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Reading Counts! Claims and Counterclaims

Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts!

AR or RC?

The purpose of this article on Reading Counts! is threefold: 1. To briefly summarize the basics of the Reading Counts! (RC) independent reading management program 2. To analyze three key claims made by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMS) regarding the efficacy of the RC (formerly Scholastic Reading Counts!) program and provide counterclaims by reading researchers, librarians, students, teachers, and Yours Truly. 3. To promote my own reading intervention program at the end of the article with free teaching resources 🙂

Background

I previously ventured into the deep waters of independent reading management programs a number of years ago with my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. Accelerated Reader™ is the most popular independent reading management program with 180,000 book titles (January 2019) assigned a Reading Practice Quiz. RC is the second place challenger with 45,000. Teacher comments on my article tend to focus more on the abuses of the program, and less so on the program itself. Many teachers are quite defensive about their use of the AR program. Understandably so. We teachers view our instructional choices as reflections of our professionalism. Curriculum is personal. In anticipation of similar comments to this article on Reading Counts!, I would like to preemptively respond by saying, “I’m sure that you are doing your part to adapt the Reading Counts! program to the needs of your kids, and I respect your professional judgment that you know your students best.” Please don’t shoot the messenger! However, as I re-read “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader” in preparation for this article, I would have to say that most of the problems in the AR program are applicable to the RC program, as well. I won’t cover the same ground in this article. However, I will analyze three of the claims made in the RC program, which I see as being more exclusive to this program. But first, a brief overview of how the RC program works.

How Reading Counts! Works

  • A school or district pays a school start-up fee of $375.00 and is assigned a sales representative. The RC software management program is licensed for an annual fee of $4.00 per student (a lower price for 2019). The reading placement and monitoring assessment, recently re-named the Reading Inventory (RI), costs an additional $4.00 per student. So, if my math is correct, that’s $4,000.00 for a 500 student elementary school every year. Plus, more money…
  • The school and/or district re-allocate portions of their budgets to purchase books included within the RC program. Currently, RC has about 45,000 titles, but unlike the books in the AR program, the company makes money from each sale, because HMH publishes them! These purchases will necessarily become an every-year budget item. 
  • The HMS sales representative in-services school librarians, teachers, and administrators (lots of online help, as well) on how to implement the RC program. Suggestions as to how to inform and work with parents and corresponding resources are provided. The program resources are relatively easy to use, but time-consuming.
  • The classroom teacher or librarian administers the computer-adaptive Reading Inventory (RI) as a reading placement test to all students participating in the RC program. This test provides a Personal Lexile® score for each student.
  • Teachers use the Student Achievement Manager (SAM) data and management system to generate student and class reports. The reports list the results of the RI as a Personal Lexile® number (level or measure) for each student and a class Lexile average. A higher Lexile number indicates a higher reading level ability.
  • The reports also list the students’ optimal Lexile text readability levels (a numerical range). A text’s Lexile level is determined by its semantic and syntactic degree of difficulty and sentence length. Once students know their reading levels, they can select books from the Search Book Expert Online ,within these reading levels. Although the RC is a Lexile-based program, it also includes grade-level equivalency and guided reading levels in this search engine. Additional filters include grade-level interest (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, high school, and high interest/intervention), fiction and non-fiction, subject areas, genre, and curriculum-integrated books. Note that the HMS reading intervention programs, READ 180 Next Generation® and System 44® include some RC titles for their independent reading rotations.
  • Teachers and students set reading goals in terms of a point system. Each book is assigned a specific point value based upon its length and text complexity. Many teachers establish a monthly points requirement.
  • Once students have finished their books, they take a corresponding quiz on the computer, or the teacher may choose to print the quiz. Although the test bank for each quiz includes 30 items, the default number of questions is 10. The RC authors and sales representatives make much ado about the larger quiz bank of questions compared to that of the AR program. They claim that is less easy for students to cheat due to the randomized 10 question default when students are sitting side-by-side. This may be true; however, a quick search indicated plenty of RC quiz “cheat sites,” as are found with the AR program. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Students are allowed to examine their incorrect responses, but there is no pay-off for doing so if the quiz re-takes use different questions. 
  • If the students achieve a predetermined score (mastery criteria set by the teacher), they receive a “congratulations screen” and an opportunity to rate the book they read on the “Read-o-Meter.” Students can also check their own RC Student Progress Report. Points are awarded based upon the percentage of quiz questions answered correctly. If the students do not achieve mastery, the teacher may require them to read the book again and retest or re-visit the students’ RI Lexile level range and the level and content of the book. Students are able to take the 10-question quiz 3 times, because there are 30 questions.
  • Teachers generate reports on students’ quiz scores and track the amount of reading and student test scores. They can also receive alerts when a student has not taken a quiz within a given period.
  • Once individual student point goals (usually set monthly) have been mastered, the student receives a certificate of achievement.
  • The Reading Counts! Educator’s Guide provides plenty of reproducibles to supplement the quizzes, such as reading logs, story charts, book reports, parent letters (in several languages), and guides for teachers to write their own quizzes (if the school library does not have the RC book).

Claims and Counterclaims

Claim 1: Students improve their reading more when the complexity of the text they read matches their reading ability. The best test to measure that optimal match or zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978)? The HMH Reading Inventory. Why? The RI is a criterion (compared to a fixed goal, such as a Common Core Standard) and norm-referenced (compared to other students) test. This is important because the test design allows teachers to administer the RI twice more within the school year to monitor progress. The Lexiles, which RI uses, have improved readability assessments (standard errors of measurement have been minimized and the amount of comprehension variance that can be explained by text difficulty has been improved. Accelerated Reader’s STAR test doesn’t have those advantages.

