Sunday, April 3, 2016

10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables

A few years ago when I was working with several groups of teachers on a new language arts curriculum for a K-12 school district, I provided them with a list of “non-negotiables” for reading instruction to be included in all curriculum documents. I first heard the term non-negotiable in this context from literacy specialist, Cindy Mershon. These instructional practices were “non-negotiable” because research had overwhelmingly confirmed that they were effective practices. Over the years as new research has come out, the list has changed slightly. If I were writing the list today, here is what would be included.

Daily Read Aloud

One of the more disturbing aspects of current trends in literacy education is the reports I keep getting from classroom teachers who tell me that reading aloud is being discouraged because it is not "rigorous" enough or because more time needs to be devoted to test prep. So, let me state this as clearly as I possibly can, read aloud is a central part of effective literacy instruction and should be happening daily in every classroom. This is not open for debate. Don't take my word for it, here is a list of 13 scientifically based reasons for reading aloud to children. Among these well researched benefits are exposing students to a greater variety of literature, encouraging students to view reading as a part of their daily life, building background knowledge, providing a model of fluent reading, encouraging student talk about text, increasing vocabulary and helping students view reading as a pleasurable activity. Here is another resource on the importance of reading aloud.

When choosing a read aloud, I would encourage teachers to choose the very best that literature and informational text has to offer, whether that be picture books, novels, histories or scientific texts. When reading aloud, we can aim high because kids listening comprehension outpaces their reading comprehension by about two years and because we can easily scaffold their understanding by "thinking aloud" about the text as we read. Read aloud also provides a great opportunity for teachers to model important comprehension strategies. Just do it.

Sharing reading

Most elementary teachers are familiar with the instructional activity called "shared reading", but teacher, administrator, writer, Shelley Harwayne, offers a broader view of the activity, calling it sharing reading.  When teachers share reading they first choose something that is worthy of sharing, a poem, a big book, a song or chant and then display the piece so that students can join in the reading. Shared reading allows children to work together as a community of readers to enjoy, discuss and participate in a real reading experience. But sharing reading can also include the teacher sharing environmental print found in the classroom and hallways.

Sharing reading can also be effective with older readers, when texts are chosen wisely for specific purposes. Potential texts for sharing reading with older students include poetry, newspaper articles or particularly knotty passages from novels or informational texts. Displaying these texts on the Smart Board, document camera or overhead allows all students to share in the reading work.

Self-Selected Reading

Kids need lots of time to read independently in self-selected books to become proficient readers.   Independent reading is an important instructional strategy that allows students to practice and  consolidate all the good reading strategies the teacher has been teaching. Self-selected reading should not be confused with reading that is not guided by the teacher, however. In a quality self-selected reading program, teachers guide students to find books that they will enjoy and that they will be able to read successfully without teacher instruction. While students are reading, teachers have the opportunity to confer with the students to check on their progress. For more on independent reading try this article.

One-to-One Conferring

When students are reading indepently, teachers have an excellent opportunity to hold a one-to-one conference. These brief conferences give the teacher a chance to check that the book is a good choice, to listen to the student read and have the student do a retelling to assess comprehension. Anecdotal notes taken during these conferences provide the teacher with guidance for future reading instruction for the student. Jennifer Serravallo literally wrote the book on conferring with readers. You can find her webinar on the topic here.

Direct Instruction in Reading Strategies  

Direct instruction in reading strategies works. While many readers develop strategies on their own, many do not. The good news is that research has demonstrated that students can learn to use these strategies to improve fluency and comprehension. Among the strategies that can be taught and are shown to be helpful are question asking and answering, activating background knowledge, summarizing, visualizing and making connections. Much of the emphasis in the Common Core has been on knowledge driven reading comprehension, as has been promoted for 30 years by E. D. Hirsch and others. While lots of knowledge of a topic certainly aids in comprehension, so does a strategic approach to comprehension. For more on teaching reading strategies, you may want to look at Michael Pressley's article here.

Small Group Instruction

Children in any one classroom read at many different levels. This means that whole class texts or novels will be too easy for some, too hard for others, and just right for a some others. Only by teaching in small groups can teachers hope to be providing the majority of the students in the class with instruction that is "just right" for them at any given time in their literacy development. Grouping strategies such as those suggested by Fountas and Pinnell in Guided Reading and Guiding Readers and Writers in Grades 3-6 are very helpful in guiding teachers in the design of small group reading.


Rereading allows students to improve their fluency and comprehension of text. It is one of the most powerful instructional strategies available to teachers. Giving students opportunities to read and reread short texts is a best practice. Teachers can have students reread poetry, take books read in class home to read to parents, partner with other students to buddy read, and have students participate in reader's theater activities where they rehearse reading a story, poem or play aloud in order to prepare for a performance. For more ideas about rereading as a powerful instructional strategy, you can look here. 

Talk about Text
Literacy researcher, Linda Gambrell (2004), says that engaging students in discussion about text results in improved comprehension of text, higher levels of thinking skills and increased motivation to read. In encouraging student talk about text, we have many models to choose from including book clubs, literature circles and questioning the author. The teacher plays the role of model and facilitator, gradually releasing the children to talking to each other about text as we build their capacity both to talk to each other skillfully and to focus on important elements of the text. Here is a transcript of a talk by researcher P. David Pearson on getting the most out of talk in the classroom. 

Writing in Response to Reading

Writing about what we read is one of the strongest ways to improve reading comprehension. When we write we must reflect on what we have read and attempt to articulate our understanding through summary, analysis and critique. Writing activities engage the whole brain in thinking and responding to text and help us solidify our understanding. As with all reading/learning activities, students need teacher models, scaffolds and feedback on their writing to develop skill in responding to what they read, but research would indicate that the effort is well worth the learning rewards. You can see what literacy researcher Tim Shanahan says about writing in response to reading here.

Word Work

One aspect of becoming a good reader is facility in decoding words. Decoding is developed through daily reading activities including independent reading, sharing reading, rereading and guided reading, but class time must also be spent on learning sight words that cannot be easily "sounded out" (was, because), learning letter/sound correspondences, learning spelling patterns or word families (right, fight, might, flight), learning to break words into chunks (ch-unk-s), spelling and vocabulary development. Word work can take the form of direct teacher instruction, word wall activities, prompting at the point of difficulty during conferences or guided reading, making words activities and spelling instruction. Word work in kindergarten and first grade will also include phonemic awareness - developing the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words. As children get older and more proficient at decoding, word work will also include a greater focus on vocabulary development. 

These are my ten reading non-negotiables. It is a daunting task to balance all of these important aspects of reading instruction in the busy daily activity of the  classroom, but this is the challenge for the teacher of literacy. We must find a way to balance all of these priorities to help all students develop both the skill and the will to be excellent readers. 

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