Monday, July 27, 2020

The Read Along: Assisted Reading for the Vulnerable Reader

In a post two weeks ago, Independent Reading in a Pandemic, I suggested that with all the problems the pandemic was causing, one positive was that it provided time for kids to do extended independent reading. One parent responded by asking, "What should my dyslexic daughter do, look at her books and cry?" Fair enough question. Many of my colleagues responded by suggesting this mother get her daughter listening to audio books. This is great advice. As my colleague, Stu Bloom suggested, apps like Hoopla and Libby connect students to local public libraries and access to audio books. For those who can afford it, Amazon now has an Immersion Reading Program which allows you to listen and read along on a Kindle or Smartphone while the device tracks the words.

While Amazon may call it "Immersion Reading", I prefer the term Carol Chomsky coined in her classic 1976 article, After Decoding, What?, "assisted reading." Chomsky wrote about her work with a group of third grade students who had had plenty of phonics instruction, but had not developed any fluency in their reading. She had the children read story books repeatedly while they listened to the story being read aloud on tape. She wanted the children to read the books over and over again until they could read them back to her fluently without assistance. Chomsky was searching for a method that would "capture their attention and make large amounts of textual material available" (p. 288). She determined that what these students needed was to "shift their focus from the individual word to connected discourse and to integrate their fragmented knowledge" (p. 289).

The students, of course, were not strictly "reading" in the traditional sense, but combining memorization with reading to capture a more fluent account of the text. This new found fluency allowed the readers to engage with the text in ways they were unable to before, so that they gained the pleasure of actually being able to understand the text and talk about it and write about it. Indeed, Chomsky found that these vulnerable readers took great joy in their accomplishments and that writing about what they had read increased their engagement and comprehension. She also found that the gains made in assisted reading resulted in a greater willingness to read in other environments and to choose reading as a "free time" activity.

Subsequent research has supported Chomsky's findings. Repeated reading has been shown to be an effective strategy for improving decoding, comprehension, and fluency. I have written about the strategy in The Power of Rereading and Reading Fluency: Building Bridges from Decoding to Comprehension. The leading expert on fluency instruction in the country, Tim Rasinski is also an advocate of Chomsky's methodology as he discussed in a blog entry on  The Robb Review, The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers to Not Use Phonics When Reading. And as Rasinski notes, recent research by Stevens, Walker and Vaughn (2017) who were studying students with learning disabilities found that "assisted reading with audiobooks produced gains in reading fluency and comprehension" (p. 576).

Chomsky added some activities as follow up to the students repeated reading/listening to the stories. As I mentioned, having the students write about their reading seemed to play an important role in their progress. They wrote responses to the stories, answered questions in writing ,and made up sentences using words from the stories.

Chomsky also did some word work with the children after they had mastered the stories. When I was working as a clinician at the Rider University Reading/Writing Clinic, I also used this strategy to good effect. Chomsky took some index cards and cut a "word sized" window into them. She would then move the index card around on the text exposing just one word to see if the student could identify the word. If the student could, she moved on to another word. If the student couldn't, Chomsky picked up the card and the student could then read the full sentence and identify the word that way. The goal here was to supplement the rote recognition that came from memorization with the study of the orthographic features of the words. The idea was to keep the instruction light and game-like, but at the same time help the students look closely at the words and develop their understanding of how words work. 

Assisted reading, let's call it the read along, has proven to be an effective strategy for helping vulnerable readers. Today's technology makes the potential success for assisted reading as an instructional technique even greater. The need for strategies that vulnerable readers can do in the home during this time of pandemic and that is likely to engage them in more real reading makes assisted reading a particularly attractive strategy for the moment.

Works Cited

Chomsky, C. (1976) After Decoding, What? Language Arts, 53, 3, 288-296.

Rasinski, T. (2018) The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers to Not Use Phonics When Reading. The Robb Review.

Stevens, E., Walker, M., & Vaughn, S.  (2017). The effects of fluency interventions on the reading fluency and reading comprehension performance of elementary students with learning disabilities:  A Synthesis of the research from 2001-2014. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50, 576-590.


Monday, July 20, 2020

The First Question to Ask of a Vulnerable Reader

When I was six years old, I was given my very first "big boy" two wheel bicycle for Christamas. I loved it. I can still see it all shiny and red and huge by the Christmas tree. As soon as my Dad would let me, I took it out the side door into the driveway, leapt aboard (it was too big for my six-year-old legs)  aimed it down the steep drive, and rode it directly into the telephone pole in front of the house. I was banged up a little, the bike was fine and I quickly scrambled back on the bike and rode it, a bit unsteadily, up and down the sidewalk until I was comfortable and able to keep my balance without too much wobbling. I really wanted to master riding that bike. I rode it everyday after that until I was 16.

