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How to Select Books for Independent Reading

Teachers, students, and parents recognize the importance of independent reading. No thinking activity better builds content knowledge, improves vocabulary, or exposes the learner to the world and its ideas. The practical question is which reading materials most efficiently help readers access this world of knowledge? Because reading is an interactive process, the abilities and interests of the readers must also be considered to maximize the learning process.

A variety of readability measurements and comprehension assessments have been developed over the years to help match the reading level of texts to the reading level of readers. The Fry’s Readability Graph, Reading Recovery® Levels, Lexile® Levels, and the Fleish-Kincaid Reading Ease® (popularized in Microsoft Word® are just some of readability measurements. These measure all use formula based upon word frequency, syllable counts, and lengths of sentences (among other factors) to determine a numerical reading level equivalent. Reading comprehension assessments include normed tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and the SAT I. Criterion referenced tests, such as the plethora of “state standards” reading tests and the DRA generally produce a spectrum of reading achievement relative to the tested standards. Finally, individual reading inventories, such as the John’s Basic Reading Inventory and the Qualitative Reading Inventory are leveled assessments that measure inter-related reading skills and establish reading grade levels.

However, each assessment has its limitations. The variables of reading texts and readers preclude hard and fast diagnoses and limit the practical application of the data. Additionally, the assessments are time-consuming and hard teachers, students, and parents to properly interpret. In fact, trained reading specialists have difficulty making appropriate use of the data.

What reading specialists do know, however, is that word recognition is a quick, easy, and painless way to determine approximate reading level. Word recognition is not to be confused with word identification, which involves phonemic awareness and decoding (phonics). The Slosson Oral Reading Test and the San Diego Quick Assessment have been used for years to match students to grade-level reading through word recognition levels. In these assessments, a reading grade level is assigned, according to the number of correctly read single and multi-syllabic words, i.e., words read with automaticity. However, these assessments still require the other side of the coin, i.e., the reading level of the text, to match texts to readers.

A much more direct approach that applies word recognition to the specific text to determine if the text-reader match is appropriate for the individual learner’s optimal “zone of proximal development” follows. It’s reader-centered and easy to train teachers, students, and parents to use.

How to Select Books that Have the Appropriate Reading Levels

The goal is to match individual readers to text that has about 5% unknown words. A much higher percentage is too hard for the reader; a much lower percentage is too easy for the reader.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words? Choose a book of any genre and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%.

A word about reading content and genre… Reading to learn suggests that reading in the school context should help improve a student’s independent access to and ability to understand text. Reading to learn also suggests that the reader should be exposed to a variety of reading genre. These being said, motivation is also a key factor in reading to learn. Reader interest plays an important role in increasing reading comprehension. Providing a balance between assigned texts and “reader’s choice” makes sense.

Additionally, practice does make perfect when the practice is done correctly. Besides appropriately matching the text to the reader, teachers and parents can students become better independent readers by teaching good silent reading habits, self-questioning reading strategies, context clue strategies, vocabulary, inference strategies, etc. Furthermore, discussion of the reading is essential to reading comprehension. See Reading Homework for an easy-to-follow independent reading program.

How Much Independent Reading is Appropriate?

The English-Language Arts Content Standards for K-12 Public Schools has established the standards of 500,000 words for primary students, 1,000,000 words for middle school students, and 2,000,000 words to be read annually by high school students in order to ensure grade to grade reading growth. This breaks down to 2,400 words per day for primary students, 4,800 words per day for middle school students, and 9,600 words per day for high school students (reading year-round, four days per week, assuming that only a minimal amount of reading is accomplished in school, which unfortunately is the norm). With the average page in a middle school novel consisting of 30 lines of 8 words per line, this means that reading only 20 pages of 240 words per page would meet that standard.

Because each student reads at different reading speeds, each child must be assessed to determine the number of words per minute that the child does read. Like oral fluency timings, silent reading speed is measured as follows.

Determining Individual Silent Reading Speed

  1. Have the students count the number of words on three consecutive full lines of print, for example, 24 words on 3 lines.
  2. Divide this amount (24) by 3, to give average words per line (8).
  3. Have the student read, beginning at the top of page of the text for one minute.
  4. Have the student count the number of lines (not sentences) read during that timing. Tell the student not to count any lines with 3 words or less. Say the student read 25 lines.
  5. Have the student multiply the number of lines read (25) x the number of words per line (8).
  6. The product (200) is the number of words that the student has read in one minute.
  7. Repeat the entire process once more and average the final total to determine the student’s silent reading fluency number.

