Are the Kids Reading?

When I taught college preparatory government to high school seniors, I had a textbook that was fairly awful.  It was much too general, incredibly dry, and written on a 9th grade reading level.  For a time, I tried to get my students to read portions of it, but eventually, I gave up on even this. Instead, I lectured over the basics, and we did projects and other activities to liven up the subject matter as much as possible.  I did have them read current events articles and primary documents as well, although looking back, if I am honest with myself, I could have assigned more reading.

I wonder how many teachers are in a similar situation.  They don’t like the textbook for a variety of reasons, the students aren’t reading the textbook, so the teachers take away the textbook and replace it with PowerPoint lectures, scaffolded notes, podcasts, videos, etc.  They supplement a bit with other readings but perhaps not enough.  If Cynthia Shanahan, a professor of literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is correct, there is a deficit of reading going on in the K-12 classroom, especially the non-English classroom.  According to Shanahan in an interview with Lorna Collier, after a year of observing classrooms from across the curriculum, Shanahan found that “not much reading was going on.  Teachers were telling the students what they were about to read before they read it, or they were truncating the reading to get to the questions, but they weren’t having students read.”  For all its benefits, technology makes it even easier to reduce the amount of reading through the use of podcasts, videos, and PowerPoints.

Of course, for every yin there’s a yang.  Technology also can help a teacher find and assign more (and better!) reading.  Don’t like your textbook?  Find shorter, more interesting complex texts on the Internet and assign those, or consider writing your own “textbook”!  Lots of teachers are doing this now with great success, especially those who have been in the classroom for several years and know the ins and outs of their subject matter.  (This is a future goal of mine – to write my own book.)  The point is to make sure that you have not unintentionally taken away too much reading.

What Exactly Are the Kids Reading?

“We all want our students to grow as readers: to master increasingly more challenging and sophisticated…texts.”

I do not think the statement above is debatable, but I do think there may be room to discuss what exactly is meant by that last word of the quotation: texts.  What exactly is a text, and more importantly, how does one go about choosing an appropriately complex text?

In general, the word text in the context of education means just about anything one can read.  So clearly novels and short stories are texts, but essays, biographies, instructional manuals, advertisements, newspaper articles, and song lyrics among many other examples are also texts.  In addition, charts and graphs would also fall within this broadest definition of text.  We want our students to have a steady but varied diet of texts.  We want them to read a lot across a wide range of texts.

This is all well and good, but as I contended in previous posts, if we want our students to grow the most from their reading, then text complexity needs to be taken into account.  For a long time, researchers looked primarily at a text’s Lexile score, but more recently, educators agree that the best way to determine a text’s complexity is by looking at several things, not just quantitative measures.

When determining the complexity of a given text, make sure to keep in mind these 3 questions.*

  • Are there multiple layers to the text – multiple meanings, purposes, etc.?
  • Does the piece use a lot of metaphor or other literary devices?
  • Does the piece require or assume a great deal of background contextual knowledge on the part of the reader?

The more you say, “Yes,” to the above questions, the more complex the text.**

Who Is Teaching the Kids to Read?

The short answer to the above question: everyone.  Or at least, that should be the answer.  Yes, we rely heavily on our English language arts teachers to do the bulk of direct reading instruction, but they can’t do it all.  By the time students are in middle and upper school, they should be reading more complex readings in specific subject areas like science and social studies. Such readings require a teacher conversant in the language in which the material is written.  My students come to me knowing how to write a general English essay, but I have to teach them how to write a history essay. Similarly, we non-English language arts teachers have to spend some time teaching students how to read in our subject area.  Reading a science or history text is not the same as reading a short story or novel or general nonfiction text.

If you’ve just read the above, and don’t believe me or don’t feel you can spare the time to teach reading, then there is little I can write that will persuade you.  Feel free to stop reading now.  If, however, you agree but don’t feel really prepared to teach reading (assuming you are a non-English teacher!), then read on.

I don’t mean to put this too bluntly, but if you don’t know how to teach reading in your content area, it’s really up to you to do some research and seek help.  Chances are you have an entire department (English teachers, here they come!) willing to share some great strategies with you.  The great thing about teaching reading is that there are tons and tons of resources out there for you.  Most research talks about getting kids to read more actively and provides simple but effective ways to do this like modeling, annotating, multi-draft reading, close reading, or mini-reading conferences. Google any of these terms and a plethora of resources will pop up.  In addition, check out some of these authors and books to start.

