Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Do Away with Grades for Reading

We should do away with grades for reading. Reading is a skill, not a subject. I do not like grades in general because they typically don't tell us much about how to improve learning and they can destroy the motivation of kids who get low grades. Grades do make some kind of sense, however, in content areas like social studies, science and math, because there is content to be learned and specific knowledge to be assessed.

Reading does not have a content, unless we artificially invent one for it. And when we invent content it often leads to bad instructional practice. For more than 50 years we have known that giving kids 10 vocabulary words in a list on Monday, having them look them up and write them in sentences, and them quizzing them on Friday, does not improve vocabulary knowledge. When I ask teachers why they still do it, the answer is often that they need some grades for the "Reading" section of the report card.

What goes into a reading grade? Typically these grades include, vocabulary quizzes, spelling tests, reading skill worksheet completion, homework completion, perceived student effort, and perhaps participation in reading group discussions. I ask that you notice that none of these things have anything to do with actual student reading ability. Under this system, it is possible, in fact, likely, that a student who is a poor reader could get an A and a strong reader could get an F. We have all had the strong student who repeatedly failed to complete assignments or put out much effort. Does that student deserve an F? And do we really want to report to a parent of a poor reader that the child is achieving an A in reading?

When I bring this up to teachers or administrators, I am often told that parents expect a grade. This is no doubt true, but parents only expect a grade because we have been providing these grades for 100 years. Parents think they know what grades mean - A is very good, F is very bad and everything else is somewhere in between. We need to show parents that grades carry so much baggage that they are practically meaningless in informing them about their child's reading performance. And we need to show them that there is a better way.

That better way would report to the parent on what the child knows and is able to do in reading. Simple brief answers to a few questions on a report card would do it.

  • Is the student below, at, or above expected reading level for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate fluency for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate comprehension for grade/age?
  • Does the student choose to read independently?
  • What are the student's reading goals for the next marking period?
Notice the item on "choosing to read." I think that it is important to communicate to parents that successful readers have both the skill and the will to read.

I have worked in two school districts that did away with grades in reading. It was not easy. It required visionary leadership and a great many teachers working together to make it happen. It required getting the administration on board. It required innumerable parent meetings to explain the changes and then individual teachers explaining the changes to parents at conferences. Eventually, it worked and the changes have stood. You can find the procedure we followed here.

Why would anyone want to take this on? Because a better way of reporting about reading, will lead to a better way of thinking about reading and a better approach to teaching reading.