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How to Practice Reading Comprehension

Don't Teach Reading Comprehension: Practice It!

Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension

Well, I stirred up somewhat of a ruckus with my companion article titled “Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension” and I think I understand why. Admittedly, the hook is designed to do exactly what we teachers teach our students: Grab the readers’ attention and make them want to read more.” Back in high school, my fellow journalist, Kraig King, somehow was able to get this story headline approved by Mr. Devlin, our school newspaper teacher: “Drugs Are Great” with the first sentence following with “that’s what my friend Joe kept telling me.” Every student read that article.

In my previous article I provided evidence that the reading community of practitioners (we teachers and reading specialists) and academics (reading researchers) really don’t have a consensus as to what exactly is reading comprehension. The instructional implications seem clear to me: We shouldn’t assess or pretend to teach what we don’t know.

I also cautioned that teachers face enormous pressure to adopt a particular definition of reading comprehension from administrators and publishers of assessments and curricula. I’ll say it again, “We have to be crap detectors” in our business of teaching students.

Since “everyone and their mother” (horrible grammar) has their own definition of reading comprehension, I developed my own: We sort of know it when we see it, but we all don’t agree on exactly what it is and how to get it. 

The “when we see it” part of my working definition for reading comprehension offers some practical advice for helping students practice their reading comprehension. Most of us can spot a good reader when we see one. And, fortunately, most teachers are pretty good readers. So let’s remind ourselves about what good readers do.

Here the reading research provides helpful insight. Although causal connections (This teaching practice will effect this learning effect) can rarely be established, we do have a body of statistically significant reading research indicating positive correlations between certain learning practices and reading comprehension… admittedly we beg the question as to just what reading comprehension is; however, this is beside the point for our working definition). For example, oral reading fluency has a statistically significant correlation with reading comprehension; the practice and result share a high correlation (Fuchs, Fuchs, Hosp, and Jenkins).

We may not know exactly “how to get it,” but Johnny has high fluency scores and everyone knows he’s a good reader, so one way to practice reading comprehension would be… let’s be like Johnny. The following is certainly not an exhaustive list of what good readers like Johnny do, but each has research studies supporting statistically significant correlations between the description or practice and reading comprehension. I’ll add on links to that research later. Please comment with relevant links and additional suggestions and I’ll add onto the list. Or, even better yet, challenge my assumptions.

Practice Doing What Good Readers Do

Practice Reading Comprehension

Students Practicing Reading Comprehension

  • Good readers are fluent in all senses of the word, both orally and silently.
  • Good readers understand why they are reading something and tend to read toward a specific purpose.
  • Good readers are smart. Sad, but true. We educators wish that every student had the aptitude or capability to be brilliant, but nature gets in the way. In one way or another, reading is a thinking activity and good thinkers have the opportunity to be good readers. Maybe someday we will understand the brain enough to even the playing field, but we are still a long way from that day.
  • Good readers bring plenty of prior knowledge to the table through experience, content learning, practice, study skills. Good for them, but not for all our students. Nurture gets in the way. Fortunately, we have some of the tools needed to somewhat level the playing field, but it takes a lot of work.
  • Good readers have a good understanding of English idioms. English-language learners do have challenges here. Let’s be honest.
  • Good readers read for meaning and monitor their own comprehension.
  • Good readers dialogue with the text and see the reading experience as interactive between reader and author and others. They question the text.
  • Good readers have high vocabularies, especially Tier 1 and Tier 2 words.
  • Good readers know how to find resources to help them understand difficult text.
  • Good readers are flexible: Good readers vary reading speed, re-read what they don’t understand, know when to skim and not to skim.
  • Good readers know what’s important and what’s not.
  • Good readers know they need to infer meaning from the text and draw conclusions.
  • Good readers relate one part of the text to others.
  • Good readers understand text structure.
  • Good readers understand the craft of writing.
  • Good readers understand how genre affects story development.
  • Good readers do a better job of answering recall and inferential reading selection questions.
  • Good readers read narrative differently than expository text.

Teaching Practices to Practice Reading Comprehension

I’ll keep the explanations in this list short and let the links broaden any topics or ideas you may wish to explore. Several of the lists include ready-to-use resources to help your students practice reading comprehension. I suggest teachers use this list as a sort of a “I do that (pat on the back affirmation),” “I used to do that (reminder that you should use that practice again),” and “I want to think about doing that or do that instead of what I’m doing” self-analysis.

1. Think-Alouds: Good readers (both teachers and students) can share how they understand and interpret text in light of their own personal and academic experiences, text-based strategies, self-questioning, and monitoring for understanding. Click HERE for suggestions as to how to use this technique. Think-Alouds will help your students understand what reading is, for example connecting parts of text, and what reading isn’t, for example, word calling.

