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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kids Need Time for Reading--Lots of It!

Lately, I have been reading (and re-reading) Richard Allington's work on struggling readers.  In his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, he argues that kids need to read a lot if they are to become good readers.  According to numerous studies, higher-achieving students read about three times as much per week during the school day than their lowering-achieving peers.  The higher-achieving students spend about 70% of their instructional time reading and discussing passages whereas the lower-achieving students spend about 37% of their time engaging in such activities.  Instead, the struggling readers spend the bulk of their instructional time on word-identification, letter-sound activities, and spelling assignments.  A major contributor to this discrepancy in reading volume is probably related to the format of instruction for struggling readers who spend more time reading aloud to the teacher in a small group setting.  When students read aloud, only one student reads at a time.  Although the other students might be following along in the text, they aren't reading the same volume as they would if they were reading silently on their own--like their higher-achieving peers.  If we want our struggling readers to catch up to the better readers, then we need to ensure that they read more than the better readers do.

I have referenced this chart in a previous post, and I am going to mention it again because it is such a powerful depiction of the difference in reading volume at different levels of achievement.

Reading Volume of Fifth-Grade Students of Different Levels of Achievement

Achievement Percentile

Minutes of Reading per Day

Words per Year
 Source: Adapted from Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1998.

To help all of our students improve as readers, how much in-school reading time should we aim for?  According to Allington, we should set a minimum goal of about 90 minutes a day of actual reading time.  One way we can help achieve this goal is by thinking about how we structure our reading time with students.  Typically, in the classrooms of effective literacy teachers, about 5 to 10 minutes is spent preparing the children to read, and 5 to 10 minutes is spent engaging the students in follow-up activities.  40-45 minutes of the class is spent reading while the teacher works with students in small groups or individually.  Typically, in the classrooms of less effective literacy teachers, 15-20 minutes is spent preparing kids to read, and 20-25 minutes is allocated to follow-up activities, such as workbook pages.  Students spend only 10-15 minutes engaged in actual reading.

We can also achieve the 90 minutes a day goal by incorporating more time for reading in content classes, such as science and social studies.  When adolescents read more, they gain a broader and deeper understanding of content knowledge.  Our students can learn more about events in history when they read about them.  Students will think more like biologists by reading beyond the biology textbook and delving into a wider range of higher quality texts.

Allington argues that voluntary, engaged reading inside and outside of school translates into higher levels of reading proficiency.  Although incorporating more time for reading into the school day is a must, we cannot forget the power of motivation.  Let's work to design reading lessons that not only increase reading volume but also reading motivation.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Charts and Worksheets in the English Classroom: Use with caution!

        When was the last time you sank down into your favorite couch with a good book in one hand and a Starbucks Frappuccino in the other?  If you are an educator, you will probably need to stretch your memory back to sometime last July when you were not bogged down with suitcases of essays and catalogs of grades to record.  But try to recall a time when you were all set to lose yourself inside the pages of another world when you suddenly realize that you did not have an inference chart and pencil handy. Leaping from your comfortable position on the sofa , did you head to your computer to print out that inference chart, complete with three distinct columns --your background knowledge, your text evidence, and your inferences-- before you could even fathom beginning that book?  
             Most of us would never even briefly entertain the possibility of filling in an inference chart while pleasure reading.  The process would be intrusive, time-consuming, and  downright irritating.  Why, then, do we require our students to do just that?  Back when I taught English I know I was one-hundred percent guilty of asking students to fill in charts, logs, and complex bookmarks to prove to me that they had taken time outside of class to do the unthinkable:  read for pleasure.  And what was the outcome?  Those students who despised reading refused to partake in these assignments.  And do I blame them? Not only did they have to participate in what they perceived to be the detestable act of reading,  but they also now had to do the one thing they abhorred more than reading:  they had to write about it.  For these students, it was a no-brainer: they didn't complete the reading or the assignment attached to it.  And the students who already read voraciously, hiding novels inside their textbooks during science class?  These students completed the required work and resented me for it, perhaps enjoying their pleasure reading a little less.
         So if my ultimate goal was to increase pleasure reading and foster lifelong reading habits in all of my students, I would say that I failed miserably.  I am sure I would've had much more success if I had instead provided more authentic ways for students to learn about new books that they might find interesting:   book talks, student blogs, and informal discussions. I could have shared with them "book hauls" on you tube that depict teens chatting about the books they've purchased and read, and I could have even encouraged (but never required) students to create their own book hauls to share with others.
Book Haul Example by Katytastic