Counterclaim: Given that the RI is state of the art, in terms of Lexile levels and matching students to texts, and given that the ability to administer the test three times per year does provide a valid measure to monitor progress. But, the entire design of the RC programs begs the question. It assumes what has yet to be proven. As noted reading researcher, Dr. Tim Shanahan asserts,

…Lexiles have greatly improved readability assessment … and yet we are in no better shape than before since there are no studies indicating that if you teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue. http://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/teaching-books-students-reading-levels

…we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic. Learning to read is an interaction between a learner, a text, and a teacher. Instructional level theory posits that the text difficulty level relative to the student reading level is the important factor in learning. But that ignores the guidance, support, and scaffolding provided by the teacher. [In doing so, educators] have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support. https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/rejecting-instructional-level-theory

Matching the right books to readers is simply more complex than the quantitative Lexile approach RC uses. Content, theme, and sophistication of thought matter, as well as the age and maturity of the reader are critically important factors to consider when students select books for independent reading. Most would find the following strictly quantitative Lexile measurements, listed in parentheses, to be inappropriate criteria for these grade levels.

  • 2nd Grade: Night – Wiesel (570)
  • 3rd Grade: The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway (610); Twisted – Anderson (680); Incarceron – Fisher (600)
  • 4th Grade: Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck (680); The Color Purple – Walker (670)
  • 5th Grade: For Whom the Bell Tolls – Hemingway (840); Kite Runner – Hosseini (840); A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway (730); Cat’s Cradle – Vonnegut (790)
  • 6th Grade: As I Lay Dying – Faulkner (870); The Sound and the Fury – Faulkner (870); To Kill a Mockingbird – Lee (870); Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury (890)

http://www.unleashingreaders.com/?p=8891

Additionally, the authors of the Common Core State Standards, with their emphases on text complexity, specifically challenge the notion that reading instruction should focus solely on texts at student ability levels. The authors cite research suggesting that with such scaffolds as close reading, even struggling readers can access significantly more complex text than that to which they have been traditionally given access. https://achievethecore.org/content/upload/Implementation%20-%20Issues%20With%20a%20Leveled-Only%20Text%20Approach[1].pdf

“Below are bibliographic citations for the 26 studies referenced in Shanahan (2014) regarding students making gains with more complex text when given appropriate scaffolding. In addition abstracts and full-text PDF’s of all studies are available as well. These references were provided by Shanahan in “Building Up To FrustrationLevel Text” in Reading Today Online available here:”

https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-daily/2014/09/02/building-up-to-frustration-level-text

Furthermore, reading research has repeatedly demonstrated the important variable of prior knowledge with respect to reading comprehension. When readers have significant prior knowledge on a topic, familiarity with the genre, or experience with the author’s writing style, even high Lexile level texts can be accessible. Prior knowledge and scaffolding relevant content and context can often trump the quantitative challenges of complex semantic and syntactic text for students.

Motivation is another significant variable in matching readers to text that can override the limitations of the RC Lexile levels. My youngest son was in 4th grade when the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. Clearly, the quantitative Lexile level of 880 should have prevented his MA reading specialist father (me) from purchasing this “frustration level” book. Instead, I dutifully ignored the quantitative data and waited in line with my fourth grader for the midnight release of this treasured book. My son plowed through the book with a high level of comprehension. By the end of fourth grade, my son was reading significantly above grade level. Thanks to motivational influence of J.K. Rowling and the dozens of peers who were concurrently reading and discussion that book during recess.

Others would agree that reader motivation is far more important than instructional reading levels in book selection. From Ricki Ginsberg’s article, “This is my Anti-Lexile, Anti-Reading Level Post” (Ginsberg is Assistant Professor of English Education at Colorado State University):

I’m a 6th grader and when I took a Lexile test for my grade, I got stuck with books I hate so much. We had to search for books in my Lexile. I am so bored of those books. I want to read whatever I want to.

I took my grandson (a few years ago) to his book fair to purchase some books with him. He chose a few, and then we went back to his classroom to get his things, where I met his teacher. She took a look at the books he had chosen, and was excited about, and said, “Oh, I think these are too hard for you. You need to choose ones more at your level.” She didn’t know that I was a teacher, and I didn’t tell her. I almost hit her, but I didn’t do that either. She was the one who pretty much stopped his excitement about reading…

As a librarian, I have fought for years against leveling books. I was supported my district years ago against AR, but my job as a librarian was shifted to support classroom curriculum instead of supporting reading enjoyment, reference process, and library skills. Now a new deputy superintendent, whose old District used a Lexile based reading program, is spending money on a program that is Lexile leveled. While library books are hardly given any budget money, tens of thousands are being spent… The skills that teachers built by learning how to “fit” a book to a student and teaching students to self-select challenging and interesting reading material is being prostituted to paying publishers for poorly written formulaic books dressed up with attractive level numbers. It is a disservice to our students that ultimately destroys their confidence in becoming independent readers.

Unshelved

Used with permission www.unshelved.com

Claim 2: RC provides the accountability to ensure that students are reading independently.

At the heart of this powerful program is the practice provided by its quizzes. Unlike other reading assessment programs, no two quizzes in Reading Counts! are the same, struggling readers have the opportunity to retake quizzes, and quiz settings can be customized based on individual students’ needs for extra support or challenge. This quiz quality leads to more accurate and actionable data to keep students on track for success.

[Reading Counts!] automatically generates a quiz that meets each student’s reading needs. Because every quiz provides a true formative, curriculum-based assessment, As a computer-based program, RC provides immediate feedback and unique opportunities for mastery. Students can review questions that were incorrectly answered. Because each quiz is drawn from a database of up to 30 questions, students not showing an expected level of mastery can retake quizzes with a different set of questions. Research shows that when students are provided with immediate feedback, they are able to self-correct and make academic progress (Branford, Goldman & Vye 1991). https://www.hmhco.com/programs/reading-counts

Counterclaim: While the reading research is clear that students who read independently are significantly more likely to outperform peers who do not read on their own (Anderson, Wilson & Fielding 1998), and those who read more independently score higher on reading tests compared to those who read less (Juel, 1988; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; Stanovich, 1986), the research does not support the claim of the RC authors and editorial board that the type of accountability that the program uses (quizzes) is necessary to achieve optimal reading gains.