How Many Minutes Do Students Need to Read Each Day? Or?

If the student reads at a rate of 200 words per minute, as in our example, the student would need to read for 24 minutes to achieve the goal of 4800 daily words (4 days per week, year round) for middle school students. This amount of time assumes a summer reading program or a daily commitment to independent reading during the school day.

However, because students have an amazing ability to daydream or stare at the same page in a text for minutes on end… a better approach is to require pages read per day. Based upon the number of words per page of the text and the student’s reading speed, it would be simple to require our example student to read 24 pages per day. Teachers can thus differentiate instruction and have students read a different amount of pages per day, based upon their silent fluency numbers. Of course, frequent assessment is suggested to adjust to different texts and student improvement.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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How to be an Effective Reading Specialist

As an elementary reading specialist and staff developer for five years in the Elk Grove Unified School District in Northern California, I learned from lots of my mistakes.  In the hope that prospective reading specialists, coaches, and staff developers might learn from someone else’s mistakes, I’ve jotted down a few tips. Administrators might learn a few things about professional development and site support, as well.

1. Get to know the teachers that you are working with outside of their classrooms. The staff room should be your starting point for building relationships. Your first contact should never be a classroom observation with your clipboard in hand and the principal in tow. Also, hang out with teachers while they are doing duties. Offer to take a duty assignment at random.

2. Build trust. Although your boss may be the principal or district supervisor, remind teachers that you really work for them and that what they say/share will remain in strict confidentiality (no snitchin’ to the principal). Never say a negative word about a teacher. For example, “Mr. Brown has no classroom management skills and does not teach to the standards” can be better said as “Mr. Brown really cares about improving his teaching craft, as we all do, and is working on classroom management and teaching to the standards.”

3. Be a classroom helper. Offer to help do short workshops with below level readers IN THE ROOM, so that the teacher can keep an eye on you. All teachers want help with their kids. Do individual reading screenings. Offer to help the teacher complete individual diagnostic and formative assessments. You need to earn the right to be heard.

4. Remind teachers that you are there to help and not to evaluate. Remind teachers that you work for them and that what they say/share will remain in strict confidentiality (no snitchin’ to the principal).

5. Offer to take the teacher’s class, so that the teacher can do a peer observation. Teachers rarely have a chance to see each other in action.

6. Offer to do a demonstration lesson and ask for the teacher’s critique of your own teaching and what you share. Ask for criticism and let the teacher see your vulnerabilities and weaknesses as a fellow teacher. All teachers have insecurities.  By showing that you are not perfect, you will open up the channels of communication and trust. Teachers will ask for your feedback and input on their own teaching, if they see you as an equal with the time and resources to help them.

7. Keep staff presentations short and sweet. Don’t be a know-it-all. When at all possible, enable another teacher to become the staff presentation star. Be a coach and let the players take all the credit.

8. Compliment a teacher’s teaching frequently and direct those compliments to that teacher’s colleagues and to administrators. Make teachers feel good about themselves because of you. A brief note is better than a verbal compliment. Every teacher is concerned about his or her reputation among colleagues. Build up; never tear down.

9. Run a school-wide reading incentive program and build relationships with kids. The more the kids like you, the more they will ask their teachers to have you visit their classrooms. Pop into classrooms weekly with cool reading bookmarks and rewards certificates. Eat lunch with the kids and hang out with them on the playground.

10. Find out who the most influential colleague is and start building relationships there.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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How to Differentiate Reading Fluency Practice

How to Differentiate Reading Fluency Practice

Differentiate Reading Fluency Practice

Educators value the importance of reading fluency practice. High fluency scores are positively correlated with high reading comprehension scores. The converse is true as well. Repeated reading practice and reading along with modeled readings have shown to increase accuracy, speed, intonation, expression, and attention to punctuation. Additionally, practicing along with modeled readings at a slightly faster pace than students’ assessed word counts per minute seems to help students push through habituated reading speeds to read faster with greater automaticity.

As a reading specialist with significant experience in using a myriad of publisher-produced reading fluency resources, as well experience in using different instructional fluency procedures and assessments, a few been there, done that remarks may prove helpful to fellow reading specialists and teachers who are looking into differentiating reading fluency practice.

Avoid These Types of Reading Passages for Differentiated Reading Fluency Practice

Reading specialists, teachers, and publishers make two mistakes regarding using fluency passages for modeled, repeated fluency practice.

