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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

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Free Independent Reading Resources

Sam and Friends Phonics Books

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

As an MA reading specialist and English-language Arts teacher, I know the value of independent reading. Despite our wonderful instruction in Greek and Latinates, context clues, and vocabulary in literature, students make their greatest vocabulary gains through independent reading at their instructional levels. Not to mention gains in reading comprehension. Teachers are understandably reluctant to allocate much class time to independent reading. Teachers are also unconvinced that their students really will read independently for homework.

However, learning how to teach students to select readings at their instructional level and providing accountability within the home and class community can improve students’ success rates and achieve our goals of turning teacher-dependent readers into truly independent readers. We might just even create a few life-long readers in the process.

Certainly we can go too far in pinpointing what students can and cannot read. The straight jacket approach of the AR program comes to mind. As C.S. Lewis once said… the neat sorting-out of books into age ranges, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table (1952 essay On three ways of writing for children, collected in Of Other Worlds Harvest Books 2002).

Even so, students can learn to self-guide their own reading selections. Following are articles, free resources (including reading assessments), and teaching tips regarding how to develop an effective independent reading program from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

Independent Reading

Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/why-sustained-silent-reading-ssr-doesn%E2%80%99t-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? SSR just is not an effective use of class time. Why so? Here are 8 reasons Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.

Straight Talk with Stephen Krashen on SSR

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/straight-talk-with-stephen-krashen-on-ssr/

In response to my article titled “Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work,”Dr. Stephen Krashen responded numerous times. Given the richness of Dr. Krashen’s gracious responses to my persistent challenges and questions, I felt it would be helpful to post the unedited exchange.

Independent Reading Homework

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/independent-reading-homework/

I developed an independent reading program based upon “reading discussions.” Students read at home and lead a literary discussion with their parent for three-minutes per day, four days per week to offer flexibility to families. I devolved the accountability for these assignments to the student-parent partnership. In other words, parents grade their children on the quality of the discussion and I count the points.

How to Select Books for Independent Reading

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-select-books-for-independent-reading/

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

Level Books with Word Recognition

Level Books with Word Recognition

Put aside the Lexiles, the DRA, F&P/GRL, and ATOS levels and let go of the Lucy Calkins and guided reading assessment-re-tells. Use word recognition. The five and ten-finger methods for book selection are quick, accurate, and easy to apply. Also get a wonderful FREE resources to boost your students’ reading comprehension.

The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/the-18-reasons-not-to-use-accelerated-reader/

Accelerated Reader (AR) is a simple software concept that was at the right time (late 1980s) and right place (public schools during a transition from whole language to phonics instruction) that has simply grown into an educational monolith. Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 20 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader.

Schoolwide Independent Reading Program

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/schoolwide-independent-reading-program/

I take a balanced approach and recommend such in the development of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). On the one hand, we want our students to become lifelong readers. We want them to intrinsically enjoy reading and choose to read on their own. However, I do see the value in some marketing and promotion of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). Students work well when pursuing goals and everyone likes rewards. No, I’m certainly not advocating the AR program: See my The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader article.

High Fluency Low Reading Comprehension

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/high-fluency-low-reading-comprehension/

What can we, as parents and teachers, do for children with high fluency, but low reading comprehension? Check out the six actions steps designed to address this problem and download the helpful instructional strategies and free resources.

Independent Reading: The Meeting of the Minds

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/independent-reading-the-meeting-of-the-minds/

Using the format of  the old television show, Meeting of Minds, some of the greatest thinkers from different eras to discuss the subject of independent reading in the classroom.

How to Determine Reading Levels

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-determine-reading-levels/

Learn how to use word recognition and motivation to determine reading levels for your students or for your own children.

How to Get Students to Read at Home

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-get-students-to-read-at-home/

Teachers and parents recognize the important role of independent reading in developing reading comprehension, vocabulary, and a lifelong love of books. Learn how to promote independent reading at home and help students achieve these desired benchmarks.

Free Whole Class Diagnostic ELA/Reading Assessments

https://penningtonpublishing.com/

Download free phonemic awareness, vowel sound phonics, consonant sound phonics, sight word, rimes, sight syllables, fluency, grammar, mechanics, and spelling assessments. All with answers and recording matrices. A true gold mine for the teacher committed to differentiated instruction!