Each of the 45,000 RC quizzes includes a test bank of 30 questions. They are primarily recall questions with some vocabulary and a minimum number of inferential questions. Few of the questions are relevant to the big ideas or themes of the corresponding books. In essence, the quizzes are designed to hold students accountable for reading their books.

Some researchers such as Dr. Stephen Krashen, argue that free voluntary reading, without accountability, produces greater reading gains than independent reading programs with accountability, as with the quizzes in the RC program. You may wish to check out my dialogue with Dr. Krashen on in-class independent reading and accountability. I disagree with Dr. Krashen and support independent reading with accountability.

My take is that we teachers have much better methods to hold students accountable for independent reading that also reinforce effective reading practice. For example, as a middle school teacher, I use online peer book clubs and student-parent discussions for my middle school students. I’ve also taught high school ELA and supervised elementary teachers doing the same. Plenty of accountability and practice, using the motivating social nature of reading. And no in-class independent reading. It’s all homework. I’m no guru, but I’m persistent, and I get between 80–90% participation (more the first semester than the last).

I teach students and their parents how to self-select reading, informed, but not limited by word recognition measures. However, challenging books need not be the only books students read. Reading at multiple levels has clear advantages and reflects real-world reading. I also train students how to discuss their reading in their online book clubs with their peers (one daily post and two comments required using the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks… download follows… to prompt), and I pop in to add my 2 cents. At Back-to-School Night (I require at least one family member to attend, and arrange infinite make-up sessions until I meet with every parent or guardian), I train adults how to hold 3-minute student-led reading discussions and parents assign points for their kid’s 5-days-per-week independent reading and discussion. I’m in a lower, poverty-challenged school with 75% free and reduced lunch, multi-ethnic, multi-languages, etc. If you have tricks up your sleeves to hold students accountable for reading that don’t require additional teacher correction or huge amounts of time, please add to the comments section of this post. At the end of this article, I link to a nicely organized list of articles and free resources for ELA and reading intervention teachers with quite a few more ideas on independent reading.

In the RC program, the SAM management system tracks individual and class quiz scores and also the number of words students have read in each book. If a student doesn’t pass the quiz after three attempts, she or he loses credit for having read the book. This means that the number of words the student has read is not tallied, and the student doesn’t receive a reward certificate as quickly. If it’s the independent reading that reinforces comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, and fluency, why doesn’t the student receive credit for doing so? The bottom line is that students receive positive reinforcement for mastering quizzes, not for reading. Reading is not rewarded; passing the quizzes is.

Claim 3: RC EMPOWERS educators with reports and actionable data at the student, school and district level. As a supplementary reading program, RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills. 

Counterclaims: The reports do provide information to the teacher regarding who read what, at what Lexile levels, how many pages read, what quiz scores were achieved, who hasn’t taken a quiz for awhile (alerts), and more. Plenty of information about what your students are and are not doing with respect to their independent reading. All interesting information, but information which takes time to input, analyze, and report (whoever says that technology is a time-saver is crazy); and information which RI administrators (like your principal) can access and compare to that of your colleagues. Although not advocated by the authors of the RC program, most teachers do use this data in various ways to provide incentives for participation in terms of rewards and/or grades. Of course, the incentives can become problematic. See my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader for examples. In short, the SAM reports do provide data collection and management functions (ones which could be done by paper and pencil or a simple Excel® spreadsheet in less time at no cost); however, none of these data informs reading instruction.

Next, let’s take a look at the claim about empowering educators with actionable data. Remember, the two assessments of the RC program are the three-times per year, Lexile-based HMH Reading Inventory (used for initial placement and subsequent progress monitoring) and the 45,000 quizzes. To my mind, actionable data should mean teachable data derived from prescriptive assessments that are reliable and valid. Let’s examine whether these two assessments provide information which is teachable.

For example, let’s say the students in your class take the RI during the first week of school. One of your bright students, Amanda, scores an above grade-level Personal Lexile score of 700, while  your class average is 550. With the SAM management software, you are able to use that data to match readers to books. However, other than that use (which we’ve already shown to be of questionable value), those initial RI Lexile scores provide no data to inform our reading instruction. On the RI given 3 months later, Amanda improves to a 750 and her average quiz scores from 80–90%, but your class averages the same 550 Lexile level and has not improved its 70% quiz average.

What does that data indicate? Something appears to be helping Amanda improve her reading, but we have no idea what it is. It could be the RC program; it could be the independent reading, itself; it could be the reading instruction you are doing in class, though you may not know exactly what instruction is helping; it could be what her parents are doing at home. Regarding your class, average Lexile and quiz scores, something appears not to be working. But what is the something so we can do something about it? We don’t know. You could look at subgroups and find out that your girls have improved more than your boys, or one ethnic group over the other, etc. But how does the Lexile and quiz data inform our instruction? The short answer? It doesn’t. The RI and quizzes provide no information about which reading skills have not yet been mastered and which have been mastered by Amanda or class as a whole. Neither assessment offers the teacher any specific data regarding what to teach and what not to teach. So why test if it does not provide actionable data?

A good question. Of course, teachers have been creating diagnostic and formative assessments for years that do inform their reading instruction in specific sub-skills. Good teachers are more than willing to test when the data pinpoints what needs to be taught and practiced and what does not require repeated instruction. Like many teachers, I’ve developed my own assessments to inform my instruction. I’ve written and field tested 13 diagnostic reading assessments with recording matrices and audio files, which provide teachable data. I provide them free of charge to help your students, and because some teachers would prefer not to re-invent the wheel by creating their teaching resources to correspond to each assessment item. Yes, you can buy those instructional resources from Pennington Publishing. Simply click the link and look in the header to download and print the free assessments. Additionally, skim the Articles and Resources to find over 700 articles of interest to the ELA and reading teacher, including a slew of articles on how to create your own no-cost independent reading program that I think does a better job for students than either the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! programs.

Both the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! program authors are careful to label their independent reading management programs as supplementary programs, as they should. However, as every teacher knows, instructional time is reductive: if you add on this, you have to take away that. Because both programs are designed for in-class and home practice, AR and RC supplant other instruction, most always reading instruction. Accepting at face value the RC claim that RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills, my question to teachers would be… Which would help your students improve their reading more? REINFORCING or TEACHING? Feel free to download my SCRIP Comprehension Strategies TEACHING resource at the end of this article as a reward for slogging through this rather long diatribe. I look forward to your comments.

