Sunday, February 25, 2018

Armed with Books

Let's get this out of the way up front. Arming teachers with guns is a stupid idea. It is such a stupid idea, it gives stupid a bad name. A number of my blogging colleagues have addressed the issue eloquently and if you want to read some great explanations you could read Peter Greene here, or Mitchell Robinson here, or Arthur Goldstein here.

But in the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Parkland, FL, I don't want to talk any more about guns in the classroom. I want to arm teachers with the single greatest weapon society has against evil. It is the traditional weapon that teachers have been wielding  since the very first teacher penned the very first lesson plan. That weapon is the book.

Before you roll your eyes at my naiveté, give me a chance to explain. The written word is the human race's number one defense against ignorance. The written word provides us with the documentary evidence of who we are and where we have come from. The written word allows us access to the thinking of all the greatest minds of all the civilizations that have come before us. The written word allows us to share all our great stories and to invent new great stories. The written word is what makes us human. It is what separates us from all other species. If being human means anything at all, it means that we can continuously improve and if we can indeed continuously improve, it is the written word that will help us some day achieve a world where children do not have to enter school looking for the best place to duck and cover.

Books have the power to make us better human beings. When a teacher shares a great book with a classroom of children, that teacher has brought the world a little closer to the ideal of the peaceful, inclusive, loving world we all desire. This is not mere idle speculation or wishful thinking; the research bears this out. A study done by Castano & Kidd for The New School of Research in 2013 found that reading literary fiction improves readers' "theory of mind." Theory of mind is defined as "the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (Science, 2013). In other words, reading literary fiction helps human beings develop empathy.

And what the world that today's school child encounters needs more than anything else is empathy, that great ability to see the world through another's eyes, to seek to understand different perspectives and to seek to resolve conflict without devolving into enemy camps as seems to be what has happened to our current political system.

In many ways my world view was formed by books. Two authors in particular resonated with me as a young reader and I can still point to the genesis of my current pragmatic progressive philosophy from the reading of two great American authors that I encountered in high school: John Steinbeck and James Baldwin. From Steinbeck I learned that attention must be paid to the plight of all Americans and that it was our responsibility to look out for and protect each other through joint action to insure that all people get a fair shot at a decent life. From Baldwin I learned about the pernicious impact that prejudice has on the mind and heart of the individual, and how that prejudice kills the soul not just of the oppressed, but of the oppressor. These lessons run through everything I have tried to be and do as a teacher and as a citizen.

And so it can be, must be, for our students. Reading great works brings us closer together as a society. Books must be the teacher's weapon of choice.

Here is a list of books for leading children to a more empathetic theory of mind. Special thanks to Cindy Mershon for suggesting a number of these titles.

Picture Books

Angel Child, Dragon Child, by Michele Maria Surat, illustrated by Vo Dinh Mai
A young immigrant from Vietnam and an angry classmate come to understand each other through listening and learning.

The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Children overcome the prejudice of their parents by crossing to the other side of the fence.

The Name Jar, by Yanksook Choi
Unhei learns that her best possible name is her very own name.

Wilfred Gordon MacDonald, Partridge, by Mem Fox
Wilfrid learns great life lessons through his visits to a nursing home.

Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting
A homeless boy living in an airport terminal with his dad finds hope when a trapped bird finds its way to freedom.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Friends comes in all shapes, sorts, and sizes.

Amos and Boris, by William Steig
A mouse and a whale form an unlikely friendship.

Tight Times, by Barbara Shook Hazen
A small boy, who is not allowed to have a dog because of his family's money problems, rescues a starving kitten.

For Young Readers

Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White
The classic story of a very special friendship.

The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig
No one ever seems to notice Brian or include in in group activities until a new kid comes to school.

Stepping on the Cracks, by Mary Downing Hahn
During World War II, Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with the neighborhood bully, Gordy.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
A young girl's kindness and compassion overcome bullying.

Each Little Bird That Sings, by Deborah Wiles
Comfort Snowberger learns that life is full of surprises and surprises herself in learning how to deal with them.

Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
What do you do when a dog you believe is being mistreated runs away and comes to you?

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool
Two boys, both lonely and feeling out of place, form a bond while on a quest on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit
Because no one should escape elementary school without reading this great classic.

For Young Adults

Children of the River, by Linda Crew
A young Cambodian immigrant struggles to fit in in her adopted home in Oregon.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
An unlikely pair of friends form an unshakeable bond out of their mutual loneliness and alienation.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
An abused and isolated teen learns to speak up for herself and achieves a bit of vindication.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
We the people, black and white, desperately need each other here if we are to become the nation we aspire to be. Non-fiction.

Want more book ideas? Try Pernille Ripp's list here. Or you could try Sunshime and Hurricane's list here.  And Michele Borba has a list including books for older readers here.

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.