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog

English-Language Arts and Reading Intervention Articles and Resources 

Bookmark and check back often for new articles and free ELA/reading resources from Pennington Publishing.

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Pennington Publishing’s mission is to provide the finest in assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources for grades 4‒high school teachers. Mark Pennington is the author of two Standards-aligned programs: Teaching Essay Strategies and Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)Mark’s comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies and the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books help struggling readers significantly improve their reading skills in a full-year or half-year intensive reading intervention program. Make sure to check out Pennington Publishing’s free ELA and reading assessments to help you pinpoint grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and reading deficits.

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Why and How to Teach Complex Text

A growing body of research presents a challenge to current K-12 reading/English-language Arts instruction. In essence, we need to “up” the level of text complexity and provide greater opportunities for independent reading. The Common Core State English-language Arts Standards provides a convincing three-reason argument in support of these changes in instructional practice. Following this rationale, I will share ten instructional implications and address a few possible objections.

1. Text complexity is the most important variable in reading comprehension. The level of difficulty is a more important variable in reading comprehension than is a reader’s degree of mastery of inferential reading strategies or critical thinking skills. In other words, what you read is more of an issue than how you read. Now applying reading strategies and critical thinking skills can certainly scaffold a reader’s ability to comprehend difficult text, but vocabulary, text organization, and sentence length seem to be more crucial variables.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

In 2006, ACT, Inc., released a report called Reading Between the Lines that showed which skills differentiated those students who equaled or exceeded the benchmark score (21 out of 36) in the reading section of the ACT college admissions test from those who did not. Prior ACT research had shown that students achieving the benchmark score or better in reading—which only about half (51 percent) of the roughly half million test takers in the 2004–2005 academic year had done—had a high probability (75 percent chance) of earning a C or better in an introductory, credit-bearing course in U.S. history or psychology (two common reading-intensive courses taken by first-year college students) and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in such a course.

Surprisingly, what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who had earned the benchmark score or better from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts. Students scoring below benchmark performed no better than chance (25 percent correct) on four-option multiple-choice questions pertaining to passages rated as “complex” on a three-point qualitative rubric described in the report. These findings held for male and female students, students from all racial/ethnic groups, and students from families with widely varying incomes.

2. Post K-12 text complexity in college, the workplace, and in popular media has remained constant or increased in terms of levels of difficulty over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Research indicates that the demands that college, careers, and citizenship place on readers have either held steady or increased over roughly the last fifty years. The difficulty of college textbooks, as measured by Lexile scores, has not decreased in any block of time since 1962; it has, in fact, increased over that period (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The word difficulty of every scientific journal and magazine from 1930 to 1990 examined by Hayes and Ward (1992) had actually increased, which is important in part because, as a 2005 College Board study (Milewski, Johnson, Glazer, & Kubota, 2005) found, college professors assign more readings from periodicals than do high school teachers. Workplace reading, measured in Lexiles, exceeds grade 12 complexity significantly, although there is considerable variation (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The vocabulary difficulty of newspapers remained stable over the 1963–1991 period Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996) studied.

3. K-12 text complexity has declined over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977) found a thirteen year decrease from 1963 to 1975 in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and (especially) grade 11 texts. Extending the period to 1991, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe (1996) found precipitous declines (relative to the period from 1946 to 1962) in average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks for a variety of grades… Carrying the research closer to the present day, Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

http://www.corestandards.org/

Ten Implications for K-12 Instruction

1. Higher Expectations

Clearly, we teachers need to “up” the level of difficulty of text and provide the scaffolds students need to understand that text. We need to challenge our students to struggle a bit. We can’t focus all of our instruction on the lowest common denominators.

2. Vocabulary

We need to use a systematic approach to vocabulary instruction including teaching structural analysis, context clues, and rote memorization and practice in what Isabel Beck calls “Tier Two” words that have high utility and applicability in academic language. Our students have got to master frequently used Greek and Latin affixes and roots.

3. Sentence and Text Structure

We need to not only analyze sentence and text structure, but also practice variations and complexities in our students’ writing. Good writers are better equipped to understand the complexities of how ideas are presented in academic text. The reading-writing connection is teachable.