*****

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE. 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. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Check out the quality of these programs with a resource which works for both grade-level and struggling readers to improve internal monitoring of reading: 

These five FREE lessons will help you teach the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies for both grade-level and struggling readers. This FREE download is sent safe and secure to your email, and includes a set of SCRIP Posters and Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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r-controlled Vowels for Big Kids

r-controlled Vowels

The r-controlled Vowels

Although r, l, and w do control (change from the usual) the vowel sounds, most phonics programs only include the r-controlled vowels. I agree with this approach. Try watching an l-controlled or w-controlled video lesson on YouTube and your head will start spinning. Much better to include the l-controlled vowels in the context of other sounds, such as the /aw/ diphthong for “al” and “all” and the schwa for the “_le” word parts. The w-controlled vowels are so crazy that they are most-easily learned as outlaw words (sight words). I do recommend showing two w-controlled vowels patterns via spelling sorts: the war /or/ as in warm and the wor /er/ as in word. Most speech therapists agree with this balanced approach, and they are the sounds experts.

Following is the explicit, systematic approach to phonics acquisition via small group workshops from my reading intervention program. Download the entire set of r-controlled vowel lessons and assessment at the end of the article. Plus, get the complete set of FREE diagnostic 13 reading assessments to see which of your BIG KIDS need help with which phonics elements.

How to Teach r-Controlled Vowels

The r-controlled vowels of ar, er, and ir.

The r-controlled Vowels

Introductory Definition: When an r follows a vowel, the r changes the sound that the vowel makes. The vowel is called an r-controlled vowel. Sometimes teachers refer to the r as the “bossy r” because the r “bosses” the vowel to make the vowel change its sound.

On our animal sound-spelling cards, the names of each card: ermine, armadillo, and orca each have an r which controls the vowel sounds. Examples: /er/ as in her, /ar/ as in car, and /or/ as in for. The /er/ ermine has three different spellings, which can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a syllable.

Teaching Tips

To teach phonics to big kids and adults, we have to teach differently than when we teach phonics to beginning readers. Your big kids and adults are smarter and have more life experience than pre-K, kinder, or first graders. They can catch on quickly if taught properly. Intervention students have “heard it all before.” They just haven’t learned all of it.

I suggest a four-pronged approach to teaching r-controlled vowels to your reading intervention students:

1. Use the animal sound-spelling cards (provided for you in a FREE five-lesson long vowels download at the end of this article) to teach the names, sounds, and spellings in isolation.

2. Teach whole-class sound-by-sound spelling blending for all of the r-controlled vowel spellings. Use a hurried pace, but blend every day until each has been mastered. Reinforce with games, using the diphthong cards to blend with the consonant and consonant blend cards.

3. Diagnose and gap-fill. If we use effective, comprehensive diagnostic assessments to determine what students know and don’t know and target instruction accordingly, students will much more likely buy-in to this individualized instruction (even when you use groups). Want my FREE 13 reading assessments, used by hundreds (or more) teachers to teach assessment-based gap-filling? BTW… the two phonics tests have audio files dictated by Yours Truly!

4. Use targeted practice to do the gap-filling and make sure your students have mastered the diphthongs through formative assessment. The FREE five-lesson download includes a short formative assessment. Be willing and able to re-teach if they don’t get it. After all, reading intervention is all about learning, not teaching.

Get the The r-controlled Vowels Lessons and Assessment FREE Resource:

Or… why not buy all the phonics lessons and more?

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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activities, phonics 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.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

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Diphthongs for Big Kids

Teaching Diphthongs

Diphthongs RtI

Response to intervention reading teachers know that phonics instruction is critically important to fill in the gaps for older readers. Teachers use a variety of approaches to determine which phonics skills are missing from older students’ reading strategies. Diphthongs are quite often among these phonics deficits. Some teachers favor an implicit approach to discover these gaps, such as guided reading running records. Other teachers favor an explicit approach to this data via phonics assessments. I tend to be a broad-brush, cover all the angles kind of reading specialist with a balanced approach to reading intervention. What works for some kids doesn’t necessarily work for all kids.

Assessment

My Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books provide 54 custom running records and word fluency practice to allow teachers to discover reading deficits through reading, i.e. the implicit approach. My Vowel Sounds and Consonant Sounds Phonics Assessments provide the explicit approach to diagnose phonics deficits.

Instruction and Practice

The assessment-based instruction and practice in my comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program uses the implicit and explicit approaches as well. With the modeled expository reading fluencies (129 YouTube videos a 3 speeds) and connected comprehension worksheets, there are plenty of learn to read by reading practice activities. Additionally, the systematic and explicit sound-spellings blending, syllabication worksheets, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, and phonics workshops ensure that the reading intervention is targeted to assessment-based, identified student needs. As a sample of this program, a full set of five diphthong workshop lessons with a formative assessment is provided absolutely FREE at the end of this article.

A Balanced Approach to Reading Intervention

Older kids who didn’t get (or never got) phonics instruction the first time around deserve the assessments and practice that will ensure mastery this time. And, as an aside, my assessments and practice for word identification and recognition are balanced as well. In addition to five phonemic awareness assessments (and corresponding activities), the program also includes sight word, rimes (word families), and word part (syllable), assessments and activities.

Again, a multi-pronged approach is needed for the diverse student populations in any reading intervention class at any age. I’ve taught remedial reading and supervised reading programs for elementary, middle school, high school and community college. I’m here to say that reading intervention teachers have to be equipped to teach how students learn and that different approaches are necessary. As a further aside, I’m not talking about learning styles, multiple intelligences, or different modalities; I’m simply talking about varied approaches to reading instruction.

Following is the explicit, systematic approach to phonics acquisition via small group workshops from my reading intervention program. Download the entire set of diphthong lessons and assessment at the end of the article.

