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March 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 6
Reading: The Core Skill
Several years ago, our school decided to focus on building literacy skills across the curriculum. As a science teacher, I was now expected to teach reading strategies to my students as part of my science instruction. I quickly realized that when I was in school I had never used the skills and strategies I was now teaching. As a result of my experience teaching my students nonfiction reading skills, I began to use them myself. I immediately noticed that my retention and comprehension improved. This experience showed me that these skills are important for the student to master early on—and it's never too late for me to learn them, either.
—Ray Leonard, science teacher, Glasgow Middle School, Alexandria, Virginia
I was reading aloud to my 5th graders when I came to parentheses in the text. As usual, I lowered my voice as an audio clue to the structure of ideas. Then I wondered—maybe they don't know why I'm doing that. So I paused and explained how the punctuation signaled meaning that I was trying to convey through my changed tone of voice. That's when a student said, "Oh! Really?" and I knew I had struck a learning need. My modeling of good reading wasn't enough. Students also needed me to model the thinking behind the reading.
—Scott Hayden, director of curriculum and instruction, International Community School, Bangkok, Thailand
The unfortunate reality is that the excitement and enthusiasm that define a new reader at age 4 or 5 often turns to dread, embarrassment, and self-doubt by high school. I am certain that as educators we can help all students grow in their reading capacity, but at my core I believe that improving adolescent reading has as much to do with the student's mind-set and self-confidence as it does the instructor's methodology. A top-tier adolescent reading program needs to address both needs.
—PJ Caposey, principal, Oregon High School, Oregon, Illinois
As an avid reader since childhood, I was eager to share my love of reading with my students. I assumed they would fall in love with the same good books that I had loved. However, I quickly encountered reluctant readers who thought of reading as a chore. I learned to engage them by choosing books representing their cultures and interests. By offering books about sports and popular culture, I was able to ignite a passion for reading that eventually transferred to classroom reading. It also helped me to learn that even in the classroom, students need to have a purpose for reading and teachers need to look for ways to engage students in the material.
—Cathy Hix, K–12 social studies specialist, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia
I've learned that we stop instruction on learning to read just when kids need it the most. We pour resources into the primary grades with the assumption that a student who can read well at grade 3 will read well throughout school, but that just isn't the case. Many students who were great readers in elementary school aren't successful in middle and high school because we don't continue to teach kids how to read more sophisticated and complex nonfiction texts. Politicians love photo ops with little ones learning to read, but they are seldom seen with the teen who reads at a 3rd grade level and is in danger of dropping out.
—Ramona Lowe, secondary literacy specialist, Lewisville Independent School District, Texas
I'm interested in what literacy skills today's students need to be successful in tomorrow's world. Reading a paper-based, static document is vastly different from reading a multilinear, digital document full of hyperlinks. We often provide our teachers with professional development that simply teaches them how to teach traditional reading and writing skills when that isn't what students will need. Although there is value in traditional literacy skills, we must expand that definition so our students are prepared for the future.
—Cary Harrod, instructional technology specialist, Forest Hills School District, Cincinnati, Ohio
I remember vividly the professor who stood in front of a classroom of future teachers and said, "If you know your phonics, you can teach 'em how to read because that's all they'll need." As a young, naive college student, I put my heart and soul into learning phonics rules. But although phonics is a crucial component of reading, there is much more to the complex skill of literacy instruction. If I knew then what I know now about the power of asking questions, making connections to the text, and building fluency to enhance comprehension, my teaching would have looked entirely different. Reading the professional literature, collaborating with peers to discuss current pedagogy, and learning through technology (videos, websites, webinars, blogs, and so on)—all these opportunities help me keep abreast of what the current research says about literacy instruction and how I can implement that research effectively in the classroom.
—Amy K. Lockhart, 4th grade instructor, Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa
Students who struggle to read have a deep-rooted desire to read better. But that deep-rooted passion is often paired with equally strong feelings of fear and inferiority. Recognizing these feelings is essential to coaching students to be stronger, more confident readers. When linked with engaging material that the student finds appealing, the passion to improve will gradually overcome the fear of failure.
—Jeffrey McCoach, teacher, Methacton School District, Norristown, Pennsylvania
Years ago, a student who had been in my multicategorical classroom for four years became my foster son. He had been identified with a learning disability and was not learning to read in spite of the fact that I had tried various approaches that were successful with other children. When he came to live with me, he was an angry, frustrated, and defeated learner. Finally, in 7th grade, when his basic needs for stability and security were met, he was able to calm down and learn to read. His desire had always been there. What I learned is this: To learn, children must feel safe and loved.