   Or, if I were feeling really creative one day, I could even have transforms my classroom into a quaint restaurant and given students an opportunity to participate in a "book tasting" as pickshel from flicker has, setting the latest titles in the middle of each red-checker-lined table for students to "taste" and explore. 
picture by pickshel

 I am sure that  even doing something simple like giving students time to --gasp--read in reading class would have also helped increase students' desire to read for pleasure.  In fact, I am positve that anything would have been better than the system I had used to hold students "accountable" for pleasure reading.  Accountability and pleasure?  Do we typically need to be help accountable for things we enjoy?  If I had focused on the enjoyment more, the accountability would have taken care of itself.  When was the last time any teenager anywhere needed to be forced to do something he or she enjoyed? 

             Outside of pleasure reading, however, there will come a time when you want to teach the inferencing process explicitly to students, and what better way to do than with that same three column chart I'd used during independent reading time?  After all, students who struggle with reading may not necessarily know how to make an inference if explicit modeling of the process  does not occur.  Thus, I would agree that a chart could work.  However, I would like to argue that anytime we introduce a chart or worksheet in our classrooms, it is our specific job as educators to teach students how to wean themselves off of this same chart.  After all, what is my ultimate goal when introducing the inference chart with students?  I want them all to be able to make appropriate inferences while reading independently.   My ultimate goal is not to produce students who are great at completing charts.  So, if  introducing a chart or worksheet in a class is necessary,  I make sure to do the following:
  1.  I explain why we are using the chart in the first place.  Even if I think that I have already explained this several times, I can guarantee at least one student in the class has tuned out and is under the impression that the chart is just my way of buying time for the next twenty minutes of class:   "Now that we have discussed what the term inference means, I have created this inference chart as a way to remind you of the steps you should take when making inferences as you read."
  2. I model my use of the chart with students.  Even if using the chart seems to be completely obvious, I can guarantee at least one student might be confused by the process.  Have you ever tried using another teacher's lesson plans without talking about them first?   How did it go?  Students need to see and hear you using the chart, to understand how to use it:   "Let me show you what goes on in my head as I am making an inference and how I can use the chart to help guide my thinking..."
  3. I tell students explicitly that  it is my goal for them to stop using the chart as soon as possible:   "I do not sit at home and fill in a chart every time I make an inference while reading. I would hate that.   The chart is only here for practice.  Once I see that you are making inferences on your own, you will no longer need to use this chart.  You will still be following the steps in the chart, but they will be done inside your head."
  4. I slowly remove the chart from individual students,  when my anecdotal notes suggest it is appropriate.  For example, if students are filling in the chart appropriately, I may suggest that they use the chart but now speak their inferences aloud to a partner.  The next step may be for students to read and code a text, annotating the places where inferences were made on their own with the chart inside a folder to be used only if needed.
  5. I make sure I revisit the skill, even after the class has completely weaned itself from the chart.  If we have moved on and are now discussing context clues, I am sure to remind students that good readers use multiple strategies as they read, and that they should still be making inferences every time they read.   I have found that if I don't explicitly remind students of past skills, they either forget they exist or think that they only need to be executed at the teacher's request.
        My ultimate goal:  to make students more self-aware of their own thinking while reading.   While I am not completely against charts and worksheets, I believe that we need to be careful about how and why were are using them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Magic Behind Close Reading