2. Close Readings: If you haven’t heard of close readings, you’ve been asleep at the wheel. If you read my article, Close Reading: Don’t Read Too Closely, you may wind up with a different take on this trendy reading strategy, but it is still useful to help students practice reading comprehension and it works well in conjunction with think-alouds and external, text dependent questions.

3. External Questions: Any search of Common Core reading standards will bring up text dependent questions, the favorite subject of the Common Core authors, after the need for text complexity. The time-tested QAR Reading Strategy helps students practice comprehension through recognizing and applying the types of text-dependent questions publishers, teachers, and good readers ask themselves about text.

4. Internal Questions: Reading research indicates that self-generated reader questioning improves reading comprehension as much or even more than publisher or teacher questions. My article, How to Improve Reading Comprehension with Self-Questioning, provides a helpful overview and summary of the research. Also, I’ve developed a useful set of five internal questions which prompt active engagement with both narrative and expository text. These SCRIP Comprehension Strategies (includes posters, five worksheets, and SCRIP Bookmarks) are memorable and effective. Plus, they provide a language of instruction for literary discussions.

5. Student Monitoring of Text: Teaching students to self-monitor their reading comprehension is wonderful practice. Read my article, Interactive Reading-Making a Movie in Your Head, for a nice explanation of how to read interactively. Follow up with a think-aloud and have students pair share their own think-alouds. Now that’s reading comprehension practice!

6. Literary Discussions: When we build upon (and sometimes revise) prior knowledge with relevant content and life experience, we better comprehend text. Modeling and practicing thinking skills via Socratic Seminars, literacy circles, cooperative groups, and the like help students practice reading comprehension, which is truly a listening and speaking skill. Check out How to Lead Effective Group Discussions to fine tune your discussion experience. Also check out my Critical Thinking Openers.

7. Pre-teach and Re-teach: Read the king of these reading comprehension practices (Marzano). We have to level the playing field by making text accessible to all students. By the way, why not show the movie first before reading the novel upon which it is based? Just an idea, but an effective one. Give students the keys to effective reading comprehension practice; don’t withhold them.

8. Fluency Practice: Students need both oral and silent fluency practice. Check out these articles: How and Why to Teach Fluency, Differentiated Fluency Practice, and Reading Fluency Homework. My Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program provides modeled oral reading fluency practice at three separate speeds. The expository animal fluency passages are tiered in terms of reading level: the first two paragraphs of each article at grade 3, the next two paragraphs at grade 5, and the last two at grade 7. Each article has word counts and corresponding timing sheets.

9. Syllabication Practice: The original and new editions Rewards (Archer) programs stretch decoding to the multi-syllabic academic vocabulary that we want students to practice to improve reading comprehension. My own Syllable Transformers (a nice article with lesson downloads) activity is essential practice for students at all reading levels. You’ll also want to check out these great reference lists: Syllable Rules with Examples and Accent Rules with Examples.

10. Vocabulary Practice with the Common Core Language Standards: The best section of the Common Core State Standards, and perhaps the only set of Standards that has produced universal praise and no criticism is found in the Language Strand: Standards 4, 5, and 6. Every teacher and reading researcher agrees that a growing and targeted vocabulary is a prerequisite and concurrent necessity to improving reading comprehension. The Common Core State Standards Appendix A  argument by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown that teachers should focus on Tier 2 words academic words has wide acceptance as does the teaching of Greek and Latin word parts. Check out this resource: How to Teach Prefixes, Roots, and Suffixes.

Furthermore, teachers should check out the research-based Academic Word List used in my Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits. Following are nice ready-to-teach samples as to how to teach these Standards: Four Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Unit Test with AnswersFour Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Unit Test with AnswersFour Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Unit Test with AnswersFour Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Unit Test with Answers, and Four Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets, Flashcards, and Unit Test with Answers.

11. Independent Reading for Vocabulary Acquisition and Content Knowledge:  The best homework? Independent reading with accountability: not for reading comprehension practice, per se, but for vocabulary acquisition and content knowledge. Read a set of articles HERE regarding how to set up an effective independent reading program with accountability and how to help students select books at the optimal word recognition levels. No, you do not need Lexiles, nor Accelerated Reader. Teach your students how to maximize vocabulary acquisition by using the FP’S BAG SALE Context Clues Strategies lesson, including two practice worksheets with answers.

12. Read a Variety of Genre: True, the Common Core State Standards have renewed our focus on non-narrative genre, but the Standards do not outlaw short stories, poetry, and novels. Check our this particularly helpful resource: How to Read Textbooks with PQ RAR.

13. Write About Reading: A good writing program is excellent reading comprehension practice. See Twelve Tips to Teach the Reading-Writing Connection.