How to Teach Diphthongs

Introductory Definition: Unlike vowel digraphs, which say one sound, such as with “ai” as in train, a diphthong says two sounds, such as with “aw” in hawk.

On our animal sound-spelling cards, the names of each card: rooster, woodpecker, cow, koi, and hawk each use two vowel sounds. The diphthongs are written in purple on the cards with slashes (/) before and after to remind us that the diphthongs are sounds, not letters.

Each diphthong has more than one spelling. The most common spellings are listed below the names of the cards. A blank means that a consonant must go in there. A consonant is a different sound than a vowel and can be spelled with one or more letters.

Teaching Tips

To teach phonics to big kids and adults, we have to teach differently than when we teach phonics to beginning readers. Your big kids and adults are smarter and have more life experience than pre-K, kinder, or first graders. They can catch on quickly if taught properly. Intervention students have “heard it all before.” They just haven’t learned all of it.

I suggest a four-pronged approach to teaching diphthongs to your reading intervention students:

1. Use the animal sound-spelling cards (provided for you in a FREE five-lesson long vowels download at the end of this article) to teach the names, sounds, and spellings in isolation.

2. Teach whole-class sound-by-sound spelling blending for all of the diphthong spellings. Use a hurried pace, but blend every day until each has been mastered. Reinforce with games, using the diphthong cards to blend with the consonant and consonant blend cards.

3. Diagnose and gap-fill. If we use effective, comprehensive diagnostic assessments to determine what students know and don’t know and target instruction accordingly, students will much more likely buy-in to this individualized instruction (even when you use groups). Want my FREE 13 reading assessments, used by hundreds (or more) teachers to teach assessment-based gap-filling? BTW… the two phonics tests have audio files dictated by Yours Truly!

4. Use targeted practice to do the gap-filling and make sure your students have mastered the diphthongs through formative assessment. The FREE five-lesson download includes a short formative assessment. Be willing and able to re-teach if they don’t get it. After all, reading intervention is all about learning, not teaching.

Get the Diphthongs Phonics Workshop FREE Resource:

Or… why not buy all the phonics lessons and more?

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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activities, phonics 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.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mastery Learning in RtI

Foundation of Mastery Learning

Fix the Foundation with Mastery Learning

I just finished watching a TED TALK by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. Sal was talking about mastery learning and the importance of building strong learning foundations before layering on additional information.

As I watched the video, I was thinking about why a stubborn 25% of most students in the upper elementary, middle, and high schools are reading two or more years below grade level.

Sal cites the example of a child who scores an average grade of 75% on a unit test. Most educators would accept 75% as an average score, and in fact most diagnostic assessments would accept 75—80% as mastery level; however, Sal points out the not knowing 25% of the test components is problematic. From the student’s perspective: “I didn’t know 25% of the foundational thing, and now I’m being pushed to the more advanced thing.”

When students try to learn something new that builds upon these shaky foundations, “they hit a wall… and “become disengaged.”

Sal likens the lack of mastery learning to shoddy home construction. What potential homeowner would be happy to buy a new home that has only 75% of its foundation completed (a C), or even 95% (an A)?

Of course, Sal is a math guy and math lends itself to sequential mastery learning more so than does my field of English-language arts and reading intervention. My content area tends to have a mix of sequential and cyclical teaching learning, as reflected in the structure of the Common Core State Standards. The author of the School Improvement Network site puts it nicely:

Many teachers view their work from a lens that acknowledges the cyclical nature of teaching and learning.  This teaching and learning cycle guides the definition of learning targets, the design of instructional delivery, the creation and administration of assessments and the selection of targeted interventions in response to individual student needs.

At this point, our article begins to beg the question: What if a shaky foundation is what we’re dealing with now? We can’t do anything about the past. Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we’re stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. All-too-often, response to intervention teachers are ignoring shaky foundations and are trying to layer on survival skills without fixing the real problems.

Instead, teachers should re-build the foundation. Teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps… this time with mastery learning.

I’m Mark Pennington, author of the reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies with the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. A key component of the program is our 13 diagnostic reading assessments. These comprehensive and prescriptive assessments will help response to intervention reading teachers find out specifically which reading and spelling deficits have created a shaky foundation for each of your students. I gladly share these FREE Reading Assessments with teachers and welcome your comments and questions.

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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activities, phonics 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.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

“This is just what I need! I have been searching for a resource to help my middle school SPED kiddos catch up to their peers and I can’t wait to implement this incredible product in my classroom!!!” Rating: 4.0

Elizabeth Lewis

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fluency Assessment Problems

The Problem with Reading Fluency Assessments

The Problems with Fluency Assessments

The heart of effective reading intervention, whether in a comprehensive Response to Intervention (RtI) program, individual remedial reading classes, reading tutoring, or in-class literacy centers, guided reading, readers workshop, etc. is assessment-based instruction. The devil is in the details, especially with respect to the diagnostic (and placement) reading assessments. This article focuses on reading fluency assessments.

Background

As a reading specialist, I’ve worn three different hats in four different grade-level settings. My first hat has been worn as a district trainer of trainers and professional development instructor for elementary, middle, and high school teachers. My second hat has been worn as a site-level reading program diagnostician and supervisor at the eight elementary schools and one high school. My third hat has been worn as a reading intervention teacher in grades 4–6 elementary, grade 7 middle school, grade 9 high school, and the reading lab at a community college.

What I Learned

After earning my M.A. as a reading specialist, I began my three-hat, four grade-level setting career. I quickly learned that my grad school experience provided the theoretical framework, but not the tools (specifically the assessment tools) to ply my trade. As I learned and developed those assessment tools in the real world of teachers and their classrooms, I found that teachers were more than willing to try some new tools, but the tools had to be on their terms and conditions. 

Teacher Terms and Conditions

1. Minimal expenditure of assessment time including testing, correction, data recording, data analysis, progress monitoring, and grade-level or school-wide meetings.

2. Minimal expense for testing tools. Teachers prefer spending school and personal money on teaching, not testing, resources. After all, teachers got into the business to teach, not to test.