4. Content

We need to teach the prior knowledge that students need to access difficult text independently. And we need to share and coordinate the load with our colleagues. For example, are our novels, poetry, and writing assignments aligned with what our students are learning in their history classes? We need to work smarter, not harder.

5. Reading Strategies

We need to be both content and process-driven. If we do not provide the tools and practice for our students, “reading to learn” will never work. Our elementary colleagues have largely handled the “learning to read,” but we need to apply the basic to the complex.

6. Critical Thinking

We need to teach the elements of logic and higher order thinking are prerequisites to understanding difficult reading text. Recognizing both solid and fallacious reasoning is an essential reading skill.

7. Expository Text

We need to put aside our exclusive love of literature and poetry for the sake of our students. College, workplace, and popular media texts are overwhelmingly expository in nature. We can do both.

8. Novel Selection

We may need to let go of traditional novels. Let’s take a hard look at what we are teaching to maximize content and process instruction. For example, Reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry may cover the content and standards nicely for an eighth grade ELA class, but the largely fifth grade reading level does not provide the text complexity that our students need. Additionally, shorter novels, selections, poems, articles, etc. will do the job more efficiently and with greater variety.

9. Differentiated Instruction

We need to recognize that all of students simply do not read at the same levels. Students have  different reading issues that inhibit their abilities to comprehend challenging text. We have to find out who has what issues and adjust our instruction accordingly. It does no good to play the “blame game” on previous teachers. We teach standards, but we also teach students. Diagnostic reading assessment has got to be a given for the conscientious reading/ELA teacher.

10. Independent Reading

We need to stop being co-dependents. The Common Core emphasis on CLOSE READING STRATEGIES can can be overdone. We do have to transfer the demands of accessing text over to students at some point. Plus, we need to fight the hard fight and require students to read at home. The amount of independent reading needed to increase even one grade level in terms of reading comprehension and vocabulary development necessitates reading at home.

Possible Objections and Howevers

We can certainly question the adequacy and accuracy of the tools used to measure text complexity. However, we all know that our students’ biology textbooks are more difficult than the Manga and Twilight that are students are reading.

What about the joy of reading? We want to create lifelong readers, not factory-trained automatons for the needs of academia, the workplace, and popular media. Reading trash can be entertaining. However, text complexity does not preclude reading for fun. The ability to read and understand more complex text should expand and enhance that experience.

What we teach in K-12 is in-it-of-itself valuable and relevant to the needs of our students. It may also be foundational in terms of content and process for greater text complexity. We are not just training students for future college, careers, and citizenship; we are teaching students now. However, can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? If our students need to know about chimpanzee behavior, can’t we replace Curious George with a scientific journal?

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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

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Independent Reading Homework

I have always assigned independent reading, usually with the accountability of journals, logs, quizzes, book reports, etc. Success rate has varied depending upon the school. At my current 70% AFDC multi-culture, multi-language, semi-urban middle school about 25% of my students consistently completed their independent reading assignments. That reflects about half of my grade-motivated students. In other words, 50% of my students and their parents are complacent with respect to grades as motivators. I figured I set the table; it’s up to them to eat.

However, things changed a  few years ago. I read an article by Michael Gerson lamenting the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I took that one personally. I committed to raising my expectations of my students, parents, and myself and finding new motivators to get my students to read at home.

I developed an independent reading program based upon “reading discussions.” Students read at home and lead a literary discussion with their parent for three-minutes per day, four days per week to offer flexibility to families. I devolved the accountability for these assignments to the student-parent partnership. In other words, parents grade their children on the quality of the discussion and I count the points.

As a work-in-progress I have learned a few things. It’s a lot of work. Both students and parents need training and practice in how to select appropriate independent reading level books. Hands-on practice in the library and classroom, as well as parent meetings, notes, and too-many-parent-phone-calls have all helped. I want student choice, but I also demand optimal levels for vocabulary and reading comprehension development. I am an MA reading specialist, so I’m biased.