14. Fill in the Gaps: Help students practice reading comprehension by ensuring that they have the necessary tools to do so. We know that good readers have phonemic awareness and they can apply the alphabetic code through their knowledge of how sounds connect to spellings. In other words, good readers tend to have their phonics mastered, irrespective of how they got there; they can decode. That’s simply not up for debate anymore.  We also know that good readers tend to have the “other side of the coin” mastered as well, that is they can encode (spell) the sound-spellings.

“75% of children who were poor readers in the 3rd grade remained poor readers in the 9th grade and could not read well when they became adults.” – Joseph Torgeson from Catch Them Before They Fall

Check out these FREE diagnostic reading and spelling assessments to determine exactly which gaps to fill. These assessments pinpoint specific, teachable areas that students have not yet mastered, but need to. These are comprehensive assessments, not random samples indicating a generic “problem area.” For example, the Vowel Sound Phonics Assessment will indicate that Raphael has not mastered the Long a, ai_. For example, the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment does not indicate a problem with syllable juncture as a qualitative spelling inventory might; instead, the test would indicate that Frances does not understand the consonant-le spelling patterns.

Why not get each of these assessments plus all of the instructional resources to teach to these assessments by purchasing the the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Phonics Books BUNDLE? Enter discount code 3716 to save an additional 10%. Here’s an overview of this comprehensive reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies is designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Decodable Sam and Friends Phonics Books

Sam and Friends Take-home Phonics Books

un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games. Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Perfect for guided reading. Perfect for homework.

 

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Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension

Don't Teach Reading Comprehension: Practice It!

Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension

Okay, I’ll admit it; the article title is a bit of an attention grabber. However, as an MA reading specialist and author of plenty of reading programs over the years, I do believe that the title does point to some helpful advice. And I don’t believe I’m splitting hairs or making a distinction without a difference (pick your figure of speech) by advising “Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension” here while alternatively advocating “How to Practice Reading Comprehension” in my companion article. Teaching is different than practicing.

Let’s Be Honest About Teaching Reading Comprehension

Years ago I served as an elementary reading specialist, training teachers in our district-adopted reading program. I had plenty of diagnostic and instructional tools in my toolbox, ready to hand out to teachers to improve the quality of reading instruction for their classes and individual students. Fresh from my masters program, I knew stuff that the teachers did not and I felt pretty good about the level of my expertise.

At a grade level team meeting, veteran teachers were asking me about the results of their San Diego Quick Assessments, how to teach the r, l, w controlled vowels, and my take on schema theory. I was on a roll. Next, teachers tossed out their progress monitoring assessments and I suggested how to improve the fluency of Raphael, how to teach the outlaw (sight) words to Marci, and how to get Huong to practice his common Greek and Latin prefixes. Teachers were nodding their heads in a approval, and I was just about to step down from my throne and dismiss my subjects when a brand new teacher asked the question about Alberto: Even though Alberto has mastered all of his sight words, passed the phonics tests, and has the second highest fluency rate in the class, why can’t he tell me about what he has read or answer any simple questions about the reading?

The question stopped me dead in my tracks. I faked the answer pretty well, suggesting something along the lines of confusion with his primary language (Spanish) and English, not knowing that he was supposed to read for meaning, dietary issues, and perhaps some degree of cognitive impairment. But her follow-up question was devastating: “How can I teach reading comprehension to him?” I had no answer. We never covered that in my MA reading specialist program. I muttered something about the issue being complicated and said I’d get back to her. I never did.

Since those early years as an elementary reading specialist, I’ve also served as both a middle and high school reading intervention teacher and a reading instructor at a community college. After a few years under my belt, I’ve learned to be more like that new teacher. I ask harder questions and I’m not satisfied with simplistic or speculative answers. Today my answer to her question would be, “We don’t know how to teach reading comprehension, so don’t teach it.” However, that answer does require some explanation. First, let’s take a look at why we can’t teach reading comprehension; next, the instructional implications; and lastly in my companion article, how to help students practice reading comprehension

Why We Can’t Teach Reading Comprehension

In the short-lived 1969-1970 television show, Then Came Bronson, a middle-aged man in a business hat pulls his family station wagon alongside the lead character, Bronson, who is riding a

Then Cam Bronson

“Wherever I wind up, I guess”

motorcycle.

The car driver asks, “Taking a trip?”

Bronson shakes his head and answers, “Yeah.”

 “Where to?”

 “I don’t know… Wherever I wind up, I guess.”

 “Man, I wish I was you…”

“Really, well hang in there.”

Great dialogue… We all want to be about the journey with no cares about the destination, but this attitude is simply not acceptable when applied to the subject of reading comprehension. We need to know where we are going before we figure out how to get there. So, just what is reading comprehension and how do we get there?

What is Reading Comprehension? We Don’t All Agree

I googled “reading comprehension definition” and found these top results from practitioners:

“Simply put, reading comprehension is the act of understanding what you are reading” (K12 Reader).