3. Teachable assessment tools. Teachers love meaningful and simple test data, but only quantitative data. Teachers don’t like the random sample tests that university professors produce. Teachers prefer comprehensive test data which identify learning gaps that teachers can tackle in their instruction. 

4. No evaluations based upon progress monitoring. Teachers are at different places on their learning curves and are teaching uncontrolled variables, that is their students, with behavioral issues, language challenges, soci0-economic issues, and school structures, such as time allotments for reading instruction, training, supplies, and administrative support.

I started making an impact on teachers and on my struggling readers when I accepted and applied these conditional terms for assessment-based instruction.

Brief Critique of Popular Fluency Assessments

To my mind, the most popular fluency assessment programs fail to meet some or all of these teacher terms and conditions: Dibels, aimsweb, and Read Naturally®. Their products are 1. Time-consuming 2. Expensive (Dibels being a partial exception) 3. Not simple, nor teachable (explanation follows) and 4. Too-amenable to evaluation of teachers, rather than their students.

The two aims of these diagnostic reading fluency assessments are to determine baseline data with regard to grade-level fluency scores and to establish a subsequent instructional fluency level to provide practice at the student’s proximal zone of development (Vygotsky). In other words, find out how the student compares to other grade-level reading fluency norms and figure out the reading levels that provide the optimal practice.

Sounds great in theory; however, I have doubts (as do most teachers) about the validity and practicality of these approaches to diagnostic fluency assessment. First, giving a grade-level fluency passage to a struggling reader introduces too many variables: vocabulary, multi-syllabic decoding, sentence length and construction to name a few. True that a sixth grader reading a sixth grade passage at 65 WCPM (words correct per minute) does have reading problems. However, to say that the data indicates a reading fluency deficiency is an over-reach and useless as a teachable tool for the teacher.

Jan Hasbrouk, co-author of the widely-used grades 1–8 fluency norms research labels diagnostic reading fluency assessments as a “canary in a coal mine.” She comments:

A score falling more than 10 words below the 50th percentile should raise a concern; the student may need additional assistance, and further assessments may be needed to diagnose the source of the below-average performance. Depending on the age of the student and any concerns about reading performance noted by the teacher or parents, such additional testing might include assessments of oral language development, phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, and/or comprehension (Hasbrouk).

I would agree that a diagnostic reading fluency assessment can be an important “canary,” but not a grade-level fluency.

Secondly, the time-consuming (even with computer software) task of determining the right fluency practice levels rests on some unproven assumptions. Since when does practicing the same thing (grade-level passages) over and over again (even at so-called challenge levels) prepare the student for something more difficult (the next reading grade level)? For example, if I asked my math specialist friend about how she would remediate students’ multiplication deficits, I sincerely doubt if she would advise a third grade teacher to solely require students to practice the 1–5’s repeatedly (even with the challenging 4 x 5) until mastery before moving on to the 1–10’s. At some point the teacher needs to help students practice the next level before or they never are going to get to the rest of the table, nor make sense of the whole.

As an aside, the same criticism and caution can be applied to the use of leveled readers. Controlled vocabulary may provide a certain level of access to students, but it also limits progress. Plus, don’t even get me (and other teachers) started about the scientific differences (Lexiles) for short fluency practice passages. Lastly, my take is that expository diagnostic reading fluency assessments present a much better picture of the reading most grades 3–adult students are exposed to in the classroom.

An Alternative Diagnostic Fluency Assessment

The Pets Fluency Assessment: 1. Quick 2. FREE 3. Simple and Teachable 4. Non-Evaluative Expository Article

The “Pets” fluency passage is an expository article leveled in a unique pyramid design: the first paragraph is at the first grade (Fleish-Kincaid) reading level; the second paragraph is at the second-grade level; the third paragraph is at the third-grade level; the fourth paragraph is at the fourth grade level; the fifth paragraph is at the fifth grade level; the sixth paragraph is at the sixth grade level; and the seventh paragraph is at the seventh grade level. Thus, the reader begins practice at an easier level that builds confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language through successive approximation. As the student reads the fluency passage, the teacher will be able to note the reading levels at which the student has a high degree of accuracy and automaticity.

1. Quick: Although two-minutes, rather than the traditional one-minute, no follow-up instructional level assessments need to be administered, graded, and recorded. Experienced teachers recognize that two minutes provides a much better indicator than a one-minute timing. One itch or word stumble can ruin a one-minute score.

2. FREE: Click below and I will send you the directions, student copy, and teacher copy with word counts.

3. SIMPLE: When I look at the directions for the popular reading fluency assessments critiqued above, I am shocked at the grading complexity. I’ve used them and find them difficult to mark while concurrently paying attention to the students’ prosody (qualitative factors such as expression, intonation, attention to punctuation). The directions for the Pets Fluency Assessment are simple. Para-professionals and parents can certainly administer this assessment with fidelity.

TEACHABLE: The  two-minute timing allow teachers to see how students read increasingly difficult text and to gain a good gut level feel for the students’ independent reading levels, as well as other reading deficits, such as sight words and phonics. After all, there’s no better reading assessment than reading.

4. Non-Evaluative: The Pets Fluency Assessment is diagnostic and teachable. It’s design is one and done. Teachers rightly complain that other fluency programs using increasingly difficult benchmark reading fluencies (typically monthly or quarterly), compare apples to oranges. If the teacher (administrator or parent or reading coach) is curious about reading progress, the reading sub-skills to fluency (such as decoding) are much better indicators.

Check out the author’s reading intervention program resources, including the Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit. 

The Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit

Reading Fluency and Comprehension Toolkit

Of course the toolkit provides the Pets Fluency Assessment… plus 43 expository animal fluency articles, each marked with words per line to help students monitor their own fluency progress. At last! Quality fluency practice in the expository (not narrative) genre. Reading experts agree that students need extensive reading practice in the expository domain to internalize the text structure and multi-syllabic vocabulary of social studies and science textbooks. Not to mention the expository articles found on standardized tests. Yes, fluency timing charts are provided. Plus, each of the 43 fluency articles has been recorded at three different reading speeds to provide the appropriate challenge level for each of your students. This toolkit provides the YouTube links to these 129 modeled readings.