          Close reading.  This term is thrown around all the time now.  With many schools beginning to implement new Common Core Literacy Standards, students everywhere are suddenly reading everything in print closely.  But what does the term really mean?  And should students perform a close reading every time they sit down with a book, article, or menu in their hands? Only if they want to read very little.
         In their article "Close Reading in Elementary Schools," Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey define close reading as "an instructional routine in which students critically examine a text, especially through repeated readings" (p. 179).   The purposes of this close "x-ray" examination of a small piece of text include giving students an opportunity to connect the text to their existing schema and helping students to develop strategies to dissect a piece of writing that may be quite challenging for them.  Fischer and Frey admit that close reading is just one of several strategies teachers should hone in on with their students.   In order to involve students in a successful close reading of the text, the text must be rich and warrant deep analysis and discussion.  Simply reading closely a simple, straight forward text or restaurant menu will do nothing more than leave students bored and hungry.  Additionally, since the close reading takes time, a shorter piece should be used.
        If you've followed the evolution of the new Common Core Standards, you probably know that David Coleman, co-creator of the Common Core Literacy Standards, fell under intense scrutiny when he suggested that pre-reading or "frontloading" as Fischer and Frey dub it, is unnecessary.  He received so much criticism, in fact, that he adjusted his statement slightly, but stood firmly by the idea that minimal frontloading should occur.  Students should "grapple" with challenging texts and will be better readers because of it.
David Coleman discusses the six instructional shifts that must occur as a result of implementing the CCSS.

           What is the reason behind Coleman's argument that teachers are spending too much time frontloading?  Well, think back to your days as a student.  If your experiences were like mine, and I suspect many of yours probably were, you most likely had at least one experience as a student where the teacher spent so much time on the pre-reading that you really never needed to even open the book or article in order to ace the test.  All of plot twists and turns and development of theme through rich language that had ultimately caused the teacher fall in love with the book in the first place were spoiled for you before you even had an opportunity to crack open the first page. 
            It's no wonder that so many of our students today participate in what Cris Tovani has termed "fake reading" or getting by without  having to even attempt actual reading of the material.   I now cringe when I  think back to my career as an English teacher;  I was often guilty of frontloading for an entire instructional week before placing that novel in my students' hands.  Close reading helps teachers and students rediscover the magic that can occur only when the students are engaged and interacting with text.  Dog and pony shows are not necessary and, in fact, pull students further and further away from the true purpose of an English class:  to improve literacy skills.  Shockingly, in order to become a better reader, you must practice, practice, and practice some more.  Allowing for multiple reading of a challenging piece where students actively read and annotate, followed by a series of  text-dependent questions, provides this practice.  The good news?  Teachers can spend less of their free time cutting out book-o-sphere panels and lugging home shoebox dioramas  and more time becoming experts on the texts they wish to teach.
       And what is the evidence that this strategy actually works?  I have personally witnessed magic in the classroom recently when I had an opportunity to co-teach a lesson in Ms. Khan's 8th grade English class.  Prior to beginning a novel study of Jack London's Call of the Wild, Ms. Khan and I presented the class with a very challenging passage that occurs near the books' end.  In the passage, London uses an extended metaphor in the form of a dream sequence.  The dog and main character, Buck, who is slowly reverting back to the inner beast within after once being a civilized dog on a farm of California,  dreams that he is a cave man.   The dream symbolizes his inevitable  return to his primordial instincts despite his previous life as a lap dog.  Having once taught this book for several years myself, I can easily say that most students struggled with the metaphor even after having read the earlier chapters and many could not even identify that Buck was imagining himself to be a caveman.  However, while performing a close reading of the passage, the students--who had not yet read one page of the novel--not only grasped the concept, but  were able to analyze it.  I was able to walk away from the discussion that followed possessing a richer understanding of the text that I had already read and taught at least ten times before.   So although text messages and the latest Captain Underpants novel do not warrant a close reading, selecting thick passages from time to time to repeatedly read with your students will help them to develop the ability to work through text when the reading becomes more difficult.  After all, Kelly Gallagher reminds us that confusion is where learning happens.