“Comprehension is the understanding and interpretation of what is read… For many years, reading instruction was based on a concept of reading as the application of a set of isolated skills such as identifying words, finding main ideas, identifying cause and effect relationships, comparing and contrasting and sequencing. Comprehension was viewed as the mastery of these skills.” (Reading Rockets).

“I’ve noticed that many books about reading, and specifically about comprehension for that matter, don’t even define what comprehension is. Perhaps it’s assumed that we all know what it is; or maybe comprehension is a slippery term that we have trouble grasping, or comprehending, if you will!” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers this definition: ‘capacity of the mind to perceive and understand.’ Reading comprehension, then, would be the capacity to perceive and understand the meanings communicated by texts. Simple, huh? Clear. Now we comprehend comprehension! (Jeff Wilhelm, Scholastic).

Next, I googled “reading comprehension scholarly definition” and found a wide variety of results from the academics:

“We define reading comprehension as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. We use the words extracting and constructing to emphasize both the importance and the insufficiency of the text as a determinant of reading comprehension” (Greenleaf, Murphy, Schoenbach).

“Reading comprehension is the construction of the meaning of a written or spoken communication through a reciprocal, holistic interchange of ideas between the interpreter and the message.
. . . The presumption here is that meaning resides in the intentional problem-solving, thinking processes of the interpreter, . . . that the content of the meaning is influenced by that
person’s prior knowledge and experience” (Harris and Hodges).

“From a cognitive or psycholinguistic perspective, comprehension is viewed as a process of constructing meaning in transaction with texts” (Goodman, 1996; Smith, 2004).¹

“(Reading comprehension is) a combination of decoding and oral comprehension skills” (Hoover & Gough, 1990).²

“From a post-structuralist or socio-cultural perspective, there is no meaning that simply resides in a text until a reader with the requisite knowledge and skills constructs the meaning with the signs on a page (McCormick, 1995; O’Neill,1993).³

1,2,3 from Rethinking Reading Comprehension: Definitions, Instructional Practices, and Assessment (Serafini).

One observation: I can’t tell you how many times I read the equivalent of “After years of… there is a growing consensus that…” for diametrically opposed summaries of the reading research.

Finally, I went to the Common Core State Standards to see how the authors weighed in on reading comprehension. The Common Core Standards divides its Reading Standards into Reading Foundational Skills, Reading Literature, and Reading Informational Text. Its Appendix A focuses on text complexity, but offers no working definition of reading comprehension. The closest we get to a definition is “the ability to perform literacy tasks.”

Instructional Implications

At this point we are, at best, left with this working definition of reading comprehension: We sort of know it when we see it, but we all don’t agree on exactly what it is and how to get it. 

Now, that’s not the worst thing in the world. It does provide some helpful hints about the limitations of reading assessments and instructional strategies. At the minimum, this working definition

"Don't Follow Leaders"

(From Don’t Look Back produced by Leacock-Pennebaker (1965); Pennebaker Films)

informs our “crap detectors” and keeps us questioning authority. “Don’t follow leaders; watch your parking meters” (Dylan).

We Can’t and Shouldn’t Assess Reading Comprehension

Assessments are designed to measure stuff. If we can’t agree on what we are testing, reading comprehension assessments may actually lead us into teaching to the results of the test, rather than helping students improve comprehension. Reading comprehension tests become self-fulfilling prophesies. Additionally, publishers love comprehension assessments that test concrete skills: Think test prep materials, skill workbooks, etc.

Teachers should rightfully be cautious about making instructional decisions from the results of the Common Core Standards-based PAARC and Smarter Balanced tests. These high stakes tests drive instructional decisions which often counter reading research and teacher judgment. The pressure to make these achievement tests the arbiters of what reading comprehension is and is not is increasingly difficult for teachers to challenge. Furthermore, each of the criterion-referenced and normed assessments purporting to measure reading comprehension have their own biases: the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement, Second Edition (KTEA-II), Wechsler Individual Achievement Test, Third Edition (WIAT-III), Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement (WJ III ACH), The Gray Oral Reading Tests, Fifth Edition (GORT-5), Test of Reading Comprehension, Fourth Edition (TORC-4), Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests Terra Nova Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) Stanford Achievement Test, etc.

As a reading specialist for quite a few years, I also recommend not using informal reading inventories to measure comprehension. I am a huge advocate for teacher-based reading assessments, but not with comprehension. If we can’t test it (and we can’t), we can’t teach it. Make sure to avoid making reading assessments “walk on all fours.” I can’t tell you how many teachers I’ve known who use the Slosson, San Diego Quick, or the Read Naturally Brief Oral Screener and predictors of reading grade level. Wrong. And for goodness sake, avoid using the Accelerated Reader STAR test for the same misguided purpose.

