poem from my book Snack Attack to get you started. This is aimed at second and third grade struggling readers.

The Rattling, Rumbling Train

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Travels through the sun and rain
From south of France to north of Spain;
Then turns and speeds right back again.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
Climbs the mountains, crosses the plains.
What might its boxcars each contain?
Perhaps some fruit or corn or grain.

The rattling, rumbling, rambling train
With cars linked in a giant chain.
I watch it pass, but can’t explain
The power it has to entertain.

The rattling, rumbling, roaring train
Makes noise that clatters through my brain.
But please don’t think that I complain,
I love that rattling, rumbling train.

Copyright 2010 by Russ Walsh

Rasinski, T. & Samuels, S.J. (2011) Reading Fluency: What it is and what it is not. in Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

New Jersey Orders Closure of Trenton Charter School

Here is the lede from a story in the Times of Trenton for January 26, 2018:

A Trenton charter school could close in June, one year after it moved into a building renovated at a cost of $17 million, because the state Department of Education decided not to renew the school's charter.

The charter school is the International Academy of Trenton. The Department of Education cited the school's failure to provide a strong educational program and organizational system. The school was among the lowest scoring schools in the state on the PARCC exam (A lousy way to assess schools, but the metric of choice for charters.). During visits to the school, state monitors noted lax discipline, high levels of absenteeism, frequent disturbances in classrooms, students on cell phones during class, and students leaving class for no apparent reason.

Parents reported that the school is plagued by high staff turnover. Indeed the average level of experience in the school is 2.8 years, compared to a statewide average of 11.8 years. A school performance report showed chronic absenteeism and low levels of achievement in math and English. The school has had three executive directors and two interim executive directors since 2014.

This is, of course, just another story of charter school failure, typical in many ways. Poor organization, high staff turnover, inexperienced teachers, low scores, revolving door leadership, but for the 529 students enrolled at the school it is a total disruption of their education. Next school year will bring them new challenges, new teachers, new classmates, a new building. This kind of disruption may be the most lasting legacy of the repeated failures of charter schools.

One parent's comment struck me as particularly telling. Sharita Wilson felt that a charter school was the best choice for her child because of "overcrowding in the public schools." The parent may not realize this, but this statement is loaded with irony. One of the chief causes of overcrowding in the public schools is that so much of the school budget goes to charter schools. I would like to see what kind of impact that $17 million in renovation costs, and the millions in other funding that went to International Academy might have had on class size in those traditional public schools.

To be fair, the traditional public schools of Trenton have, like urban schools in most cities, struggled for a long time. Finding adequate funding has always been a struggle and when money has been available it has not always been spent well. It is understandable that Trenton parents would see charter schools as a viable alternative and some charter schools in the city have been successful. At least if you define success by improved test scores and think it is worth the "no excuses" military style discipline and shaming that is a part of these so-called successes. Trenton Public Schools have long been in crisis.

Right now, however, I am thinking of those 529 students, who are facing more disruption in their lives. Learning happens best in consistent, predictable environments. The disruption that often accompanies the charter sector is antithetical to learning. Adults in charge need to stop looking for quick fixes like charter schools and vouchers and get down to the serious work of addressing income inequity, segregation, and the wise investment of funds and educational expertise in the public schools.

Some may argue that this story is a success story because the Department of Education has acted to close the school. It would have been better for all concerned, though, if it had never been permitted to open.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 3

In part 1 of this three part series on solving words here, I proposed the view of the reader encountering an unknown word as a flexible problem solver on the lookout for clues that would lead to accurate word identification. In part 2, I suggested some of the ways that teachers can directly teach students the tools needed to solve word problems such as the variety of sound-symbol based strategies and context clues available. We know, however, that word solving strategies, in order to be effective, must be practiced in real reading situations, so, in part 3, I would like to look how the teacher can facilitate student problem solving during reading, by prompting at the point of difficulty.