This toolkit also provides 43 corresponding animal comprehension worksheets with content-specific comprehension questions listed in the margins next to the relevant text. These low-higher order thinking questions ask readers to summarize, connect, re-think, interpret, and predict (the SCRIP comprehension strategy) to promote reader dialog with the text. Students practice self-monitoring their own reading comprehension as they read.

Get the Pets Fluency Assessment FREE Resource:

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Reading Fluency Norms

New Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms

As we all know, reading fluency is highly correlated with reading comprehension. Of course it makes so much sense that if readers can read quickly with expression, accuracy, and attention to punctuation, they will more likely understand what they read than if they don’t have these skill sets. Now it is certainly true that veteran teachers and reading specialists will no doubt have run across an exception or two in their careers. I have tested children and adults with brilliant reading fluency, but poor comprehension. Conversely, I have run across slow, stumbling, readers with monotone expression who seem to understand and remember every single detail.

This being said, reading fluency assessments are universally recognized as important initial looks into how a reader processes text. Unlike other measures, such as comprehension and vocabulary assessments, reading fluency assessments give the classroom teacher and diagnostician not only qualitative, but also quantitative data. We love numbers!

As an elementary reading specialist in a large school district in Northern California, I learned (with my colleagues) the value of comparing student fluency scores in grade-level text to grade-level norms. We had two research studies on group norms for Words Read per Minute (WRPM) to rely upon: those by University of Oregon researchers, Hasbrouck and Tindal (1992, 2006). However, these studies provided data for students from grades 2–5.

When I moved into the middle school setting as an ELA and reading intervention teacher, I (and others) was tough out of luck. No group norms for grades 6–8. Of course, I still designed reading fluency assessments and helped students practice reading fluency, but I was flying blind. Until 2006 when the same two researchers added on grades 6–8 reading fluency norms. Woo hoo!

The same two researchers, Hasbrouck and Tindal, have now (2017) have replicated their initial study for grades 1–6. Following is the latest data, i.e. 2017 for grades 1–6 and 2006 for 6–8. Afterwards, read the concise explanation of the tables by Jan Hasbrouck. Note the “middle school slump” in the second chart.

Grades 1-6 Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms Grades 1-6

Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies Comprehensive Reading Intervention Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grades 7-8 Reading Fluency Norms

Reading Fluency Norms Grades 7-8

 

 

 

 

 

“Oral reading fluency norms identify performance benchmarks at the beginning (fall), middle (winter), and end (spring) of the year. An individual student’s WCPM score can be compared to these benchmarks and determined to be either significantly above benchmark, above benchmark, at the expected benchmark, below benchmark, or significantly below benchmark. Those students below or significantly below benchmark are at possible risk of reading difficulties. They are good candidates for further diagnostic assessments to help teachers determine their skill strengths or weaknesses, and plan appropriately targeted instruction and intervention” (Hasbrouck, 2010). http://www.brtprojects.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/TechRpt_1702ORFNorms_Fini.pdf

*****

I’m Mark Pennington, ELA teacher and reading specialist. Check out my assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources at Pennington Publishing.

*****THE FREE READING FLUENCY ASSESSMENT*****

The “Pets” diagnostic expository fluency passage is leveled in a unique pyramid design: the first paragraph is at the first grade (Fleish-Kincaid) reading level; the second paragraph is at the second grade level; the third paragraph is at the third grade level; the fourth paragraph is at the fourth grade level; the fifth paragraph is at the fifth grade level; the sixth paragraph is at the sixth grade level; and the seventh paragraph is at the seventh grade level. Thus, the reader begins practice at an easier level to build confidence and then moves to more difficult academic language. As the student reads the fluency passage, the teacher will be able to note the reading levels at which the student has a high degree of accuracy and automaticity. Automaticity refers to the ability of the reader to read effortlessly without stumbling or sounding-out words. The 383 word passage permits the teacher to assess two-minute reading fluencies (a much better measurement than a one-minute timing).

Get the The Pets Fluency Assessment FREE Resource:

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Books for Struggling Readers

Phonics Books for Struggling Readers

Books for Struggling Readers

As a reading specialist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with students at the full spectrum of age groups from preK to adult ed. My passion has always been to help struggling readers, especially older readers. You find these students in reading intervention classes, ESL/ELD/ELL programs, special education classes, and learning centers.

Ask any reading teacher, who’s been there and done that, what is the key correlate to reading improvement for older struggling readers and you’ll hear the word, motivation, more often than not.

Long ago I learned the power of motivation upon student achievement. It took me awhile. In my sixth year of teaching I made a study of two teachers teaching my same subject, who were getting better results than I. I sat in their classes during my prep. Initially, I was confused.

“I’m at least as good as Mr. S,” I thought, “and I’m much better than Mr. B.”

I’ve never been diagnosed as “self-esteem deficient.”

However, I cornered some of Mr. S’s and Mr. B’s kids during passing periods and asked them, “What makes you succeed in his class?”

It was motivation. Mr. S loved kids and they knew it. He had the relationships in and out of class that made his students want to learn. Mr. B had a different approach: the behavioral approach of carrot and stick. Rewards and fear made his students have to learn.

I couldn’t be either teacher; Lame as it sounds: I had to be me. It took me years of experimenting and quite a few humbling make-overs to begin motivating some of my students.

My secret? What works for me is a constant self-reminder that I am teaching students, not reading. To really teach struggling readers how to improve their reading, teachers need to know what makes them tick and adapt instruction and teaching resources accordingly. For your struggling readers, you need the books that will motivate these older kids to read.

Even though I mentioned that I am not “self-esteem deficient,” my struggling readers certainly are. Despite the apathetic “I don’t care” self-defense mechanisms of most struggling readers, they really do care that they aren’t like the rest of their peers. No one want to stand out as a poor reader. I’ve never heard the most unreachable fourth grader, middle schooler, high schooler, or community college adult (and I’ve taught them all) say, “I’m a poor reader and proud of it.”