The results of the above tests give us nothing to reliably inform our reading instruction. Be suspect of aggregated results which purport to provide useful instructional information. And labels can lead to silly instructional decisions, for example, tracking all far below basic readers into remedial reading classes. As if each low-performing reader had the same reading issues. Sigh.

What Doesn’t Improve Reading Comprehension

Time to step on a few toes. We may not be able to define exactly what reading comprehension is and we may not know how to assess or directly teach reading comprehension, but by any of the working definitions, assessment results, and reading research detailed in the National Reading Panel Report most of us would agree that the following practices do not improve reading comprehension.

1. Free Voluntary Reading (Sustained Silent Reading)

According to noted reading researcher, Doctor Timothy Shanahan in his August 13, 2017 article:

NRP did conclude that there was no convincing evidence that giving kids free reading time during the school day improved achievement — or did so very much. There has been a lot of work on that since NRP but with pretty much the same findings: either no benefits to that practice or really small benefits (a .05 effect size — which is tiny). Today, NRP would likely conclude that practice is not beneficial rather than that there is insufficient data. But that’s arguable, of course.

Remember that this is regarding reading comprehension, not vocabulary acquisition.

2. Teaching according to learning styles and multiple intelligences. Click HERE for the a complete debunking of these misguided approaches.

3. Visual (graphophonic) reading strategies. Over-reliance on letter shapes, pictures, and context clues to practice reading comprehension is, indeed, a “psycholinguistic guessing game” (Goodman) and the results of the whole language movement of the 1980s and 1990s strongly suggest that whatever reading comprehension is, it isn’t something that ignores the alphabetic code.

4. Leveling books for guided reading by “comprehension grade level” (whatever that means). Also, use Lexiles only as flexible guidelines for independent reading or for selecting class novels.

5. Reading ability groups by reading comprehension levels. Whatever reading comprehension is, it’s not a skill which can be taught to a flexible ability group, such as a group of students who don’t know their basic sight words.

6. Reading strategy worksheets. It’s not that worksheets don’t have a place… they do, but teaching main idea, inferencing, drawing conclusions, visualizing, and text structure are important tools for skillful readers to acquire, but passing out skill worksheets on each does not teach reading comprehension.

7. Reading techniques, such as close reading, the QAR strategy, reciprocal teaching, and even the KWL may be helpful, but in them of themselves they don’t teach reading comprehension and even too much of a good thing can be counterproductive.

So, if you agree with my advice: Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension, you may be interested in the specifics on How to Practice Reading Comprehension. The article goes into detail about practicing reading comprehension that way good readers do and has a wealth of article and ready-to-teach FREE resources and lessons.

Mark Pennington is the author of the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Phonics Books reading intervention BUNDLE.

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Moneyball and Reading Intervention

If you haven’t seen Moneyball, you’ve missed a good watch. For those of you unfamiliar with the story line, it’s about how Billy Beane, GM of the small-market Oakland A’s continues to produce winning teams (they’re in the wild card race as of this writing), despite having the lowest (or close to) payroll in Major League Baseball. But what’s this got to do with reading intervention and RTI? Plenty.

You see, Billy Beane works with this old-school manager, Gene Mauch, who plies his trade with intuition, experience, and comprehensive knowledge of the game. But, the A’s are losing. Billy has a different approach that baseball purists later label as Moneyball. Fair to say, Gene is a tough sell and eventually has to go, but the bottom line is that Billy’s Moneyball starts to work and the A’s start to win. So, what is Moneyball?

Billy Bean knows he can’t compete with the big spending Yankees and Red Sox, so he tries another approach. He hires a statistician to chart and analyze every aspect of the game. His data is valid, specific, and applicable. Billy uses this data to inform trades, free agent acquisitions… even determine the batting order, much to Gene Mauch’s chagrin. Often the decisions are counter-intuitive and untraditional. They sometimes fly in the face of “the way we’ve always done it.” Moneyball isolates all the variables, including the manager himself.

Now, most of you know where I’m going with this comparison. In fact, you may be that reading teacher with all the intuition, experience, and comprehensive knowledge. I’m not suggesting that we reduce reading intervention instruction to simple statistics. Teaching is an artful science. We do teach kids. However, we do need to teach to reliable data and isolate the variables just like Billy Beane did/does with the Oakland A’s. And that variable might just be us.

To mix metaphors, each student is the snowflake. Bobby does not have the same instructional needs as does Marta. We can’t use cookie cutter approaches to reading intervention if we want to make the optimal progress each student deserves. Maybe a little Moneyball in Reading Intervention would make some sense.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, 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 multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, spelling pattern worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games. Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies.

Reading , , , , , ,

Backwards Reading Intervention

On a recent teacher ning, I clicked on this post.* Now I’ve see this post and heard the same questions hundreds of times throughout my thirty-year career as a secondary reading specialist. You may have as well.

