The start of school is just around the corner and many teachers have already been in their classrooms preparing for the arrival of students next month. Bulletin boards are being hung, centers are getting filled with supplies, and rooms are being arranged.
Teachers are also thinking about how their instruction will likely stay the same and how it will differ from previous school years. This is especially true in regard to reading instruction. There are more and more demands being placed on teachers and students due to the new Common Core standards, as well as Ohio’s new teacher evaluations, which are putting increased pressure on elementary teachers to ensure every student progresses throughout the year.
So what should elementary teachers do to ensure that their students’ reading abilities grow over the course of the year? There are a few reading-related instructional practices that no teacher should live without!
#1: Lots of real reading.
Far too often ‘reading’ time during class includes a lot of activities and tasks that include very little actual reading. If you want your students to get better at reading they need to be read to (yes, at every grade level), read with others (peers would be great!), and read on their own. This should be occurring ALL day long, not just during time set aside for language arts.
Reading word lists, decodable texts, and flashcards don’t count! These reading tasks do very little to progress students’ reading abilities. Round robin reading doesn’t count either! This outdated and ineffective practice is when students in a large group sit and listen as every person in the group reads a section aloud. Research has shown that students don’t get better at reading when participating in this practice! For other reasons why you shouldn’t use this practice, and what you can do instead, read the book Goodbye Round Robin.
#2: Lots of real writing.
We continuously learn more and more about how writing contributes to reading growth. One of the essential early foundational skills for reading includes phonemic awareness. Actually, the two most important phonemic awareness skills are blending and segmenting. When students write using their knowledge of letter sound relationship, they are constantly segmenting the words they want to write, and then as they reread their own writing they are blending. You can’t get more purposeful than this!
Plus, writing about what one is reading is an excellent way to think about the text, which is also called comprehension! If you are going to write about something it requires a deep understanding and knowledge level about the topic, as well as the use of specific vocabulary related to the content. So students must read and reread to understand the big ideas as well as the word-level ones (vocabulary) within texts.
Students should be participating in short writing tasks often throughout the day and week, rather than writing long pieces only once in a while. Often teachers avoid writing instruction because they feel overwhelmed having to teach the skills, mull through multiple drafts, proofreading student papers, revisions and final copies. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and shouldn’t! Good writing instruction can be fun, engaging, and interesting if teachers would allow students to practice writing often without micromanaging everything individual students write. Students get better at writing by having someone model good writing, getting time to practice using specific skills in a variety of situations, and by not having a teacher ‘red-pen’ every mistake they make!
#3: Powerful and Enlightening Assessments
Teachers who continue to use the district scope and sequence or a teacher’s manual to drive their daily instruction are sadly setting their students up for failure. Sure, these can be used as a basic framework, but they HAVE to be flexible so that knowledgeable teachers can adjust them according to student needs. No teaching should be planned and scheduled for the upcoming week unless the teacher has formally or informally assessed the students’ needs for such instruction.
For example, if most of your students already recognize and know the sound of the letter “A” then don’t spend the whole week working on it because that is what your teaching materials instruct you to do! If your students are really good at lower level reading comprehension using literary texts, then substitute more meaningful instruction in place of this for the upcoming week!
Ongoing, or formative assessment is a powerful tool that can guide planning for instruction. Highly effective teachers constantly collect this type of data throughout the school day, especially in regard to students who struggle to read. The truth is that the majority of students in a typical classroom will progress to some degree throughout the year despite what teachers do (whether the teacher uses high, low or mid-grade instructional activities in reading). It is the population of struggling readers that will not flourish unless the most targeted and highest quality instructional activities are implemented. This instruction must match the exact needs of these struggling students and must occur during both large and small group instruction.
If a teacher wants to know more about how a student reads in order to plan for future instruction, there is nothing more powerful than a running record or informal reading inventory. Actually listening to a child read, one on one, with the opportunity to record their miscues, their behaviors and their ability to understand the text informs teaching like no other assessment available! If teachers did this more often, especially for their most struggling students, they would have an abundance of highly specific information from which to plan future instruction. Instruction would basically plan itself!
We all know that learning to read, and teaching children to read, is no simple task. However, if a teacher stays focused on the three areas above, remarkable things will happen for all readers! Let’s not get side tracked by fancy projects and crafts, premade worksheets, and instruction planned by your teaching materials. Stay focused on what really matters in any reading classroom: lots of real reading, lots of real writing, and lots of high quality assessment to drive teaching!