Monday, March 29, 2021

The Reading Helper

I have a teaching certificate that says I am a qualified Teacher of Reading, and Reading Specialist and Supervisor, but from the time I got a certain Valentine's Day card from a student in 1993 I have thought of myself as a Reading Helper. That card was from a second grade vulnerable reader named Danielle who had been my student since that September. The cover of the hand made card was full of many colored hearts and flowers and said, of course, "Happy Valentine's Day." Inside was a message that I will never forget and which has defined my work ever since: "Thank you for hleping me read. Love, Danielle" Yes, exactly, "hleping." Danielle still had some spelling reversals crop up from time to time. But the message could not have been clearer. I was being thanked for helping and it meant the world to me.

As I reflected on this note, I began to realize that Danielle's message was truly profound. Danielle had made progress in reading, and I had helped, but Danielle was the one who did most of the work in her great improvement. She needed some help, but she had to do the hard work. I think it is important that we all remember this. Most of the hard work of becoming a reader is done by the reader. We can help, but skilled reading is mostly a matter of the individual spending highly engaged time in the act of reading, making meaning, figuring out words, solving problems along the way.

When vulnerable readers need help, reading helpers provide it. Here are some ways I think we can provide that help.

Vulnerable readers are children first and we need to get to know the child, their interests, their passions, their worries, their hopes, their dreams first. Share with the child your own passions, worries, hopes and dreams as well. Relationships are two way streets. It. may not seem like instruction to just sit and talk, but it is a prerequisite for the reading helper.

Know Lots of Books

A reading helper needs to know a wide variety of books on a wide variety of topics and a wide variety of reading levels to make knowledgeable recommendations to vulnerable readers. It is important to be able to say, "I think I know a book you will like."

Watch and Listen

For the reading helper, diagnosis is accomplished by knowledgeable observation of the child in the act of reading and other literacy activities (writing, spelling, choosing a book, sitting and reading). That means lots of listening to the child read and lots of analysis of that reading. Running Records are an excellent format for this, but sometimes just sitting and watching while the child reads can yield useful information.

Target Instruction

Watching and listening provide information for targeted instruction. Reading helpers need to focus on one or two key instructional points per session. Build slowly and celebrate small successes. Be sure to focus on decoding and comprehension and teach intentionally for fluency development.

Follow Instruction with Choice Reading

Build in time for the child to do some reading from a book of their own choosing, perhaps books that have been the focus of instruction previously or a book from a browsing box you have developed with the child. Note how the child is doing with applying the targeted instruction for the day.

Advocate for the Student

Communicate to the classroom teacher and the parents about what you have learned about the child, their reading challenges, and your recommendations for how they can help. Try to insure that teaching points are reinforced in the regular classroom and work to have the parent provide a time for reading and listening at home.

Increase the Complexity of the Tasks

Try not to belabor instructional goals, even if they don't seemed to be mastered. Move to more complex tasks and more difficult reading tasks, cautiously, but with the intention of continuing forward momentum. If fluency or understanding are lost, double back to reinforce previous teaching points.

Focus on Will and Skill

Motivation to read is built on interest and success. As the reading helper your job is to help the child identify books that they want to read and that they can read. Most of what a reader will learn about reading will occur while the reader is engaged in real reading. Make sure that real reading happens as often as possible. Every successful encounter with an unknown word and every successful attempt to make sense of the reading, reinforces your teaching and extends the reader's knowledge of reading. Engaged, independent reading is critical to success.

My work with Danielle resulted, as many of my encounters with students did in those days, in a poem. The poem was published in The Reading Teacher, in March 1995 (Volume 48, No. 6).


As I flash, all business, into the room. 
I am stopped by her doe-eyed expectancy.
The tilt of the head, the turn of the nose,
The shy-happy, half-lip smile of greeting.
Pleased to see me.

"Can I read to you today, Mr. R?
I practiced last night."
Her baby radiance lifts my bone-achy
Early morning fog.

"Yes, Danielle, read to me.
Read to me of dreams fulfilled."

"Well, I only have this book about a cat."

"That will do nicely, Danielle."

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