This is my first year of teaching and I have been given a Reading class. I’m at a large urban high school and I’ve been told that the students are bright, but reluctant readers. For some of the class we will be using the Reading Plus program but for the rest of the time I have just been told to do anything that will improve their comprehension, ACT/SAT scores, high school exit exam scores, and overall reading skills. I’m not sure where to even begin with this class.

I had only one Reading instruction class in my teacher training program, but I did one semester of my student teaching program at a middle school and I taught both a literature class and a reading class. For the reading class my colleagues suggested that I do an SSR program for 30 minutes a day. I did it, but students were pretty resistant. I let students pick their own novels, magazines, comics, or newspapers to read. Some did read, but others really didn’t. I didn’t feel like I was really teaching and I doubt if their reading test scores really improved as a result of this class.

So, any advice? The Response to Intervention Coordinator was on my interview panel and said she would help me with this class, but I would like to start planning now. Should I keep doing the SSR? I have one month to plan.

It wasn’t the post that got me thinking about Backwards Reading Intervention, but the responses.

The consensus response to this frequently-posed question regarding what to teach in a reading intervention class is the advice to let students choose their own reading. This student-centered approach seems admirable, and notable authors Nancy Atwell, Donalyn Miller, and Stephen Krashen are all proponents of free voluntary reading—albeit each with a few twists of their own. However, students do not always pick what is in their best interests. Given a choice, most children will pick candy over vegetables.

I could go into quite a bit of anecdotal evidence here with respect to the drawbacks of in-class SSR/Free Voluntary Reading:** peer pressure, mismatched reading levels, trashy adolescent lit, lack of accountability, etc. But the real point I would like to make deals with the basic instructional question. How strange that a student-centered approach to learning, as advocated by many teachers and authors, does not extend to a student-centered approach to instruction. To cut to the chase, why are many reading intervention teachers so reluctant to differentiate reading instruction according to the diagnostic needs of individual students? Sit in on most elementary, middle school, high school, and community college remedial reading classes (Been there, done that), and you’ll find what I have found: We teach them the same stuff. It’s teacher-centered instruction, not student-centered instruction.

Backwards Reading Intervention

****

We tend to approach remedial reading backwards. We begin with what we want to teach them and how we want to teach them, but we all-too-often ignore the them. Having taught a remedial high school reading class for four years, I eventually discovered that each student was in that class for different reasons. To achieve the progress that each student deserves, we have to begin by finding out those different reasons. The what and how of instruction should derive from diagnostic assessment.

Of course, teachers want to plan instruction; you have to teach them something. However, perhaps the best response to the teacher’s post would be one that provides the diagnostic assessments, recording matrices, instructions re: data analysis and decision-making and flexible program resources that will allow the teacher to adjust instruction according to the diagnostic needs of her students. That kind of planning makes sense. Here they are… and happy planning. You’re making a world of difference for these students. Just don’t teach backwards.

*Actually I’ve combined a few posts into this one to protect the privacy of the posting teacher.

**As a disclaimer, I also let students pick their own independent reading for homework (within reasonable parameters).

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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 multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, spelling pattern worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games. Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies.

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Straight Talk with Stephen Krashen on SSR

A few weeks ago, I replied to a post on the community forum found on my favorite site, Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning. The subject? Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). After some challenging back and forth, I decided to write my own article titled “Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.” I listed and defended eight reasons why SSR is not the best use of class time and closed the article by justifying my proposal that independent reading be assigned as homework, along with the accountability of parent-graded daily reading discussion or online peer response/book clubs.

With such a provocative title, it’s no wonder that I received a number of responses. Among the responses, Dr. Stephen Krashen responded numerous times. Dr. Krashen has always served at the foremost advocate of free voluntary reading, essentially the more scholarly tag for SSR. Read more…

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Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work

O.K. So my title is a good hook. I’m an ELA teacher, so you’d expect no less. However, I’m also an MA reading specialist, so you’d expect me to be passionate about getting students to read and read well. I do believe that independent reading is vital to reading improvement. So why am I writing an article titled Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work?

First, let’s get on the same page about what most of us mean when we talk about SSR. SSR does have a variety of pseudonyms: FVR (Free Voluntary Reading, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read); DIRT (Daily Individual Reading Time); SQUIRT (Sustained Quiet Un-Interrupted Reading Time), WEB (We Enjoy Books), and USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading). I’m sure there are more. Essentially, SSR is based upon these assumptions:

  • Reading is a skill which improves with practice.
  • Students should be allowed to select their own books to read.
  • SSR should not include instructional accountability.
  • SSR is best accomplished within the classroom with the teacher as a silent reading model.

Now, of course, not every teacher implements the program in the same way; however, even with teacher tweaks, SSR just is not an effective use of class time. Why so? Here are 8 reasons Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.