I’ve taken the time to train students to read independently. Yes, I’ve had the principal challenge me regarding teaching reading strategies (But which ELA standard is this? Aaargh!) I’ve also spent time training students to lead the “reading discussions.” I developed SCRIP (Summary, Connect, Re-read, Interpret, and Predict) reading comprehension bookmarks to help students self-monitor as they read. I teach context clue strategies and we practice figuring out the meanings of unknown words. I do a lot of “think alouds” to model talking to the text and “making a movie” of the text in one’s head.

Results? Last year I upped my success rate to 80%. This year I want to expand my accountability network to peer relationships via book clubs, literature circles, and online discussion groups. Having taught high school for eight years, these networks would probably be more “do-able” than the student-parent “reading discussions” for most students.

This independent reading program at home frees me up to teach other ELA and reading Standards in the classroom. Instead of taking up valuable class time with sustained silent reading… Check out my dialog with Dr. Stephen Krashen on this approach.

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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , ,

Turning Dependent into Independent Readers

The new Common Core State Standards for English-language Arts makes a compelling case for not doing business as usual in our ELA classrooms. That business consists of the traditional “sage on the stage” methodology of reading an entire novel or play out loud (or along withe the audio book) and parsing paragraphs one at a time. Our new business? Scaffolding just enough reading strategies and content as we act as “guides on the side” to facilitate independent reading. In other words, the days of  spoon-feeding have got to go.

I can hear the excuses. But they won’t read it on their own. They won’t understand it on their own. My students have varied reading levels. We have core novels and plays to teach—that’s our job. Yes, those are valid concerns; however, there are proven means to ameliorate those concerns.

Following is the rationale for creating independent readers, then an analysis of the teacher-dependent status quo, and finally a few practical ideas to minimize scaffolding and maximize comprehension of challenging text.

Reading Independently: The Rationale

Excerpts from the Common Core State Standards for English-language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects Appendix A | 2…

Being able to read complex text independently and proficiently is essential for high achievement in college and the workplace and important in numerous life tasks. Moreover, current trends suggest that if students cannot read challenging texts with understanding—if they have not developed the skill, concentration, and stamina to read such texts—they will read less in general. In particular, if students cannot read complex expository text to gain information, they will likely turn to text-free or text-light sources, such as video, podcasts, and tweets. These sources, while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text. As Adams (2009) puts it, “There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought” (p. 182).

A turning away from complex texts is likely to lead to a general impoverishment of knowledge, which, because knowledge is intimately linked with reading comprehension ability, will accelerate the decline in the ability to comprehend complex texts and the decline in the richness of text itself. This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands placed upon them by citizenship in a democratic republic and the challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

The Teacher-Dependent Status Quo

College Preparation

There exists “a serious gap between many high school seniors’ reading ability and the reading requirements they will face after graduation. Furthermore, students in college are expected to read complex texts with substantially greater independence (i.e., much less scaffolding) than are students in typical K–12 programs. College students are held more accountable for what they read on their own than are most students in high school (Erickson & Strommer, 1991; Pritchard, Wilson, & Yamnitz, 2007).

College instructors assign readings, not necessarily explicated in class, for which students might be held accountable through exams, papers, presentations, or class discussions. Students in high school, by contrast, are rarely held accountable for what they are able to read independently (Heller & Greenleaf, 2007). This discrepancy in task demand, coupled with what we see below is a vast gap in text complexity, may help explain why only about half of the students taking the ACT Test in the 2004–2005 academic year could meet the benchmark score in reading (which also was the case in 2008–2009, the most recent year for which data are available) and why so few students in general are prepared for postsecondary reading (ACT, Inc., 2006, 2009).”

The Achievement Gap

It should be noted also that the problems with reading achievement are not “equal opportunity” in their effects: students arriving at school from less-educated families are disproportionately represented in many of these statistics (Bettinger & Long, 2009). The consequences of insufficiently high text demands and a lack of accountability for independent reading of complex texts in K–12 schooling are severe for everyone, but they are disproportionately so for those who are already most isolated from text before arriving at the schoolhouse door.

A Few Practical Ideas

It is important to recognize that scaffolding often is entirely appropriate. The expectation that scaffolding will occur with particularly challenging texts is built into the Standards’ grade-by-grade text complexity expectations, for example. The general movement, however, should be toward decreasing scaffolding and increasing independence both within and across the text complexity bands defined in the Standards.

