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June 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 9

Learning to Love Reading in 30 Minutes a Day

Even small blocks of time, if used well, can help middle school students make tremendous reading gains.

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It was always so imbarising reading at a 3rd grade level in 7th grade, it wasn't right, wasn't natural. No one had ever cared enough to help me. When the kids laughed at me trying, sports were the only thing I could count on. Till one morning, "Hi my name is Mrs. D. and we are starting a new program to help you read better." Their I sat thinking she was crazy if she thought she could help, I strongly belived that she was going to make me feel dumb and give up like everyone else. No one knew I couldn't read because no one cared. Thank you Mrs. D. —Kenna
Kenna, the toughest girl on our school basketball team, started the school year hating reading. By Christmas, she had read all the Junie B. Jones books (2nd grade level), first hiding them in book jackets but soon deciding that she could beat up anyone who made fun of her. Later she'd take two or three home each weekend. By spring, she had joined a literacy circle reading the adult novel Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. At the end of the school year, she recorded five years of growth on the Fountas and Pinell Reading Assessment. The next year, she spent many hours engrossed in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga. Kenna had become a reader.
Kenna was typical of many of the students I inherited in fall 2007 when I left my secure world of elementary students to teach at Moffat Middle School, a tiny rural school at the base of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. The entire student population of Moffat School District 2 hovers at around 190 students; and that first year, our middle school consisted of 50 students in 5th through 8th grade. The student poverty rate was 72 percent, and students were scoring about 5 percent below the state average on the Colorado State Assessment Program.
Shortly after being hired as the middle school English teacher and reading coach, I began to panic. I had been given responsibility for running the entire middle school reading program—and just one-half hour a day (in a four-day school week) to do so.
We knew that we needed to promote more active, engaged reading among all students in the school at every level. Although only 37 percent were scoring below proficiency on the state tests, few of our middle school students—just a handful, according to our observations—were avid readers. Knowing that effective reading instruction ideally requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time, I worried that our students' reading skills would not improve much.
I was wrong. At the end of that first year, our students had grown an average of two years on the Fountas and Pinnell Reading Assessment, and their reading scores on the Colorado State Achievement Profile had risen 11 percent. Three years later, the proportion of students scoring proficient or advanced on the state test has gone from 63 percent to 87 percent. We recently received the Governor's Award for Distinguished Improvement, which goes to schools who have been in the top 8 percent of improvement on the state test for the last three years. We were also notified that our growth score was fourth out of 566 middle schools in the state of Colorado during the 2009–10 school year.
More important, our students have changed from a group that rarely read to a group that reads on the way to school, reads during lunch, and calls me up over the summer to discuss novels they have finished.
How did we make these wonderful changes in just 30 minutes a day?

A Research-Based Approach

  • Give students more time to read.
  • Provide reading materials at the just right level of reading difficulty (97 percent accuracy rate or higher).
  • Promote reading fluency.
  • Teach comprehension strategies that help students develop thoughtful literacy.
To make the most of our 30 minutes a day, I decided to design a program that incorporated Allington's four approaches within a readers' workshop model. We would not only teach comprehension strategies, but also give students plenty of time to read and fall in love with books at just right levels. I hoped that as students became avid, engaged readers, their reading fluency would naturally increase.
The entire middle school staff—three content-area teachers, one librarian, two paraprofessionals, and myself—were involved in the program, teaching approximately 50 students from grades 5–8. Much of the credit for the program's success goes to this amazing group of educators and their willingness to allow a new teacher to come in and turn their reading program upside down.

The Structure of the Reading Program

Comprehension Strategy Lessons

The reading program met at 11:00 a.m. each day, Monday–Thursday. Every Monday, I conducted a whole-group lesson on reading comprehension strategies (see "<XREF TARGET="resources">Resources for Comprehension Strategy Instruction</XREF>"). From my work as a literacy consultant, I knew that most teachers—especially content-area teachers—have received little training in how to teach comprehension strategies. Thus, the Monday sessions were directed at both the teachers and the students.
At the beginning of the year, these Monday sessions consisted of me talking to a group of bored, unimpressed middle school students who whispered and giggled while the other teachers silently observed. In those early days, I sure missed my little ones!
After conducting initial student assessments, I began to see a pattern. Many of the students had no idea what to do when they didn't understand what they read; in fact, they weren't even aware when meaning broke down, and they didn't really care. After a few weeks, I realized that the first strategy we needed to work on was metacognition—the ability to monitor your own understanding of text and to recognize the point at which meaning breaks down. Before the students could learn specific comprehension strategies, I needed to help them become aware of when they needed these strategies.
Identifying this need was the beginning of our journey together. I spent several weeks making students aware of the exact point at which they lost meaning and then introducing the strategies good readers employ when that happens.
Each Monday, during our large-group lesson, I read a picture book appropriate for middle school students. As I read, I modeled my thinking and guided theirs. Slowly, students and teachers started to join in and share their thoughts. Mondays changed from a day I dreaded to my favorite day of the week. Students who once yawned and rolled their eyes were now eager to share. I heard comments like these:Mrs. D., go back a few paragraphs. My metacognition broke down somewhere in there and I need to listen again. I'm going to make a sensory image and see if I can get it.My big question is, why won't the grandpa just tell him what he means by "the riches under the big sky"?We can't start that book yet; we haven't accessed any background knowledge.Wait, Mrs. D., stop reading a minute. Is anyone else having the same text connection I am? I'm remembering when we played that game against Sanford. Doesn't remembering that game help you see how the main character feels?My synthesis is that Salvador is just a really poor kid and people don't want to remember him because it makes them sad, and that's why the author says that thing at the end about him growing smaller and fluttering in the air before disappearing like a memory of kites.Guys, don't you think the theme was about freedom? Because when the bird flew away, the kid couldn't help thinking about it all the time. It did deal with homelessness, but I still think the main theme is freedom.
They had grown from a group who didn't know or care whether they understood a text to a group that argued passionately about an author's purpose. These metacognitive strategies were the glue that held our program together. They were the skills that taught students how to read books. Next, we went to work on getting them to want to read books.