1. Reading Research Does Not Support SSR

According to the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000), the experimental design studies on SSR indicate no statistically or educationally significant differences between those students who do SSR and those students who do not. Now, to be fair, the reading research does not invalidate SSR. There are just too many variables to isolate and no teacher would ever agree to participate in a study in which a control group of students was not allowed to read.

According to noted reading researcher, Doctor Timothy Shanahan in his August 13, 2017 article:

NRP did conclude that there was no convincing evidence that giving kids free reading time during the school day improved achievement — or did so very much. There has been a lot of work on that since NRP but with pretty much the same findings: either no benefits to that practice or really small benefits (a .05 effect size — which is tiny). Today, NRP would likely conclude that practice is not beneficial rather than that there is insufficient data. But that’s arguable, of course.

Some educational researchers have criticized the findings of the National Reading Panel, arguing that long term correlational studies do suggest that students doing SSR gain more in reading than those who do not. However, correlation does not imply causation.

My take regarding reading research is that we should prioritize our instruction to focus on the instructional strategies that both experimental design and correlational studies support. In other words, let’s teach what works for sure. To devote significant class time to an instructional strategy with a questionable research base should give educators pause, especially when there is an alternative which achieves better results than SSR advocates purport to achieve.

2. There is Not Enough Class Time for SSR

There just are not enough minutes in the day to achieve the results desired by proponents of SSR. For example, to achieve year to year vocabulary growth, elementary students need to read a minimum of one million pages; secondary students need to read a minimum of two million pages. Do the math. Many secondary teachers only have four hours of class time per week. No conscientious secondary teacher would allot half of instructional time to SSR. True that many students read in other content classes and some outside of school, but also true that with normal instructional interruptions there are many weeks with less than four hours of class time. In other words, an hour of SSR per week is just not going to make much of a dent in the amount of independent reading that students need to achieve significant reading growth. The “some is better than none” response is just not acceptable.

Additionally, all instruction is reductive: teachers cannot add on without taking away. Should elementary teachers give up teaching science or social studies to add on SSR? Of course not. Furthermore, with the increasing rigor of the language and writing strands of the ELA/Reading Common Core State Standards, both elementary and secondary teachers will be hard-pressed to teach the grade level standards and differentiate instruction as mandated.

3. Free Choice Reading in SSR Does Not Maximize Reading Development

Free choice reading is an essential tenet of SSR proponents. However motivating self-selected reading may be, there are significant downsides. Students often choose books with reading levels far below or far above own their reading levels and so do not experience optimal reading growth. Most reading experts suggest a 95-98% word recognition level as being necessary for comprehensible input and vocabulary acquisition. To be crass, allowing students to choose their own reading material, without any guidance, lets the lunatics be in charge of the asylum.

4. SSR is Not Teaching

Yes, incidental learning does take place when students are in engaged in SSR. Some SSR advocates go so far as to claim that “Free reading appears to be the source of much of our reading ability, our writing style, much of our vocabulary knowledge, our spelling ability, and our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions (Krashen, 1993; Elley, 1991, 1998).

However, having a credentialed teacher model silent reading while 36 students choose to read or not read independently does not avail students of that teacher’s expertise. It’s not a question of which is better: a teacher-centered or student centered classroom. It’s an issue of educational priorities, efficiency, and effectiveness. SSR devolves the responsibilities and applications of reading strategies, comprehension or vocabulary development, and literary analysis to children. I’m not saying a teacher should exclusively assume the role of “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side,” should guide, not merely model.

Additionally, SSR is not appropriate for all students. SSR does not magically differentiate instruction. For example, some students (even secondary learners) need oral fluency practice, not independent silent reading. Other students already read extensively at home and do not need more independent reading time.

5. SSR Does Not Hold Students Accountable for Reading

Reading researchers Von Sprecken and Krashen concluded that children were more likely to read during SSR when certain conditions were in place: When there was access to interesting reading in the classroom and students are not required to bring their own reading material, when teachers read while students are reading, and when teachers made efforts to promote and discuss certain books the researchers found that 90% of students were reading. Even in a class in which none of these conditions were met, however, Debra Von Sprecken and Stephen Krashen found that 80% of the students were reading when observed. (California Reader, 1998, 32(1): 11-13) Not many teachers I know would be satisfied with a classroom instructional strategy in which from 4 to 9 of their 36 students (10-20%) did not participate.

It is true that many teachers “band-aid” this component of SSR and both the International Reading Association and important reading researchers part ways with SSR purists with regard to accountability. For example, Fountas and Pinnell suggest keeping records on student reading (2001). Nancy Atwell’s Reading Workshop includes the following: “monitoring the type and the number of books students read; they may also administer assessments, keep reading checklists, and ask questions or encourage student discussion about books.” (Atwell, 2007; Gambrell, 2007; Reutzel, Jones, Fawson, & Smith, 2008). Manning and Manning (1984) found that coupling SSR with peer discussions or teacher conferences led to improvements in reading achievement compared to a control group.” But these “band aids” avoid the fact that SSR necessitates such tweaking to even approach meaningful reading instruction.