Harvey Daniels and Steven Zemelman Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work

Eileen Murphy Buckley 360 Degrees of Text

Nell Duke Reading and Writing Informational Text in the Primary Grades: Research-Based Practices

*For more on determining text complexity, see Eileen Murphy Buckley and Cynthia Shanahan.

**For most K-12-level textbooks, I would argue that you can’t answer “Yes,” to the above questions. (College-level textbooks become a bit more complex.) Having said that, textbooks can offer lower-level informational reading that allows students to get a bit of context for the more challenging – and more interesting! – texts.


What’s the Difference?

In yesterday’s post, I argued that simply reading more of the same would not necessarily improve a student’s reading comprehension or vocabulary development.  (Strategies to improve these things will come in later posts.) However, I also agreed that we should surround our students with reading material and give them lots of time to explore that material both as part of class and as part of their own choosing.  Some schools do this systematically, and they usually choose one of two ways.  Either they go with a systematic program of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), or they use a computerized reading program like Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts. Sometimes the computerized program is accompanied with SSR and sometimes not.  I am all for SSR, and I would love to see my own middle school adopt SSR Fridays or something similar, which I’ll talk about below. But I am not convinced computerized reading programs should be used past elementary school, and I will outline my reasons here.

While the research is limited and lacks perfect control groups, the research that does exist on computerized reading programs is fairly clear.*  In the upper grades, certainly beyond 5th grade, students who participate in computerized reading programs do no better on standard measures of reading than students who do not participate in such programs when access to books and time spent reading is controlled.  The computerized tests that accompany such programs test only low-level recall of literal facts, which tends to promote shallow reading.   The higher-order thinking and engagement with a text is thus not tested and not encouraged by such programs.  Some studies suggest that the use of computerized reading programs can supplant established reading programs, reduce classroom read-alouds and direct instruction of literature, and reduce the amount of time spent practicing diagnostically-based reading strategies.

Okay…so computerized programs don’t teach reading; they only test it, and not very well at that.  But still, some will argue that such programs promote reading in general and thus go a long way towards creating lifelong readers.  Unfortunately, this may not be quite true either.  According to Kelly Gallagher in Readicide, several studies demonstrate that after exiting a computerized reading program, students actually read less than students who did not participate in a computerized reading program.  Why might this be the case?  In part, by placing rewards on reading, adults have turned reading into a job rather than the intrinsically rewarding experience we bookworms know it to be.  The student thinks, If they are willing to give me a reward for reading, it must be because it’s not a very pleasant thing in the first place.  Whether that reward is a prize or a grade, it’s still a reward.

Why is SSR so different?  SSR is different because there are no tests and no rewards.  SSR is about the pleasure of reading.  Period.  Students who participate in a systematic program of SSR get all the benefits of a computerized reading program with none of its pitfalls.  They get the books, they get the time to read, and they can get “lost in a book” or enter the “Reading Zone” without worrying about a test that doesn’t test much anyway or how many points some company says that book is worth.  When accompanied by book talks and when the teacher also participates, the benefits of SSR are even greater.

Now, you won’t see gains in critical reading scores just by implementing SSR alone.  You still need to provide direct instruction and practice of reading strategies.  You still need to teach the higher order thinking that will allow students to decipher challenging literature.  But incorporating SSR once a week or so is surely a very good thing.

And last but not least, I have a colleague who asked about the idea of letting students read whatever they wanted during SSR.  “What if the student chooses ‘junk’?”  The point of SSR is simply to instill in students a love of reading.  If you start putting too many parameters in place, it takes away from this.  As the teacher sees what students are gravitating towards, as the class has more book talks, hopefully the teacher can suggest to students books that they might like to give a try, steering them towards things that will challenge them and grow them as readers and people in general.  If the teacher is doing their job by teaching great quality literature throughout the year, letting students have a little choice in what they read for SSR isn’t a bad thing and can reap great rewards.

*Names of those who have either done studies or aggregated the studies: Stephen Krashen, Kelly Gallagher, Jim Trelease.

Muscles and Brains

Have you ever started an exercise regimen, lost some weight for the first month or two, only to slowly plateau?  We know that our muscles eventually become so used to doing the same exercise over and over that the health benefits from that exercise diminish a bit over time, or at least stop increasing.  This is why circuit training is pushed by personal trainers around the country.  Your muscles are constantly being used in new and different ways with circuit training, and because of this, you can actually burn more calories with a shorter workout.  So less can in fact be more?  Well, with circuit training, it appears so.

