Three Components to Reading Success

In the 2017 May/June issue of Literacy Today, Annie Ward writes about what it takes to achieve reading success.  As I read through the article, I found myself nodding in agreement.  But, I also thought to myself, “This is nothing new or different.  It’s just that we’ve gotten so carried away in micro-diagnosing reading deficits, that we’ve forgotten all that we really know about reading success!”  What Ward writes supports my own experience in teaching reading over a 30+ year period.

Ward lists “abundant access to compelling books” as her first component.  This means that students need accessible books–books that they can actually read–both in their classroom libraries, as well as the school library.  This does NOT mean only allowing students to read books at a certain Lexile; rather, it means that when they’re browsing, they can find books that work for them.  I always taught students the old fashioned five finger method.  Turn to a page, put up a finger for each word you don’t know on that page, and if you read all five, it’s probably too hard.  I say probably because that’s not the only item that matters in accessible text.  Books with pictures or books that the student has background knowledge about can make up for an increased reading level.  And finally, students need to keep reading in the summer.  No reading for three months will definitely lead to a “summer slide.”

The second component is “appealing choice of reading material.”  I think we’re all familiar with the connection between choice and motivation, and this means that ALL readers need choice–not just our high achievers.  Because I taught at the middle and high school, I often did book talks that not only were meant to entice students to read certain books, but I didn’t sugar coat it, either.  I often would say something like, If you struggle to get through a book but like a good action story, this is a good one for you.  Struggling readers know that they’re struggling.  Acknowledging that this is a book that they might find successful is important.  I think back to the time I was teaching in an interdisciplinary setting at 10th grade, and the unit was Civil War.  My first time out, I introduced the choice novels, but for many of my struggling readers, all they saw was that Red Badge of Courage was the skinniest book, so unfortunately, many of them selected that book.  Needless to say, few finished it.  The next time out, I introduced it differently.  I shared that while it was the shortest book in the group, it was also the most difficult to read with lots of description and little action.  Then I went on to introduce books with lots of action and a great story line.  This time, struggling readers chose books like Rifles for Watie and experienced far greater success.

Ward’s final component is “copious time to read in school and at home.”  I often work in schools where independent reading is frowned upon.  Some administrators see it as “wasted time” without instruction.  Teachers complain that students do not use the time appropriately, so that again, it’s considered “wasted time.”  I think there are two important thoughts to consider here.

First, through LOTS of experience, I have found that if I do not provide in class reading for my students to get into the flow of a book, they seldom pick up the book at home.  However, if I provide time for them to read in class, to get into the book, the chance of them reading on their own time grows substantially. Teenagers are busy creatures with lots of distractions.  They must have a good reason to pick up a book on their own time, and wondering what is going to happen next gives them that reason.  When I taught 12th graders at my last high school, many of my students shared with me that they hadn’t finished a book in their high school years.  By providing them time to “get into” their books during the school day, they were more willing to read on their own, and many of these students finished 5-6 books per semester.  Not bad for students who considered themselves “non-readers.”

Secondly, if we want students to actually read during independent read time, we need to make sure that we’re clear on that expectation and that we model it ourselves.  During independent reading time, I do two things and two things only!  First, I READ!  I once did a research study in a middle school.  The principal wanted to know if SSR was a good use of time.  So, over the course of a school year, I visited every classroom in the school during SSR time.  I ALWAYS brought my book with me and I ALWAYS read.  However, I also observed, and this is what I learned:

  1. In classes where the teacher read, shared his/her reading with the class, and encouraged students to also share their reading with others, students read.
  2. In classes where the teacher worked on the computer or graded papers, students were generally quiet, but they often did not read.  Some wrote notes, some dozed, and some did homework.
  3. In classes where the teacher was clearly not a reader and didn’t seem to think that SSR time was important, students visited, messed around, and generally did everything but read.

So the message is:  if we want students to read, we must set the expectation that this IS reading time, model reading and make sure that students know we mean business.

The second activity I do during independent reading is confer with students.  I ask them about their books, sometimes have them read a small section to me, and generally let them know that I care about not only what they’re reading but what they’re getting out of it.  I don’t ask basic comprehension questions, but rather, I ask what they’re thinking.  I want them to know that reading is a thinking activity and that I care about their thinking.

Because I want to encourage my students to read on their own, I take a “status of the class” at the beginning and end of independent reading, a procedure that I learned when I first read Nancie Atwell in the 80s and have adapted since.  I take the page number that they begin and end with.  In doing this, I am able to keep tabs on how much they’re reading in-between our reading sessions, as well as their pace.  I make sure to compliment students on both their reading on their own and their increase in speed.  Surprisingly, even those seniors out their grin when they’re reminded of such accomplishments.

A number of years ago, I was asked to create a reading program at a large, suburban high school.  I immediately said yes–but with the following request.  I needed to be provided with a budget that would allow me to build a classroom library in order for my students to have high-interest, appropriately leveled, and choice books to read both in and out of class.  Otherwise, I would have to decline the invitation!

So if this is what is key to success in reading, why do we spend so much time diagnosing reading problems and trying to remediate them in isolation?  I honestly don’t know.  I know that it didn’t work years ago and it still doesn’t work!  If students are not provided with lots of books, choice, and time to read, they’re not going to become readers.  Pure and simple!  We can drill and kill them forever, but in order for them to become readers, they  must see the value of using reading strategies to read and ENJOY real books.

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