6. SSR Provides No Opportunity for Reader Response

SSR is designed as a solitary activity. It is true that we want to equip our students to learn the discipline and enjoyment of the author-reader interaction. However, the simplistic notion that reading makes better readers ignores the fact that better reading makes even better readers. Reader response is critically important to making students better readers.

Students can be trained to become better monitors of their silent reading. Teacher think-alouds, reading journals, and comprehension starters such as the SCRIP comprehension strategies can encourage self-monitoring of reading text. SSR ignores the reading-writing connection. Plot diagrams, character webs, and comprehension questions aren’t just for teaching class novels. Narrative and essay response the same. The social context of reading development to build vocabulary and comprehension has been well-established both in research and practice. Social engagement increases reading motivation and accountability. Classroom reading discussions, literature circles, readers theater, book clubs, book reviews, and online discussion forums can be powerful motivators to encourage wide and thoughtful reading. Now for teachers thinking, “But we can have our cake and eat it, too” with SSR and Reader Response, I kindly suggest leaving the hypothetical and engaging the practical. See #2 above.

7. SSR Turns Recreational Reading into a School Thing

SSR advocates are keen on stressing how SSR is essential at their school because students do not have optimal environmental reading conditions at home or a lack of engaging books to choose from, or the distractions of video games-cell phones-family, et al. However, the fact that SSR in the classroom removes these distractions (highly debatable) sends a message and provides reading habits that require a structured school environment for independent reading. No teacher that I know takes the Free Voluntary Reading to mean “you can read if you want or not if you don’t want to,” whether the teacher enforces accountability procedures or not. Let’s face it. SSR is coercive and required in a contrived setting—hardly the conditions that will transfer to recreational reading out of the classroom. If our end goal is to get students to become lifelong independent readers outside of the school experience, shouldn’t we teachers work toward that end?

8. SSR Gives Up on Students, Peers, and Parents

To work toward the complementary goals of using class time to provide research-based reading instruction (#1, #4, #6) and assigning significant independent reading practice (#2, #3, #5, #7), I advocate abandoning classroom SSR and assigning independent reading as homework. “But they won’t do it. Students will not read for homework.” I have a different view and experience. Students will do independent reading as homework if a motivated teacher provides the leadership, appropriate carrots and sticks, gets parents to buy-in, and has the perseverance to ensure success.

Independent Reading Text Selection

Students choose any reading text that meets these criteria:

The motivational component of self-selection remains, but with appropriate oversight to ensure optimal reader-novel matches.

Independent Reading Accountability

But, how can teachers get students to read at home? How can teachers ensure that students really are reading? I require thirty minutes of reading and three minutes of discussion, four times per week. Student reading is monitored by reading partners, who also grade the quality of the student-led reading discussion. Parents typically serve as these partners. Of course, guardians, child care workers, grandparents, and older siblings can serve just as well. For older students, peer partners can certainly fulfill that role. Discussion partners grade the quality of each daily reading discussion, then total the points and sign the Reading-Discussion Log. I collect and record these logs bi-weekly and count this homework as 15% of the student’s overall grade. Do kids or discussion partners cheat on this? Rarely… and not as much as teachers might think.

Advantages of This Model

This reading-discussion model builds relationships, reinforces internal monitoring of comprehension, promotes reading as a dynamic process of conversation among reader, peers, and author, and motivates readers to read more. Reinforcement and feedback is immediate, not delayed as in the case other reader response assignments such as dialectical journals turned in at the end of each week or book reports completed after a novel has been finished. Students are required to apply the reading strategies we learn and practice in the classroom. For example, I pass out reading strategy bookmarks that that help students frame, but not limit, their book discussions.

What Kind of Results Can Teachers Get?

I get similar participation rates 80-90% (compared to the Von Sprecken, Krashen research) at my lower-middle, 70% free and reduced lunch, middle school, but remember that’s for homework, not for classwork. I would guess that the few students who do not do the independent reading at home would be the same ones that would not do the SSR in the Von Sprecken, Krashen study. Both parents and students love my “only homework is reading” policy. Some of my students prefer to participate in online book clubs in lieu of the parental discussion. I require a daily posting and response to other book discussion colleagues. Hunger Games was big with my students this year. Of course, I get to eavesdrop on their discussions.

My results are a bit less than Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller, achieves in terms of books read per year, but I’ve got a lot more time in class to teach other things I value because I don’t use SSR in my classroom.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, 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 multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) 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.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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