Ten Ways to Grow Readers (out of System & Self-proclaimed Non-readers)

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:

What works?

  1. 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.
  2. Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
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    Part of our classroom library- in this section, informational books are organized by topic.

    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.

  3. Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
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    Our meeting place- for lessons, discussions, and reading. We have lots of other nooks and crannies perfect for curling up with a book. My intention was to mimic the places all readers love to read.

    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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 & Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies 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.
  9. 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
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    Student replicas of  parts of the brain (an idea from the book The Growth Mindset Coach)

    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.

  10. 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.

Monitoring Comprehension- Introduction for Readers

When we introduce a new thinking strategy to students, it’s important do it in a non-reading way. Using concrete visuals, movies, songs, or experiences to show students how to use the strategy allows them the chance to build schema for it before applying it to reading and other content areas.

First Things First: Thinkers Make a Habit of Activating Schema

When I introduced monitoring comprehension this week, we began by discussing what the word monitor means. We talked about other places we’ve heard it, and several kids recalled playground monitors who “watch out for good and bad behavior.” A few students with monitoring-comp-is-the-protector-photoyounger siblings talked about baby monitors and said that their parents use them to make sure the baby is safe and isn’t upset.

Then we applied what we knew about the word “monitor” to the phrase monitor comprehension. Kids quickly formed the idea that monitoring comprehension means making sure you understand what you’re reading.

I explained, “We can think of monitoring our comprehension as the protector of our understanding. If we don’t protect our understanding, the other strategies can’t even do their jobs.”

“So, it’s kind of like if you don’t even know what’s happening in the story, then you can’t really visualize it or think about who the characters really are,” one student called out.

Kids nod and a collective aha comes over their faces, so I ask, “Be mon-comp-anchor-chhonest. How many of you are aware when you don’t understand something, but you just keep going with it anyway because you don’t feel like stopping or maybe you figure it doesn’t really matter?”

Lots of nods and expressions of recognition.

“I get that. I even did it when I was in school, but I was so wrong. It really did matter. I could have liked reading a lot sooner if I’d made myself stop and think. I would have liked my classes a lot better too because I’d have understood what the heck was going on. The thing is, you’re already monitoring your comprehension and using fix-up strategies when you watch movies and play video games, and you don’t even realize it.”

I wanted to show students what they were already able to do, so I asked them to watch a 60-second commercial and notice the exact moment their brains thought, “Wait. What’s going on here?” Then they needed to pay close attention to what they did to make sense of what was happening.

Are you game? Try it yourself: Watch this US Bank commercial on YouTube, noting exactly when your brain is confused and what you do to fix it.:

After the kids watched, they immediately shared the moment their understanding broke down:

“The woman sat, but there wasn’t anything there!”

“It was an invisible chair!”

“Then she lit a candle.”

“And jumped over a counter.”

I brought us back together, “So, you guys understood what was happening, even though you were confused at first. What did you do to help yourselves understand?”

“She was sitting just like people sit in chairs,” someone gets up to show us.

“And you could totally tell it was a candle!” another student adds.

I ask, “And you’ve seen that a lot, right? Those things are part of your schema.”

Kids smile and agree, so I go on, “You fixed your confusion so quickly by using schema that if I hadn’t pointed it out, you might not even have noticed! And once you fixed your first confusion, you were able to fix all of the confusing parts by keeping your schema activated!” It is then that I realize I’m practically jumping out of my skin with excitement because THEY GOT IT. I almost tone it down a notch, but there’s no need to because they seem really happy. We’re a roomful of people who are  gleeful about monitoring comprehension. It’s my dream come true. Just ask my husband. I’ve tried this with our children.

A child breaks the silence and asks if it’s really that easy to monitor your comprehension in a book.

I answer honestly, “Not all of the time. But the thing is, you guys know how to do it, so now we just have to start practicing with our books. For now, take a minute to think about some of the ways you already know to fix your confusion. What do you do? Or what do you remember your parents or teachers teaching you to do when you were confused about what you were reading? Kids right on their exit slips and leave class feeling satisfied… full of the idea that they can do this… which makes me so very happy for what they can accomplish.

Tomorrow, we’ll look into how we know when we’re confused and some fix-up strategies we can use to repair comprehension. Right now, their wheels are turning. Mine are too.

Up Next:

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