For a long time, educators and parents heard that simply reading more would automatically make students better readers.   Whole companies have developed around this basic premise.  The problem is that our brain is like a muscle, and like our biceps and triceps, if we simply do more of the same thing with our brain, over time we will plateau.  Anyone who really knows me knows I have a fondness for a good British mystery novel.  Love, love, love them.  I can read them at any time of the day or night without effort because I’m so used to the basic plot lines and dialogue.  No matter the author, they all have similarities.  By this point, it doesn’t take much effort for me to read these kinds of books, and they certainly aren’t stretching me intellectually or improving my reading skills in statistically meaningful ways.  I’ve reached the plateau.  If I want to give my brain a workout, I choose something different, whether that’s a literary novel or nonfiction.  When I read a kind of literature with which I’m less familiar, my reading slows down, and I find myself relying (whether consciously or not) on the old tried and true reading strategies like self-questioning and annotating that I learned long ago.  A short academic article can give my brain a much greater workout these days than a 500-page British mystery.  It might take me less time to read the 10-page article – just like circuit training may take less time than a long walk – but my brain works much harder to decipher that 10-page article than the novel.

So what does this mean for schools?  Well, it means that simply adding more of the same probably isn’t going to generate much in the way of different results.  It also means that adding more variety to students’ reading diets is of paramount importance if we want to give their brains a workout and improve their reading ability.  It means that quality matters more than quantity.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  Students should have access to lots and lots of good books from a school library, and they should be given time throughout the school day to read books of their choosing.  Call it SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read), call it whatever you wish, but having lots of books available and giving students time to read those books sends the message that reading is worthwhile and hopefully will convert some students into lifelong readers.  Anyway you look at this, this is a good thing.

However, if the objective is improved reading ability, we need to make sure we are constantly working our students’ reading muscles in new and different ways.  This is a twofold process: First, it means reading challenging, complex texts.  Some of these texts may be novels or full-length books, but they do not have to be.  In fact, to provide a varied diet of reading material, teachers may assign more shorter works or excerpts.  Provided such shorter pieces are appropriately challenging, forcing the students to dig deep, that’s okay.  As I said above, the length of the piece or the number of pieces read isn’t necessarily the most important component when trying to improve reading comprehension.  Second, students need to actively engage the reading strategies they’ve learned to decipher and decode these varied complex texts.  Such strategies need to be explicitly taught, clearly modeled, and then actively practiced by the students.  These three components need to happen all throughout the K-12 education.

There’s an old adage still floating around that I was reminded of today by a colleague: Students first learn to read, and then they read to learn.  The idea is that once students know how to read, they don’t need explicit instruction in reading anymore; students’ reading ability will simply (one might say magically) improve on its own once they’ve gotten the basics down.  But surely we know this isn’t true.  Different kinds of texts require different kinds of reading.  As students come into contact with more challenging texts, texts that they’ve never come into contact with before, they will need to be taught how to read such texts, they will need to be taught new and different reading strategies or how to adapt the old strategies to new texts.  Students may be able to read the words in a difficult text, but they will not comprehend the full meaning of the text without instruction in how to do so.

More to come…




Quality or Quantity?

True story.  When I was in sixth grade, my teacher asked us to sign a contract to read a certain number of pages over the course of a quarter term.  Somehow I got very confused by the mathematics involved or maybe I thought we were signing a contract for “words read” rather than “pages read.”  In any case, I ended up signing a contract to read some obscene amount of pages.  The laughter from my classmates when my teacher announced how many pages I had committed to read was slightly humiliating.  Unfortunately for me, this was not a teacher who would show mercy.  A contract was a contract, and it might as well have been signed in my blood as far as she was concerned, and she wasn’t even one of the nuns!  I remember scrambling that very afternoon to find the longest books available in the school library.  If memory serves, one of the books that I ended up reading was The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  With that book and (several) others, I did manage to read all my required pages, but I believe that’s all I did most evenings for several weeks on end…not necessarily a bad thing, come to think of it.