1. Teach students to select independent reading books appropriate to their instructional reading levels.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-determine-reading-levels/

2. Hold students accountable for independent reading.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-get-students-to-read-at-home/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-use-graded-literary-discussions/

3. Avoid read-arounds and reading large portions of text in class.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/to-read-or-not-to-read-that-is-the-question/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/why-round-robin-and-popcorn-reading-are-evil/

4. Differentiate instruction according to diagnostic reading data.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/the-dos-and-donts-of-differentiated-instruction/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/ten-criteria-for-effective-elareading-diagnostic-assessments/

5. Don’t teach to the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator).

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/dont-teach-to-the-lcd/

6. Teach self-monitoring reading comprehension skills.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-teach-reading-comprehension/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-increase-reading-comprehension-using-the-scrip-comprehension-strategies/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-use-think-alouds-to-teach-reading-comprehension/

7. Strike the appropriate balance between teaching students and the ELA standards.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-teach-the-english-language-arts-standards/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/should-we-teach-standards-or-children/

8. Teach fluency.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-and-why-to-teach-fluency/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-differentiate-reading-fluency-practice/

9. Teach vocabulary and structural analysis.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/the-problem-with-most-vocabulary-instruction-part-1/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-we-learn-vocabulary-from-reading-part-ii/

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-double-vocabulary-acquisition-from-reading-part-iii/

10. Share the independent reading and reading strategies load.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/learning-to-read-and-reading-to-learn/

11. Maximize teaching the text, not the personal application of the text.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/into-through-but-not-beyond/

12. Teach the reading-writing connection.

https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/twelve-tips-to-teach-the-reading-writing-connection/

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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. Before I offer some tips on the dos and don’ts of differentiated instruction, it makes sense to address the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach.

Why Some Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

1. Some teachers resist implementing DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments would necessitate a veteran superstar teacher with no life outside of the classroom. Some teachers believe that DI requires too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. These may have been truisms years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out” and teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as some would lead us to believe. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over time.

2. The increasing emphasis on rigorous standards-based instruction and teaching to high-stakes tests have clearly prevented some teachers from implementing DI. In today’s educational climate, teachers do not want to be accused of “dumbing-down” instruction. However, DI can provide better access to those rigorous standards and greater success on those high-stakes tests, if done right. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers can help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

3. Some teachers resist implementing differentiated instruction by attempting to create  homogeneous classes. Early-late reading and math instruction in the elementary grades and tracked ability classes in the secondary schools are designed to provide qualitatively different instruction for different student levels. However, analyzing the data of any subject-specific diagnostic assessment will indicate that students have a wide variety of relative strengths and weaknesses in any subject and that “different student levels” is an arbitrary and unworkable concept. Even within highly-tracked programs, DI is absolutely necessary because each student is unique with different skill sets and learning needs.

*For the complete article on Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, check out this link.

The Whats of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or level of student achievement relative to the composite scores of other students. The data cannot pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Even standards-based assessments provide only generic data, not the “nuts and bolts” discreet skills analyses that can effectively inform instruction.

2. Don’t Trust Your Colleagues. Teaching is an independent practice. No matter how many years we have eaten lunch with our teacher peers, no matter how many conferences, department or grade-level meetings we have attended together, no matter how many of the same teaching resources we share, and no matter how specific our scope and sequences of instruction align, we cannot assume that the students of our colleagues have mastered the skills that we need to build upon.

3. Don’t Trust Yourself. Making instructional decisions based upon “what the students know and what they don’t know” requires objective data to inform our judgments. There are just too many variables to trust even the best teacher intuition: family situations, language, culture, school experience, just to name a few. If we are honest, even veteran teachers are frequently fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes.

Dos

1. Use relevant and specific diagnostic assessments. Eliminate the trust factor with good diagnosis. Record and analyze the student data to inform direct and differentiated instruction, including what skills and concepts need to be taught, how much time needs to be spent upon instruction, who needs intensive instruction and who needs only review, and who has already mastered the skill or concept. Use whole-class, multiple-choice assessments whenever possible, to minimize assessment and grading times.