When my student, Ryan, was six years old, he came to me for reading instruction. Ryan had been identified by his kindergarten teacher as a possible candidate for Reading Recovery instruction. His first grade teacher confirmed the recommendation after doing an initial assessment of Ryan's literacy ability during the first weeks of school. I administered an observational survey, which confirmed the  recommendations of the teachers, and so Ryan joined me for one-on-one Reading Recovery instruction.

Ryan and I met daily for 20 weeks. During that time, Ryan made some progress towards being a reader, but the progress was not what I would have hoped and certainly did not help Ryan achieve the goal of being a self-sustaining reader. I pulled out all the stops with Ryan. My lessons, I thought, were well planned. I held a meeting with his family and followed up with phone calls, hoping to engage them in a partnership in helping Ryan. They were open and supportive of Ryan's efforts. I observed Ryan in the classroom, where he was receiving excellent instruction from the classroom teacher. When Ryan failed to make sustained progress, I asked my Reading Recovery trainer to come in and observe my instruction and make recommendations to help me help Ryan.

Despite these efforts, Ryan never thrived in our lessons. While Ryan was always friendly and compliant in the sessions, he never showed much enthusiasm for the instruction or for the stories or even for the progress he was able to make. After 20 weeks, I made the difficult decision to have Ryan referred for testing to the child study team, to see if special education placement was called for. I was frustrated and angry with myself for my lack of success. I hoped that Ryan would find success in another program, but I was not at all convinced he would.

As I reflect on this failure from the distance of 25 years, I think I failed Ryan in part because I failed to ask one simple question. It is a question I think many of us may fail to ask when we are given the job of helping a child learn to read. It is the first question I think we need to ask of any vulnerable reader who comes into our charge. The question is, "Does this child want to learn to read?"

For many children learning to read is hard work. In order to commit yourself to that work, you have to want to do it, just as I really wanted to be able to ride that bike. The desire to read is critical to learning to read. While most children come to school with a burning desire to read, some vulnerable readers do not. There may be many reasons for this, but the reasons are not as important as our awareness that this may be the case and then taking some action to help children develop the desire to read. I want to be clear here. I am not talking about a child who reads little or who is difficult to motivate to read, I am talking about a child who is not interested in learning how to read..

To understand how to help kids who don't have a desire to learn to read, we need to look at why most kids do want to read. It is likely a combination of  factors including: a desire for a ticket into the adult world, a feeling of accomplishment, curiosity about topics like dinosaurs or sports or superheroes, an interest in words and how they work, an interest in stories, and a desire to please the adults in their life.

Based on this list, some of the things we can do as teachers to foster a desire to learn to read are obvious and others, perhaps, not so obvious.

Conversations - Individual and on-going conversations with the child on their own hopes, dreams, interests, activities, can help the teacher build both an understanding of the child and clues to what might be motivators for learning to read. A pet, an obsession with dinosaurs, an interest in trucks, an ability on art. Conversations may provide some keys to the child's desires.

Regular Read Aloud - Read alouds should be from high quality books that integrate pictures and words into rich and complex stories and informational texts on topics of interest to the child.

Book Talks - The teacher should be talking about books and other materials she has read,sharing the richness that is the adult experience of being a reader.

Experiences with Book Tie-Ins - Field trips are obvious ways to provide experiences for developing interest in learning to read, but everyday experiences like walks around the building, or videos on particular topics are great experiences where the teacher can recommend books that tie-in to the topic. The best model I have seen for this type of video is Reading Rainbow.

Think Aloud - The teacher models how she processes a text. This can often be done during a read aloud as the teacher stops and talks about her building understanding of the text and fixes up any confusions that happen along the way. This is also a good time to try to develop a curiosity about words by talking about vocabulary that comes up and modeling different ways that readers figure out the meanings of words. Discussions about words and their endless fascination should be a regular part of dialogue with children who are not yet showing an interest in learning to read.

Specific Praise - Anytime our reluctant reading learner does something reading related it should be met with praise that specifically points to desirable reading behaviors. "Ryan, I noticed you looked at that book on dinosaurs to see if it had some information you are interested in. Good work."

Recommending Books - Knowing the child's interests you can recommend books to the child, place the books in the child's hand, point out pages of particular interest, send them home with the child, and ask about the book later.

Finally, I am not recommending suspending good reading instruction until our reluctant learner shows more interest. What I am recommending is that our reading instruction may be more effective if we focus a considerable amount of our literacy time with these children on developing the desire to read. That desire to read might just be followed by a desire for learning how to read. Once the child is receptive to the instruction, our chances of success are greatly enhanced.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Independent Reading in a Pandemic

We need to get books into our student's homes and hands.

