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February 27, 2020

The Literary Magic in Combining Teacher and Student Expertise

Though reading difficulties can be varied and complex, it's simpler than one might think to convert struggling students into proficient, independent readers. Elementary school reading specialists are often the people colleagues turn to when they've run out of ideas to reach a student who is not making progress. One frazzled teacher recently handed one of us (Jennifer) the progress files on a struggling 5th grader and said, "See if you can get him to read. Work your magic."
More often than not, students themselves have solutions, if we allow our most valuable resource—the knowledgeable, trained teacher—to work backward to find them. Jennifer's 5th grade student "hated reading" yet was visibly engaged when he doodled cartoon images on a sketchpad, so she used graphic novels to spark his interest. Then, she had him practice text interpretation by making connections to his cartoon work, illustrating how a reader might find meaning in his drawings.
Although every student's literacy skills are unique, reading results come from cross-analyzing the battery of assessments and student work that already exist rather than starting with a new set of diagnostics or a prescribed program. This process allows a teacher to understand students' learning over time and lets students' strengths and styles guide further engagement. Spreading teacher expertise around a building gives birth to the magic that moves students as readers and writers.

Making Literacy Transparent

Teachers preparing to work with a new student should analyze student work and consider what may be causing difficulty to guide the first moments. They should learn as much about the student as possible, with a focus on abilities, asking: What makes him/her persist, light up, or feel successful?
Student investment is essential. A conference-style assessment between student and teacher (detailed here), in combination with more formal assessments, can identify a student's language, behaviors, and understandings that teachers then build on to design personalized engaged instruction. Once teachers identify an end goal and create a progression of accessible steps to get there—using topics and goals that capitalize on a student's interests—engagement will automatically tilt the learning scales. The instruction can be the best in the world, but if a student isn't invested, it won't stick.
The power of this conversation is in the student–teacher relationship it builds and the flexibility it has across grade levels. The child can choose a topic by pictures, text, or oral language to anchor the conference. For instance, a reader may pick a well-known book that a parent or teacher has read aloud to her, a nonfiction book about the fish she saw while snorkeling, or a story about a favorite sport. The table below offers a guide for how a conversation could go.

The Literary Magic in Combining Teacher and Student Expertise-table

Assessment Lens


Guiding Questions

Assessment LensToolGuiding Questions
Orientation to learningPre-reading Conversation"What are you looking forward to doing this week? What is your favorite part of the day? What was the last thing you read and enjoyed? How did you find it? Do you enjoy reading? If not, what do you think would help you enjoy it?"
Oral language (vocabulary, engagement, orienting behaviors, comprehension)Pre-reading Conversation"Tell me about this text/topic and why you like it. Are there some expert words we should know about this topic, setting, or character? What do you already know, or the author has done, that you are using to help yourself read and understand"
Reading behaviors (decoding, fluency, literal comprehension)Running Record"Pick a spot that's interesting to you. Read that part aloud like you are teaching me about the topic (nonfiction) or character (fiction). Were there any tricky words? How did you figure them out?"
Comprehension (written and/or oral)Conversation or Writing About Reading"How would you describe the problem or the characters' feelings? Teach me something about this topic. You can talk or write about it. What do you think the author wants readers to know or think about? How do you know? How has this confirmed or changed your thinking about the world? How have you changed as a result of reading this text?"

Learning in Motion

Responses to the questions in the table above focus on strengths, authenticity, choice, and individualization to give the student explicit praise, attainable reach, and shared responsibility for literacy goals. As you listen to students' answers, consider these instructional moves in order to work backward from what readers do well.
Tell the student what is working in his/her literacy life. Be specific. Include how the student talks about the text and topic and why that's important.
  • You could say: You reread here and made the character's anger come through. Noticing how the character feels and responds to other characters and problems will help you make sense of what's happening, why it's happening, and how people respond to conflict in the world.
Give the student choices for what he or she could work on next. Use the student's choice of text or topic. Don't be afraid to tell the student if the text isn't working yet. Create a plan to make it accessible, which might include reading simpler texts of the same genre.
  • You could say: There are two things that will help your reading. Would you like to work on tackling big vocabulary words syllable by syllable or using the nonfiction text features to figure out what important topic vocabulary words are? We could work on this in reading or in writing or both.
Give the student opportunities to practice with support and feedback through partner and independent work. Building relationships between students around the same topic or a similar instructional focus allows opportunities for collaboration. Set up a partnership within the classroom or facilitate a partnership across classrooms or grade levels.
  • You could say: Do you know who else is working on this? Let's get ready to practice with others.
There is no shortage of research supporting the idea of focusing on strengths rather than deficits, incorporating choice, and giving specific feedback with a growth mindset (Hattie, 2012). When schools commit to teacher expertise, a student can succeed across content areas, grade levels, and language experiences, regardless of what's making reading difficult. Once you have a plan, you can pull the rabbit out of the hat with—rather than for—the child.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London; New York: Routledge

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