When I was even younger, I remember my older sister taking me to the library at the start of the summer.  (There’s a funny story about my sister, a library, and gallon of milk, but I’ll leave that for another time.)  She signed us both up for the summer reading initiative.  You remember those?  Read 10 books, whatever you wanted, and get a prize.  At the time, it was always based on the number of books read, but at some point, the librarians wised up and realized that a really long book should perhaps count for more than a really short book.  Now I believe they go by a variety of measures – books, pages, time, etc.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  Which is better when it comes to reading: quantity or quality?  My initial, knee-jerk response is quality, and even when I stop and give it a good think, I still come down on that side.  However, when I do stop and think, I realize that the balance between quantity and quality is not as easy to find as we might wish.  Certainly we want our students to read a lot, but if they read a lot of junk (for lack of a better word) or read too much below a level that stretches them, that won’t do them all that much good.  So we want them to read a lot, but we want them to read a lot of quality, complex literature.  Quality literature is challenging and takes time to read, discuss, and write about.  Thus, we find ourselves teetering a bit, sometimes veering towards quality and sometimes veering towards quantity.

Like a lot of things in education, balance is key when it comes to reading, but as I said, it takes time to find that balance, and the final balancing point may be based on a compromise.  Perhaps you read fewer long works of literature and more short pieces?  Perhaps you read several long pieces in English class, but other classes like history and science pick up the slack with many shorter reading assignments?

Today, I had the fun (ahem) task of reporting the latest standardized test results to the faculty.  On the one hand, this can be a very encouraging time as colleagues are rewarded for their hard work.  On the other hand, it can feel like you are staring at a very tall, very immoveable mountain.  One area that we know we would like to focus a bit more attention on over the next year is reading comprehension and vocabulary development.  It’s not that we are so very bad in these areas; it’s just that we want to be better.  Going from good to great, as Jim Collins says, is not easy, but it is worth it.

To make the transition from good to a great a little easier on myself and hopefully my colleagues, for the foreseeable future I’m going to devote my blog posts (or at least most of them) to sharing information about teaching and assessing reading comprehension and vocabulary development across the curriculum.  I’ll do the research and distill the most useful bits here with links to solid resources.  I’ll also look a little into how technology can both aid and hinder reading comprehension.  Stay tuned.  More to come.


The Year of Resolution

Did you make any new year’s resolutions for 2014?  If so, have you managed to keep them for the last day and a half?  Some years I make resolutions and others I don’t, but I rarely actually have a plan for keeping them.  I did make a few this year, but I included this very important one at the end of my short list: “Keep working on these goals even if you fall off the proverbial wagon.”  Chances are I’m not going to be able to keep my resolutions 100% of the time for the next 365 days, but if I can keep that last one, and if I can keep going back to my goals even when I misstep, I figure I’ll be in good shape come December 31, 2014.

In making my own resolutions, however, I started to think about goal-setting in general, particularly as it relates to education and my students.  How explicitly do we teach students how to set, measure, and keep goals?  I know that I throw out great words of wisdom like, “Study a little bit each night,” or, “Make a schedule and then stick to it.”  In general, this is about all my students get from me about the importance of having goals.  Pretty pathetic actually.  I imagine most students, like most adults, don’t know exactly how to set a reasonable, worthwhile goal or how to follow through on achieving that goal once it’s been set.  How many teachers actually explicitly teach goal-setting using tools like the acronym S.M.A.R.T.?  Do you even know what S.M.A.R.T. stands for?*

I started thinking that I’d like to try something new this semester with my students.  I thought I’d truly and explicitly teach them a little about setting realistic, worthwhile goals and measuring how well one is meeting those goals over time.  These will be individual goals rather than class goals, and I see myself serving as a sounding board and cheerleader for my students as they try to achieve their goals, checking in on their progress regularly throughout the term.  As I was thinking about how I would go about doing this, I realized that most of my students would likely set one of two goals if given no advice on this process.  One group would say, “I want to make an A.”  Another group  would say, “I want to not fail.”  Both goals are purely related to grades.  I am still at the drawing board thinking about how best to get my students to set educational goals that are not so much about a number on a transcript, or at least not solely about a number on a transcript.  This is proving a little challenging right now.  My hope is that when I start talking about this with my students they will have some good ideas of their own, and I imagine they will.

So what about you?  What are your goals for the coming semester?  Have you set any?  Are they S.M.A.R.T.?  If we don’t have goals and plans, how can we expect our students to have them?

Answer: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely