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.