1. Using Grade-level Passages

Some teachers use grade-level only reading passages. Our students are not all cookie-cutter, grade-level readers. You wouldn’t be reading this article on differentiated reading fluency practice if you thought they were. Using grade-level passages provides challenge-level fluency practice for only a narrow group of any teacher’s classroom.

2. Using Diagnostically-determined Passages at the Reader’s Instructional Reading Level

Expensive publisher programs with software peg student reading levels at precise figures and assign 20 or so stories and/or articles at that level for practice. This is a waste of time and money. Publishers provide more product than most students need to increase profit margins. Reading intervention should always be about hurried and dynamic instruction. Students improve their reading fluencies at vastly different and unpredictable rates. A day of unnecessary fluency practice at a specific level that the student has already mastered is another day of below grade-level reading. 

Furthermore, too much practice at any one reading level habituates students to that level, and is, therefore, counterproductive. Plus, as an aside… these leveled passages vary greatly in their reading difficulty from paragraph to paragraph. Despite lexiles, reading level is still somewhat of an arbitrary misnomer. Real and natural reading has a far greater range of reading difficulty than passages with controlled vocabulary and content.

Choose These Types of Reading Passages for Differentiated Reading Fluency Practice

1. Select reading passages with a variety of reading levels, preferably within the passages themselves. Expository articles usually accomplish this end better than do narrative passages. Besides, struggling readers have far more difficulty reading social studies and science textbooks than short stories or novels.

2. Choose reading passages which provide embedded vocabulary and comprehension questions. Although not part of targeted fluency practice, these components are at the heart of reading instruction and shouldn’t be divorced from isolated fluency practice. Why waste instructional time and money with two different passages–one for fluency practice and another for comprehension and vocabulary

How to Differentiate Fluency Practice 

Assess

Although students implicitly practice fluency when they learn phonics (especially blending), spelling, syllabication, vocabulary, sight words, rimes (word families), and reading (oral and silent), explicit fluency practice necessitates diagnostic assessment. Teachers and students need to know levels of fluency competency to determine if targeted practice is advisable and how to best remediate reading fluency deficiencies. Jan Hasbrouk, co-researcher on grade-level fluency norms also argues that diagnostic reading fluency assessment can serve as a “canary in a coal mine” to identify potential struggling readers and to continue with other diagnostic reading assessments to identify sub-skill deficits which adversely impact fluency (and comprehension). As a cautionary note, I (and many other teachers) do have problems with the time, cost, teachability, and evaluative nature of many reading fluency assessments. Click HERE for my article on these problems.

I recommend using my own two-minute diagnostic fluency assessment. The two minute reading provides much more accurate timings and affords a much better “canary” to guide further assessment. Plus the assessment is leveled in a unique pyramid design, beginning at first grade reading level and proceeding to seventh grade reading level at the end. Teachers learn a tremendous amount about instructional reading levels, degree of vocabulary acquisition, etc. from this design. Download my Pets Fluency Assessment absolutely FREE at the end of this article.

Assign Groups with Printed Copies of the Fluency Passages

Assign one of three reading fluency groups (A, B, or C) to each of your students based upon their fluency scores on the “Pets” Individual Fluency Assessment. Each group has “challenge level” modeled readings to “push” readers to read more quickly and more accurately. Keep these groups flexible, as some students will progress rapidly and may need to be reassigned to reflect their improved reading fluency scores. Also, separate students who do not work well together.

 