Top Five Close Reading Musts

  1. Choose an appropriate passage.  It should be short and possess many layers of meaning.
  2. Allow students to "grapple" with text.  Don't feed them the answers when they don't immediately know.  Encourage them to revisit specific paragraphs, lines, or words in a passage.
  3. Model and encourage annotating.  Ask students to underline their confusions and circle what they deem is important.  Help students to develop the skills to extrapolate the essentials from a text.
  4. Allow time for discussion and self reflection between readings.  Ask students to rate their level of understanding after each reading.  Help them to be meta-cognitively aware of their own understanding levels.
  5. Ask text dependent questions that require students to return to the text to answer.  Instead of beginning with the "How would you feel..." type question, begin with questions that force students to use text evidence to answer appropriately. 


Rigor: A Misinterpreted Term

The term Rigor has become a buzz word in the field of education these days.  There is an assumption that increasing the complexity of a text will lead to increased rigor in the classroom; however, increasing rigor is not quite that simple.  According to Kylene Beers in her book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, "rigor is not an attribute of the text but rather a characteristic of our behavior with that text" (2011, p.20).  In other words, rigor is more than simply the level of the text--it's about the reader's engagement and commitment to a text.

To help elaborate on rigor, Beers compares rigorous reading to lifting weights.  For example, a professional football player would not get a rigorous workout from lifting a 100 pound weight ten times; however, an eighth graders getting in shape to join the high school football team would.  Using this same comparison, a fourth grader who could not lift the weight at all would have difficulty classifying his workout as rigorous.  The rigor of the workout "does not reside in the barbell but in the interaction with it" (p. 21).

I do think students need and deserve to be exposed to texts that are beyond their independent/instructional levels.  But I worry that a side effect to increased text complexity is the idea that all we need to do is teach harder materials.  In reality, when we use difficult texts and do not provide our students with the scaffolding and the support they need to work through the challenge, then we actually decrease the rigor.  If students labor through the text, give up, and don't read it, then no work was completed.  Yes, the text was hard, but the work was not rigorous.

It's okay for students to struggle with a text, but this struggle does not need to be painful and defeating.  Students need to learn how to tackle more and more difficult texts, and as long as we support students along the way, we can help them learn at higher levels.  They will be able to lift that heavy weight because we have given them the training they need to do it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Can Creativity and the Common Core Exist Simultaneously?

              If you know me at all, you know that I am a huge supporters of the arts.  In college, I filled my days with dance classes and short story writing classes.  I attended poetry readings at book stores regularly and made friends with people who wrote their in class essays using a feather and a jar of ink.  I was an English major and if anyone ever asked me what I was going to do with my life, I would smile wryly and tell them that I was going to "flip burgers and write about it."  
        My undergraduate graduation from Northern Illinois University arrived faster than expected, and flipping burgers suddenly didn't seem as endearing as it had once seemed in that late night coffee house.  I'd spent four years living and breathing modern dance, tap, and poetry.  I wanted to share my love of the arts with others.  So I decided to continue my education and become a high school English teacher where I was convinced I would be able to spend a lifetime sipping lattes and  discussing the hidden meanings in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare with students and colleages.  I devoted two and a half years to post graduate work, eventually earning a whopping one-hundred-and-eighty undergraduate credits (clearly, I had never heard of graduate study) with the idea that I would continue to celebrate my love of poetry and the arts with future generations of students and get paid while doing it. 
        Fast forward fourteen years.  Two kids  and a masters degree in literacy education later, I am currently a reading interventionist and literacy coach in a middle school that is implementing the new Common Core Standards for the first time.  Because the media has recently criticized these new standards, saying that they leave little room for creativity and appreciation of the arts, I feel a strong need to disagree.  While it may be true that the Common Core requires teachers to emphasize argument writing, academic vocabulary, informational text reading, and critical thinking skills,  I stand strong by my belief that  these skills are essential if we wish to create students who are well-equipped to participate in the work force of the 21st Century.  I ran across a short video by R.N. Gutierrez that reminds us of just that.