Readers need to rapidly coordinate a great deal of information when they are reading any text and this coordination takes time and many encounters with print to develop. When young readers come upon an unknown word they provide the teacher with the ideal teachable moment. A moment when instruction can be most powerful, where it is contextualized, and where feedback on success or lack thereof is immediately available.

Much of what I share here comes from the work of Marie Clay, whose groundbreaking work. Becoming Literate, has been highly influential in our thinking about reading instruction. Clay was also the founder of Reading Recovery, an intervention strategy for struggling first-grade readers. I was trained in Reading Recovery and worked as a Reading Recovery teacher. Reading Recovery principles are also the underpinnings of guided reading instruction, popularized in this country by Fountas and Pinnell in their book, Guided Reading.

I know the value of these strategies and have seen first hand how well they can work, but I will also admit that I was not successful with every struggling reader I worked with. There are many ways to help children to literacy. I share here one that I have found to be effective and which is in concert with my general view of how reading works.

Prompting at the Point of Difficulty

Let us suppose that the reader is confronted with this sentence in the famous Caldecott Honor picture book by Peter Spier.

The fox ran out on the chilly ________.

The reader already has a great deal of information about the blank word before any visual (phonics) knowledge is available. Native English speakers will know this is a noun, even if they cannot articulate that actual classification, because of its place in the sentence. Native English speakers will also know this is probably a noun of time like day, night, morning, because those words would make sense (although it could be field, meadow, pasture, etc) Armed with that knowledge, lets add some visual information.

The fox ran out on a chilly n_______.

Most of us will now identify this word as "night" and will confirm that by looking at the rest of the word. Notice that a "sound it out" strategy won't help the reader here because of the silent letters, so the reader needs to employ an onset - rime approach to identify the word through the familiar onset (n) and the familiar rime (-ight).

With this basic understanding in mind we can discuss how prompting at the point of difficulty works. When a reader comes upon a word she doesn't know, we can prompt her to use strategies to help solve the problem. The key is to help the reader use all the sources of information available to them to solve the word.

Here are the key prompts we can use as teachers.
  • Why did you stop?
  • Check the picture. (Pictures are the context clues of beginning readers.)
  • Does that look right? (Does what you said match what you see?)
  • Does that make sense? (What you say must make sense?)
  • Does that sound right? (Can we say it like that?)
  • Read the sentence again and say the first letter.
  • Keep working through the word.
  • Do you know a word that starts like that? Ends like that?
  • What do you know that might help?
  • What could you try?
Most of these prompts are taken from Guided Reading by Fountas and Pinnell. See the book for a longer list of prompts. I use the prompt, "Keep working through the word" instead of sounding it out, because many words cannot be sounded out, so readers may need to use sounding out, onset-rime knowledge, knowledge of word parts and analogy to come up with the word. So for me this is "working through the word." You can see what else I have to say on "sounding-it-out" in this post.

If the reader successfully solves the word, prompt her to go back to the beginning of the sentence and reread to solidify the meaning and the word identification. If after a few prompts the student cannot solve the word, it is a good idea to tell the student the word and have them move on. This problem can then become the target of explicit instruction after the reading. So if a student were unable to decode the word "night" in the reading, a lesson on the rime pattern -ight would be in order.

Many other prompts are available to the teacher, to help students self-monitor their reading, to improve fluency, etc., but the prompts here focus on word solving, so we will save discussion of other prompts for another day.

Of course to be able to prompt students at the point of difficulty the teacher must have the time and structure in the class to listen to individuals read. In my classroom this time came during small group reading time (whether guided reading or some other small group structure) and during independent reading time, when I would visit and listen in to students reading on a one-on-one basis.

The idea here is to think of students as apprentice word solvers. As the best word solver in the class, you, the teacher, share your expertise in such a way as to assist the apprentice to take on the same word solving behaviors. As the teacher you construct a prompt scaffold upon which students can construct their own growing understanding of how words work.