  1. Show students a list of the fluency groups on the board or display and place an asterisk by the first Fluency Leader chosen for each group. Inform students that you will rotate Fluency Leaders and that these students have two duties: Collect and return the group materials and ask the teacher when a student in their group needs help or has a question. Ask the Fluency Leaders to get the materials (fluency folders, pencil box, and one fluency passage) for each student in their groups.
  2. Have students each create their own fluency folders (a simple file folder is fine) and put a bar graph inside the folders. A quick web search will bring dozens of fluency bar graphs for your selection. Select a bar graph that best matches the fluency speeds of your students. If in doubt, pick the higher level bar graph, because students tend to “overestimate” their scores on the fluency timings. Collect the fluency folders.
  3. As the Fluency Leaders gather and distribute the materials, show students the location of their fluency group and the desk/tables and chairs configuration on the board or overhead. Tell students that they will move desks/tables and chairs to form their fluency groups as shown. To signal readiness, the students will raise their hands. Inform them that fluency groups will receive participation points and incentives for “quick, quiet, and cooperative” transitions. Tell students to now move into their fluency groups.
  4. When all groups are ready, award participation points for “quick, quiet, and cooperative” transitions. Tell students that they will read the fluency passage out loud, but softly, for a two-minute timed “cold” (unpracticed) timing. Ready the stopwatch or use the second hand of the clock to time. Say– “Point to the first word of the fluency passage. Ready, begin.” As students read, monitor the groups to ensure that students are reading quietly, but above a whisper. All words must be said out loud for effective practice. After two minutes, say “Stop and Record.”
  5. Tell students to tally their words and record their “cold timing” score on the fluency bar graph in pencil. Model how to record the timings on the board or overhead. Inform students that after they finish recording the “cold timing,” they are to continue reading where they left off, then re-read the passage over and over until the teacher visits their group.
  6. Visit the lowest level fluency group and quickly pre-teach a few challenging words from the passage by saying the word and asking students to repeat the word. Briefly define the words, if they are necessary to the meaning of the fluency passage.
  7. Tell students that the Fluency Leader will lead the group at the reading pace set by the teacher and finish choral reading the fluency passage. Have the Fluency Leader say “Ready, begin” and begin reading. When the group is following the direction of the Fluency Leader and is reading at the appropriate rate, move on to the next group. Afterwards, the group is to re-play the YouTube video or chorally re-read the whole passage together one more time.
  8. After the second fluency practice, students are to individually re-read the passage out loud as fast as they feel comfortable until the teacher says, “Stop.”
  9. After the last group visited by the teacher has completed its choral readings, interrupt the class to complete a two-minute “hot” reading of the passage. Have students tally their words per minute and record their score in pen on the fluency bar graph, directly above the “cold” timing.
  10. Tell Fluency Leaders to collect materials, while the groups re-organize the desks/tables. When all students have returned to their seats and all materials have been properly collected, award participation points for “quick, quiet, and cooperative” transitions.

Helpful Hints

Work on attention to punctuation and expression. Students should read softly, but above a whisper. An entire class reading at this level provides a “white noise” that promotes individual concentration. Play the YouTube videos at reasonable volume levels or use headphones.

Assess progress by examining the day to day recorded “cold” readings. Although students may tend to “inflate” their “cold” and “hot” timing differentials, emphasize improvement in the “cold” timings over time.

Use your Fluency Leaders! Only Fluency Leaders get out of their seats during Fluency Remediation to gather materials or ask the teacher questions.

Integrate fluency and comprehension instruction. Teach students to “talk to the text” as they read to improve concentration and understanding. Periodically do a “Think-Aloud” to model interactive, metacognitive reading. Teach comprehension questions that will emphasize reader independence.

Also tie in vocabulary development by having the students write context clue sentences for the vocabulary words that you pre-teach.

With these procedures, your fluency groups will thrive and students will significantly improve their reading fluency.

Mark Pennington is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get diagnostic reading and spelling assessments,  blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

The author’s Teaching Reading Strategies Animal Fluency Articles are high-interest expository articles, designed for remedial readers.

Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies Comprehensive Reading Intervention Program

Each of the 43 articles has from 350−450 words and focuses on one of the animals featured on the Animal Sound-Spelling Cards. Readers learn about the physical characteristics of the animal, the animal’s habitat, what the animal eats, the animal’s family, interesting facts, and the status of the species, whether endangered or not.

The articles are leveled in a unique pyramid design: the first two paragraphs are at an adjusted third grade (Fleish-Kincaid) reading level (after deleting a few key multi-syllabic words such as carnivores or long animal names such as armadillos); the next two paragraphs are at the fifth-grade reading level; and the last two are at the seventh-grade reading level. The reader begins practice at an easier level to build confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language and sentence length.

The print copies of the Animal Fluency Articles include challenge words in the upper right corner for the teacher to pre-teach. Word counts are provided in the left margin for fluency timings. The YouTube videos of each article include a picture of the animal and a modeled reading, but do not include the challenge words or word counts.

Additionally, the Animal Fluency Articles are available as YouTube videos for individualized fluency instruction. Each article has been recorded at three different reading speeds (Level A at 95-115 words per minute; Level B at 115-135 words per minute; and Level C at 135-155 words per minute) to provide modeled readings at each of your students’ challenge levels. A total of 129 videos!

Get the Pets Fluency Assessment FREE Resource:

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