When I began a new position as our school’s literacy specialist in August, I knew my first step was to hook kids with a love of books. How else would I get students who are reading 2-6 years below their grade level up to their current grade level within one school year? I teach 34 reading intervention students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Right now, at the end of first semester, all students have shown growth on our district assessment and 18 of 34 are reading at their current grade level. I have one more semester to get the other 16 students there, and I will. (Why do I say that? Because part of the definition of “teacher” is someone who believes in growth and equity. How will I do it? I’ll share that in a later post, but I have additions to the plan that I list here, because we cannot expect different results from doing the same things, right?)
Looking back on my first semester as a literacy specialist and my 13 years as a language arts teacher, this is what works for my students:
- Read aloud. Read to your entire class, to small groups, and to individual students. As soon as you notice a student’s disinterest in reading, read aloud. You can do this during conferences or ask for volunteers from the community. Emily Bushwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When we have school-aged students who aren’t readers yet, we need to recreate that experience for them. No kidding, even my 14 year-olds love being read to.
- Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
choice in reading. Students who don’t love reading yet need quick access to a wide variety of high-interest books and they need your help finding the needle in the haystack.
- Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
room, bookstore or cafe. Think of the places you learned to love books and recreate them for your students. I wrote about this idea in “This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.“
- Let students know their reading levels and teach them why levels matter. This might seem a bit dramatic, but it is heartbreaking to hear my reading intervention students say that they had never known why they were in intervention classes, that they hadn’t been told their reading levels, and that they’d been told that the district and state assessments aren’t really important, so they shouldn’t worry about them. If you work with children, you know that this translates to “reading well doesn’t really matter and these tests are a waste of time.” Students should know their levels and know how and why to raise them. Point blank- people who cannot read don’t like to read. People who cannot read are taken advantage of. It is our responsibility to change this.
- DO NOT make students read books within their current reading levels. Reader leveling is a tool to monitor progress, and it serves its purpose well when kids know how to use it. Teach students how to find books that are a good fit and teach them what to do when they really want to read a book that feels hard for them. We cannot expect students to adopt a growth mindset if we don’t have one ourselves, and we cannot change non-readers to readers without the mindset that allows for change and growth. *Picture this: Say you have a New Year’s resolution to exercise more. So, you sign up for a 5K. You see that this race, a race that seems out of your league but sounds like a ton of fun, will motivate you to begin walking each day! You know that you’ll eventually begin running a bit, and next you’ll be able to run the entire 3.2 miles! Now picture this: Your personal trainer tells you not to attempt it. She says that no matter what she tries to teach you, you cannot even get close to that level of fitness. How do you feel about that?
- Target instruction based on student needs, and give kiddos tons of time to read. Use assessments, reading conferences, student reflections, discussions with your students’ content area teachers, and their own books in instruction. Keep in close contact with your students’ other teachers and let students know that all of you are in on the same goal: making them readers. Teach students to monitor their progress and to become part of deciding what they need in instruction. When we use their own books to do this, they’re more likely to practice these strategies on their own. This doesn’t mean we should stop using shared excerpts and articles, but it does mean students who cannot read yet, need instruction in their chosen novels.
- Teach students what readers do. I encourage all teachers to study PEBC’s Thinking Strategies. Teach these strategies directly, then model them, and gradually release students while giving feedback as they practice them. The thinking strategies are life-changing for non-readers. Once these kiddos learn the thinking moves proficient readers use, they feel such relief! These are strategies that all good readers use, but our struggling readers don’t realize they should.
- Share your reading life. Show students the books you’re reading, share your thinking and your struggles with them, and do the assignments you ask kids to do (If you don’t want to try an assignment, then assign more interesting work- work real readers do.) I bring my current novel to and from school, even if I don’t plan to read it. I put it on our coffee table where we meet, and I refer to it on the fly and use it when I’m modeling a strategy. At this point in the year, kids ask me about what I’m reading all of the time. Kids who wouldn’t have given a second thought to care six months ago! I also share the professional books I use (I wouldn’t be surprised if some students know the authors of Notice and Note and Reading Nonfiction by name!) Students need to see that we are teaching skills and strategies that are based on research and that we are always learning new things ourselves.
- Visit your students’ other classes to help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
after visiting their classes they asked if they could start staying after school to get help with homework from their content classes. It’s been helpful to teach them how to use the thinking strategies in math, science, and social studies.
- Teach students to adopt a growth mindset, set goals, be assertive, confront inequity, persevere, and believe in their worth. We teachers know that we teach more than content and standards. Students and I begin each week with a motivational lesson that I see students need. Some examples are growth mindset, reflection, perseverance, equity, and positive thinking. If you’re interested, you can read some of these lessons under the category Friday Reflections in the main menu.
When I met my students in August, I let them know that my goal was for all 34 of them read at grade level by the end of the year. I shared how we would do it, I shared their current reading levels, and against all odds, I managed to create a safe place for kids to struggle, be honest about their hurdles, and cheer each other on.
Keep Moving Forward
For a minute, I felt really good about 18 of 34 students reading at grade level this point in the year, but that vanished quickly. We owe learners more. Within the 16 who need to keep moving toward grade level, ten students are on the right track, but we aren’t even close to easy street yet and six students need something different or more or… I will figure it out. Next year, I will do better quicker because I’ll have this year to reflect on.
In the spirit of full disclosure and the importance of reflection, I’ll share one of my biggest and most embarrassing mistakes from this semester.
One BIG Mistake
I have a sixth-grade student who seemed to become less shy as the year wore on: eventually, she’d asked to come in during my morning planning time to read alone and with me, to get help with writing and she’d started talking more in class. She’d been telling me for months that she’d been reading at night with her mother and sister, and I could sense that she really was. When we took our district MAPS assessment at the beginning of the school year, she’d dropped 13 points from her 5th Grade score in the Spring. When we took MAPS again in December, she’d regained the 13 and added three additional points. I had been thinking that she would grow more than that because she’d been working in class and at home, I’d noticed her sharing her thoughts more often and she’d begun to explain to other students how to figure out reading struggles.
This child is identified by our English Language Acquisition Department, so when she and I saw this test result I asked her whether she comprehends better in Spanish or English. Without missing a beat, she nodded yes. Then I asked if she ever reads in Spanish, and again with out missing a beat, she said, “Yes, every night.”
EVERY NIGHT? Why hadn’t I thought to ask that before now? I would have asked her to come in and read one-on-one in English long before she’d decided to do it on her own! Here is a child who had put in the effort and had grown more confident as the year led on. I mistook that confidence as a result of increased comprehension ability, and part of it clearly was, but I see now that a bigger reason she became more outspoken is that she was speaking English more often now because she was back in school where English is the primary language.
Huge mistake on my part, and its not one I’ll make again. It’s embarrassing because it reveals my English-speaking egocentrism. It didn’t even occur to me that she’d be reading in Spanish at home even though I knew her family spoke Spanish at home. I LOVE that she is reading Spanish at home! Being able to speak AND read in another language has so many benefits- personally, socially, in her education and eventually her professional life!
Needless to say, I’ll ask her to come read with me during non-teaching times, and I’ll figure out how we can maintain her English during the summer. I’m learning a lot this year, and there will come a day when my all of my students do grow 6-7 grade levels in one semester. Don’t believe me? Keep in touch. I love a challenge.