My main point in this article is to get reading teachers to be hypersensitive to the effects of motivation on learning to read. Specifically, we have got to stop unintentionally tearing away at the self-esteem of our struggling readers.

Take a moment to look at your teaching resources. Do they match the age of your students?

I just finished a comment on a teacher’s post asking for feedback on her self-authored ESL teaching resources and chapter books. I was struck by the beautiful cover illustrations. I previewed the book internal pages and the graphics and pictures were so professional. However, the images were perfectly appropriate for beginning readers, not her target grades 4‒8 age group. Struggling readers certainly do judge a book by its cover. Hopefully, my comments maintained a complimentary/constructive balance. Her self-esteem matters, as well!

ESL/ELD/ELL, special education, reading intervention, and adult ed learners need reading resources and books that motivate them to learn, not humiliate them into shutting down or acting out in the classroom.

Yes, these materials are hard to find.

I sell two products, Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books and the Teaching Reading Strategies comprehensive reading intervention program that have been designed to motivate struggling readers.

The former product (54 eight-page booklets) uses teenage (non big-head) cartoons and plots. The illustrator, David Rickert, is a high school ELA teacher and we were both sensitive to ensuring that our visuals matched the maturity of our focus age group.

The latter product includes sound-spelling cards like most other reading programs. However, I selected animals as an ageless theme and photographs, not illustrations, to appeal to older kids.

Teaching Reading Strategies Reading Intervention Program

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

 

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How to Teach Reading Intervention

3 Phonics and Spelling Videos

Phonics and Spelling Videos

Teaching reading intervention is qualitatively different from teaching beginning reading. By definition, the initial reading instruction did not “take” to a sufficient degree, so things must be done differently this time around to improve chances for success. According to reading research, these chances are not good betting odds. Only one out of six middle schoolers who are below grade level in reading will ever catch up to grade level.

I have written elsewhere regarding the characteristics of remedial readers. Sufficed to say, knowing their developmental characteristics is just as important as knowing their specific reading deficiencies. Effective reading intervention instruction depends on addressing both components.

But, knowing the specific reading deficiencies is crucial. Using prescriptive diagnostic assessments that will produce the data needed to inform instruction is the one non-negotiable prerequisite. Teachers need to know exactly where their students are to take them to where they want them to be. Once administered, the reading intervention teacher is confronted with the “snowflake phenomena.” No two remedial readers are exactly alike. One has no phonemic awareness; one does not know phonics; one does not know how to blend; one lacks fluency; one is vocabulary deficient; one has poor reading comprehension; and one has poor reading retention.

Of necessity, an effective reading intervention program must be based upon differentiated instruction. A cookie-cutter program starting all students at the same level or having all students use the same workbooks or receive the same direct instruction will address some needs of some students, but not all the needs of all students. Anything less than the latter is nothing less than professional malpractice. Would a medical patient who sets a doctor’s appointment to treat a variety of maladies be satisfied with receiving the same course of treatment as every patient—ignoring some issues and being treated for issues that do not require treatment? Even the staunchest advocates of the current health care system would find this brand of medical practice unacceptable.

Regarding student placement in reading intervention, a number of factors must be considered. Chief of these must be the reductive consideration. First, if the student is placed in a special intervention class, what class is replaced? Removing a child from a literature class seems much like “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Poor readers require compensatory instruction, not just different instruction. Second, multiple measures are needed to ensure that a student needs reading intervention and that the student has a reasonable chance of success in the reading intervention class. Standardized tests can provide an initial sort; however, the student history in the cumulative records and the diagnostic assessments detailed above must be analyzed to refine the sort. Behavioral considerations are legitimate concerns; many students who read poorly tend to compensate with inattentive and disruptive behavior. These students need an intervention with a behavioral specialist that will also teach to their reading deficiencies. These students do not need another platform in a typical reading intervention class to prevent the learning of their peers.

The two most popular reading programs, READ 180 The Next Generation and Language! Live use sampling for their screening and placement assessments. Check out my article

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

comparing these two programs to my own Teaching Reading Strategies.

The greatest variable that will determine the success of a reading intervention class is the teacher. A well-trained teacher with superior management skills, sufficient reading training, and a commitment to diagnostic and formative assessments to inform differentiated instruction are the keys to success. The teacher must be the “best and brightest” on campus, not the new teacher fresh out of the teacher credential program. Reading intervention is the hardest subject to teach and requires a special teacher. The students for whom our educational system has most failed deserve no less.

So, what to teach? The task is daunting. Remedial reading is not just skills instruction or extra reading practice. Effective reading intervention involves both content and process. Reading is both the what and the how. The short answer is that the students themselves determine the what via their diagnostic assessments. The teacher decides the how through differentiated instruction. Beyond this cryptic, albeit accurate, response, certain components will no doubt require attention in a reading intervention class for any age student. Following is an instructional template that will provide a proper balance between the what and how with a brief description of the instructional component and a percentage of the class that the component will necessitate:

  • Small ability group fluency practice (emphasizing repeated readings within the group’s zone of proximal development (15%)
  • Small ability group phonemic awareness practice (10%)
  • Small ability group phonics practice (10%)
  • Individual sight word and syllabication practice (10%)
  • Guided reading, using self-questioning comprehension strategies (15%)
  • Direct instruction and whole group vocabulary development (10%)
  • Small ability group spelling practice (10%)
  • Small ability group blending practice (10%)
  • Independent reading at the individual student’s instructional reading level (10%) and for homework

Every component described above is needed to ensure a successful reading intervention program for students of all ages. All of these instructional components with support resources can be found in these two comprehensive curricula:

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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activities, phonics 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.Who says you can use diagnostic phonics assessments to inform guided reading instruction? Want to have the best of both worlds to pinpoint instruction? Check out the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records. Get both vowel and consonant comprehensive whole-class phonics assessments with audio files AND 3 guided reading phonics books with focused phonics patterns, comprehension questions, 2 new sight words, 30-second word fluencies, and running records.

Get the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books, Diagnostic Assessments, and Running Records FREE Resource:

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