This tweet from the estimable Jennifer Serravallo appeared on my feed this morning. I believe she is right. Schools should not be forced to re-open and the likelihood that a forced re-opening will lead quickly to a renewed shutdown is high. Districts, school leaders and teachers should be preparing for more long-term distance learning. This situation, we know, is not ideal, but as my mother would say, if all you have is chopped meat, make meatloaf. In this case, if we can't meet with our students eye to eye, lets' make independent reading a priority. The one thing that the pandemic gives us is time. The one thing that all research shows is that time spent reading is the best way to improve reading. So we have a potentially winning formula in front of us. How do we make it happen?

  1. Get Books in Children's Hands - Schools need to be working out ways to deliver books to children's homes so they have material to read. My daughter and son-in-law volunteered this spring to deliver lawn signs for graduates of the local high school. Schools need to similarly organize to get the books to the children. 
  2. Make Sure All Children Get WIFI Access - Online communication will be critical. Some school districts are sending out school busses to accomplish this in areas where WIFI availability is spotty for children. Forging partnerships with local providers can be another way to get necessary connectivity to students.
  3. Offer Choice Reading - Teachers can communicate to students about what reading material is available and have kids request books that they are interested in reading. If the books can be made available electronically fine, if not, deliveries are scheduled through parent volunteers.
  4. Get Book Clubs Going - Facilitate students who wish to read the same book to form ZOOM book clubs to discuss their reading. Teachers could provide recommendations for discussion questions or interact with students in the book clubs.
  5. Focus on Interest Rather than Accountability - Rather than attempting to record, assess, or quiz students on their reading, focus on interest and open ended questioning that encourages talk about the reading and explortion of ideas, rather than compliance. Combining elements of choice, interest, and discussion may be the best way to actually encourage time on task.
  6. Enlist Parental Help - Some parents may be able to help with book distribution, but most importantly schools need to communicate to parents guidelines on how they can help their children in a program of independent reading and book clubs. Providing parents with guidelines for talking to their children about books would also be helpful.
This is a new and strange world. Books offer comfort, entertainment, and information. Spending time reading improves reading ability. Rather than lamenting the shortcomings of online learning or trying to make it do something it simply cannot do, let's try to embrace the gift of time we are given and work on developing the reading habit.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The 6th Annual Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day!

Today, July 6, 2020, marks the 6th annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book-Day. This is the yearly celebration dedicated to getting books into children's hands over the summer. Literacy research has shown that the single best way to combat summer reading loss is to get books in kids hands. One way to do this is to give children books.

Participation is easy. All you need to do is find a child and give that child a book. The child could be your own, a neighbor's child, a student, a grandchild, one of your own kid's friends, children in a homeless shelter. Just give the child a book and say, "I thought you might enjoy this." In these socially distanced times you may want to send the child the book with a note explaining the gift. (Notes provide another reason to read.) Some participants like to include a lollipop or other small treat to send the message, "Reading is sweet", but the most important thing is to give a kid a book.

National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day is dedicated to the many hard-working people and organizations who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day, we recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Past inductee's include Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever, Philadelphia's Words on Wheels, Dolly Parton, Leland B. Jacobs, Margaret Craig McNamara, M. Jerry Weiss, Joan Kramer, Donalyn Miller, Project Night Night, the Fallsington Pennsylvania Public Library, and The Children's Book Project of San Francisco.

If you wish to read more about these inductees and about the project you can find each year's National Give-A-Kid-A-Book blog posting here, here, here, and here

Here are the 2020 inductees.

The Little Free Library - On my daily walks around my neighborhood, I pass four Little Free Libraries. Those small wooden boxes laden with free books for community members to take or leave books as they wish. The Little Free Library organization has recently surpassed 100,000 such library boxes nationwide. This is truly a remarkable attempt to bring literacy to the neighborhood and kids are included as well. Recently Little Free Library has teamed with PBS in it's "Read Along" initiative. Little Free Library book-sharing boxes play an essential role by providing 24/7 access to books (and encouraging a love of reading!) in areas where books are scarce. We welcome them to the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Pajama Program - This organization is dedicated to bringing a comfortable, consistent, bedtime routine to all children. Established in 2001, this group has distributed more than 6.5 million pajamas and books to homeless children nationwide. Those of us inn the literacy business know well what no bedtime story means for children and literacy and so we welcome the Pajama Program to the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Ken Goodman - Ken Goodman, the father of the Whole Language Movement, and a distinguished professor, author, researcher and leader in the field of literacy probably did more than any other single individual to bring quality literature into the classroom reading environment. the rich classroom libraries we see in so many schools today are directly attributed to his view that all children deserved high quality literature for instruction in reading. Ken Goodman died this year at the age of 92. We are proud to include him in the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Give a kid a book today. You will feel good about it, I promise.