Tuesday, September 29, 2020

When Best Practice Meets Questionable Methods in Literacy Instruction

All of us try to provide best practice instruction to our students. Sometimes, though, in our enthusiasm to provide the children the instruction they need, we end up using some instructional methods that work against our goals. Here are a few things we know work in literacy instruction, some ways we can turn those good practices into unproductive ones, and then some things we can do instead.

Best Practice: Regular Reading - Kids who read a lot tend to get better at reading, so it is a good idea to get kids to read as much as possible.

Questionable Method: Reading Logs - Research has long shown us that external controls have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Reading logs, rigidly employed, can turn the pleasurable act of reading into a chore. Other extrinsic motivators like pizza parties and other non-reading related awards should also be avoided.

What to do instead: Trust in the power of books and focus on student engagement in those books. If we want children to read we need to have many books readily available (classroom library), to provide the opportunity to read them (independent reading), to give children some choice in what they read, and to make sure they are able to read them (just right book). We also need to advertise the wonderfulness of books through daily read alouds and weekly book talks. 

If we want to reward kids for reading, make the rewards reading related, such as providing extended independent reading time or increased time to talk about their books or an added visit to the library.

Best Practice: Written Response to Reading - Research shows that when children write about what they have read they increase their comprehension by at least 30%., so we should have kids write after reading

Questionable Method: Journals - Reader response journals are a good thing, but like reading logs, they may be viewed by many kids as a chore that kills the joy in reading.

What to do instead: Journals can be an important part of the classroom reading routine, but they should be used sparingly and not as a daily requirement. They are most successful when the teacher spends time modeling what a good journal entry should look like for the children. One journal a week seems adequate. There are many other ways that children can increase their comprehension of what they have read. Some days a simple turn and talk to a partner about your reading should suffice. Drawing illustrations and acting out scenes in what you have read are other ways to respond. Another productive activity is the Stop and Jot, where children employ post-it notes to identify particularly impactful passages in their reading. Stop and Jots make good notes for a possible later journal entry. Like giving students some choice in what they read, giving them some choice in how they respond is a good idea. Variety matters here.

Best Practice: Vocabulary Instruction - A strong and growing vocabulary is critical to a child's ability to comprehend increasingly complex text. It is, therefore, every teacher's responsibility to provide vocabulary instruction.

Questionable Method: Vocabulary Lists: Recognizing the need to teach vocabulary, teachers assign lists of words to be looked-up, put into sentences, and studied for a quiz at the end of the week. Fifty years of research has shown that this form of instruction does not work.

What to do instead: Vocabulary is best learned in context and from a conceptual base. Teachers provide context for learning vocabulary through discussing words during a read aloud, by talking about words in a story children have just read, and by using such concept oriented strategies as semantic maps, List-Group-Label, and concept circles. Here is some guidance on teaching vocabulary from a conceptual  base. Here is an example of the List-Group-Label Strategy.

Best Practice: Decoding Instruction - Research shows that in order to read well, children must learn to quickly and efficiently decode novel words as they encounter them. Since this is a critical reading skill, we must teach kids to decode words as they read.

Questionable Method: Over-reliance on the prompt "sound-it-out"- Sounding out is an important skill for readers to have. The ability to match sounds to symbols is critical, but over-reliance or inflexible dependence on "sounding-it-out" is both inefficient and often ineffective. 

What to do instead:  The definition of decode in The Literacy Dictionary (ILA) is "to analyze spoken or graphic symbols to ascertain their intended meaning" (italics mine). Meaning is at the center of the decoding enterprise. Children must be taught to flexibly approach an unknown word seeking its meaning by using a combination of strategies including sounding-it-out, but also employing meaning clues, syntax clues, onset and rime, and morphological clues to decode a word. You can read more about the role of meaning and flexible strategies for decoding here.

Best Practice: Listening to Students Read Orally: Listening to developing readers read a passage orally is an important diagnostic tool for the teacher. Student miscues in oral reading or lack of fluency in processing provides teachers with critical information for planning instruction.

Questionable Method: Round Robin Reading: Round Robin or Popcorn Reading where children are asked to take turns reading orally is a long discredited instructional practice. It is ineffective in improving reading and potentially embarrassing for vulnerable readers.

What to do instead: Students should only be asked to read orally as individuals in three situations. One is a private diagnostic conference where the child is reading to the teacher and the teacher is taking a running record for diagnostic purposes. The second is in a small group guided reading session where again the child is "whisper reading" to the teacher listening in over the shoulder and prompting to assist in processing the text. Finally, performance activities like reader's theater or radio reading, where students are given ample opportunity to rehearse their parts before reading orally. You can read more about the problems with Round Robin Reading here.

In our efforts to provide students with the best possible instruction it is a good idea to keep our eyes on the big picture and not on the most immediately expedient solution. The eventual impact on learning will be profound.


  1. I am empowered by this as it rings true of my class thanks

  2. Great points! I love the set I of the information too.

  3. This makes so much sense. Vocabulary is my Achilles Heal! Does this approach work well for word study with roots, prefixes, suffixes???

    1. Yes. Roots and affixes create their own kind of context. Here is a post that may help.https://russonreading.blogspot.com/2020/09/vocabulary-instruction-try-word-riffs.html?fbclid=IwAR0ZIlQTo2JI-TtuCOP5zBTgycqQ_zWnYt5BE4TpnS_lULgs0Y770I8rFew