Highly Monitored Independent Reading

Students spent the remaining three lessons each week reading and discussing self-chosen books. We encouraged students to choose just right books, and we dedicated many lessons to teaching them how to do so: first reading the back cover to see whether they found the book summary interesting; next making a prediction about the story; and then reading the first page or two to determine how well they understood the text.
Each teacher worked with a group of 5–10 students. Students were expected to read their book every night and to talk with their teacher the next day about the portion they had read. Teachers conferred individually with students about their books, discussing characters, plot, and strategy use. They recorded what page each student was on in his or her self-selected novel at the beginning and end of each class. Teachers also made sure students were reading just right books; if not, teachers took time helping students choose more appropriate selections.
Some teachers met with each student briefly every day; others preferred to hold longer conferences with just two or three students each day. Students were held accountable for nightly reading; but more important, they knew they could count on frequent, intimate visits (reading conferences) with a good friend (their reading teacher) about the book they were reading. Students also regularly responded to their reading in an open-ended reading journal or on comprehension strategy sheets (see fig. 1 for samples).

Figure 1. Sample Comprehension Strategy Think Sheets


Extra Help

Although this highly monitored independent reading program worked for about 90 percent of our students, there were some who needed more direct instruction. During the year, I realized that five of our lowest-performing readers were floundering. Students in this group ranged from 5th to 7th grade. Their scores were static, and they were reading little at home.
I placed these students in a highly structured guided reading group in which we predicted, read a few pages at a time, discussed those pages, and then reread for fluency. We read each page three times: first independently, second chorally, and then independently again. We used short stories and articles on approximately a 4th grade level. Students in this group also read poems for fluency practice, reading the same poem a few times each day for one week.
These students were still expected to read their own books at home each evening. As the structured instruction in class improved their fluency and overall comprehension, reading at home each evening seemed to become more enjoyable.

Literacy Circles and Guided Reading

  • Tangerine by Edward Bloor (Harcourt, 2006).
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (Tom Doherty Associates, 1991).
  • Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Scholastic, 2000).
  • North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley (Little, Brown, 2009).
  • When I Crossed No-Bob by Margaret McMullan (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
  • Weeping Under This Same Moon by Jana Laiz (Crow Flies Press, 2008).
  • Heat by Mike Lupica (Penguin, 2006).
  • Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic.New, 1993).
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (Sandpiper Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
Now, in the fourth year of the program, we try to offer literacy circles three times during the year. Although teachers participate in the literacy circles, students run these groups. They set rules for how many pages they will read each night, how they will share and record their thoughts during group discussions, and how they will hold one another accountable for doing the reading. It is delightful to see teachers take a backseat and simply be members of their group.
Although these literature circles were powerful, I believe the strength of our program came from the comprehension strategy instruction and the vast amount of on-level independent reading the students accomplished (even if on-level meant students were reading texts at a 2nd or 3rd grade level).

A School of Readers

Although we lacked one major element of a traditional readers' workshop—extended time—our small-scale workshop actually worked. In one school year, the average student read 13 novels; one student completed 42, and many students read more than 20.
Now, in every direction I turn, I see students reading books. They read on the bus, at home, during lunch, and in content classes. (I love to hear the teachers complain to me that someone was "sneaking a read" during a lesson.) They share books, text message about books, compare books, discuss books, and argue over which ones are best. Almost all students score proficient or advanced on the Colorado State Achievement Profile. But more important, they love to read.
An independent reading program has a place for everyone, from a tough student basketball player who thinks books are not for her, to bilingual learners transferring their skills to a new language, to an autistic teen who spends the year reading Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein, to students who read more than 40 novels a year and whose only fear when summer comes is how they will find enough books to sustain them until they return to school in the fall.
What can you do with 30 minutes a day? Read, that's what!
End Notes

2 Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

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