—Debbie Fish, director of professional learning, Central Indiana Educational Service Center, Indianapolis, Indiana
When I began teaching in the early '80s, I did not know the importance of phonemic awareness. I certainly understood phonics, language-experience activities, and how important it was to convey a love of books, but I didn't understand the primary place that the ability to distinguish sounds plays in learning to read. After I began a graduate school program in educational therapy, the importance of nursery rhymes and language play in general leaped out at me as a central part of early literacy.
—Polly Mayer, clinic director, Raskob Learning Institute and Day School, Oakland, California
As a young teacher, I relied on textbooks and workbooks to tell me about how students learn to read. I used strategy worksheets and clever handouts, sometimes with a level of success. I engaged students through fun, craft-based activities.
Later, I learned to rely on research-based practices and my reflections on my own habits as a successful reader. I put away vocabulary lists and taught self-selected word study. I put away the KWLs and Venn diagrams and taught students how to record their understandings, ideas, and questions. I began to personally read texts that were uncomfortably difficult so that I could track my own reading habits and interventions, and then I showed my students what those looked like. When I realized that the last thing I wanted to do when I finished a book was answer someone else's questions, I put away the study guides and the literature-circle tasks and began using authentic discussion groups. In the end, I transformed my classroom into a place where genuine reading happens—where students see themselves as real-life readers and not just classroom or school readers.
—Lisa Thibodeaux, English language arts curriculum coordinator, Plano Independent School District, Texas
Every year, I see intelligent, curious kids who struggle with reading. My own daughter was one of those kids. To explore how to help, I conducted five years of research and wrote a master's thesis. I learned that 25–50 percent of students (as much as 70 percent in juvenile delinquent populations) suffer from poor visual motor skills that impede their reading. Classroom teachers can help these students improve their visual motor skills through simple techniques, such as teaching correct left-to-right letter formation, giving students more opportunities to copy from the board or a screen to paper, and increasing physical activity in the classroom. They should also refer students with persistent issues for comprehensive vision screenings with a behavioral optometrist. These practices produce gratifying results. The other day, one of last year's students stopped me in the hall and thanked me for referring him for a vision screening, which was followed by a year of vision therapy. This 6th grader, who was struggling with decoding 2nd grade reading materials, is now reading on grade level. His smile when he said reading was now easy said more than his words. Students do not have to struggle to read if professionals find the underlying cause and provide appropriate help.
—Joachim Huber, 5th grade teacher, Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet, St. Paul, Minnesota
During my first few years of teaching kindergarten, I figured I knew all about teaching. I believed that all students could learn to read as I had, through exposure to books and memorizing words. Looking back, I had a shortsighted view! Our new literacy strategist knew better. Recognizing me as someone needing help, she began visiting my classroom. Always eager for more help with students, I enthusiastically put her to work with a group of students who had limited reading abilities. For more than a week, she conducted guided reading lessons while I instructed the remaining students. As I observed and listened to her interactions with students, I became curious, and she soon asked me if I wanted to join her. Her modeling of quality literacy instruction transformed my teaching. I began to instruct all my students using guided reading lessons while she provided feedback, and my students' reading performance quickly improved. I learned that learning to read is a complex process and goes far beyond exposure to books and memorization. Now, as an instructional leader, I value professional learning that includes risk taking, observing, peer coaching, and reflecting on current teaching practices. I know first-hand how valuable these things are in developing effective instruction.
—Kyle Rhoads, principal, Windham Primary School, Windham, Maine
I've learned that students often confuse summarizing with synthesizing. I had to teach them that summarizing is reiterating the same information in their own words, while synthesizing is creating something new, using different sources. Summarizing is only the first step. Synthesizing information requires higher-level analytical thinking and creativity.
The experience of working with students to teach them how to summarize and synthesize changed how I approach teaching reading. Now I show students what's in it for them and when they can use their new skills on their own to make sense of new information.
—Sarah Elaine Eaton, adjunct professor and research associate, Language Research Centre, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
As a new teacher in an inner-city junior high school, I was handed a full schedule of reading instruction. The school's reading levels hovered around the 11th percentile on state tests. Many of the students were missing three vital things: background knowledge, rich experiences in reading many books, and broad academic vocabulary knowledge that they would need to shift from storybook reading to expository or informational text. My insight was that instead of looking at the students as deficient we need to provide the right support and positive experiences with reading to meet them at their developmental level. With enough scaffolding, students could gain these three missing ingredients.
—Ron Klemp, CSUN adjunct professor, Santa Monica College, Los Angeles, California
March 2012Reading: The Core Skill
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD
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