2. Develop quick and frequent formative assessments to gauge student mastery of your teaching objectives. Use the data to inform and adapt your instruction accordingly. Learning is the heart and soul of DI, not teaching.

3. Establish and use a collaborative model to determine the whats of instruction. Include students, parents, and teaching colleagues in data analysis. Collaboration is essential to successful implementation of DI and RTI.

The Hows of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Just because DI is student-centered, don’t go overboard on adjusting the how of instruction to correspond to student learning preferences. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and multiple intelligences are long-standing educational constructs, but are based upon minimal research. Learning preference inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. For example, auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

2. Don’t devolve all decision-making to student choice regarding how they choose to learn. Students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the how of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as informed and objective decision-makers. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read their social studies textbooks?

3. Don’t allow the hows of learning to destroy class management or time-on-task instructional efficiency. We should always perform a cost-benefit analysis on how we differentiate instruction. Good teachers weigh the needs of the class and the needs of the individual students, and then make decisions accordingly. Sometimes the optimal instructional methodology needs to be ditched and substituted with another because the students or teacher just can’t handle learning or teaching that way that day.

Dos

1. Consider the needs and differences of the learners. We never want to limit students to our own imaginations. Students do have important insights into their own learning that we need to consider. Teaching students to monitor and experiment with how they learn best is invaluable to their development as life-long learners. This kind of self-reflection can be promoted by teaching metacognitive strategies, such as self-questioning during independent reading or self-assessment on an analytical writing rubric.

2. Model different ways to learn skills and concepts. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” that models these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work-it-out-yourself, trial and error process.

3. Use a variety of instructional methodologies. Effective DI instruction adapts to the needs of the learners. For some skills or concepts, DI involves direct, explicit instruction to pre-teach or re-teach concepts. For others, DI is best accomplished in heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. For still others, DI requires individualized instruction, via targeted worksheets and one-on-one review.

At its core, DI is simply good, sound teaching. Some proponents seem to intimate that DI is the ultimate educational panacea. However, no educational approach absolutely ensures student success. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail. But, directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of assessment-based teaching resources in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training. Check out the following programs designed to teach both grade-level Standards and help students master those Standards not yet mastered. For the finest in assessment-based instruction…

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

Reading, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader

18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader TM

Accelerated Reader TM

Accelerated Reader™ (AR) is a simple software concept that was at the right time (late 1980s) and right place (public schools during a transition from whole language to phonics instruction) that has simply grown into an educational monolith. From an economic standpoint, simple often is best and AR is a publisher’s dream come true. Renaissance Learning, Inc.(RLI) is publicly traded on the NASDAQ exchange under the ticker symbol RLRN and makes a bit more than pocket change off of its flagship product, AR. As is the case with many monoliths, detractors trying to chip away at its monopolistic control of library collections, computer labs, and school budgets are many. The second place challenger is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s (HMH) Reading Counts! (formerly Scholastic Reading Counts!). As one measure of popularity (as of January 2019), the AR program has about 180,000 different books with quizzes, while HMH has about 43,000. Many readers may be interested in my companion article, Comparing Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts!

Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. But first, for the uninitiated, is a brief overview of the AR system.

What is Accelerated Reader?

From the Renaissance Learning website, A Parent’s Guide to Accelerated Reader™, we get a concise overview of this program: “AR is a computer program that helps teachers manage and monitor children’s independent reading practice. Your child picks a book at his own level and reads it at his own pace. When finished, your child takes a short quiz on the computer. (Passing the quiz is an indication that your child understood what was read.) AR gives both children and teachers feedback based on the quiz results, which the teacher then uses to help your child set goals and direct ongoing reading practice.”

How is the Student’s Reading Level Determined?

Renaissance Learning sells its STAR Reading™ test to partner with the AR program. The STAR test is a computer-based grades 1-12 reading assessment that adjusts levels of difficulty to student responses. Among other diagnostic information (such as percentile ranking and grade equivalency, the test establishes a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) reading range for the student.

How are AR Books Selected?

Students are encouraged (or required by some teachers) to select books within their ZPD that also match their age/interest level. AR books have short multiple choice quizzes and have been assigned a readability level (ATOS). Renaissance Learning provides conversion scales to the Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) test and the Lexile Framework, so that teachers and librarians who use  these readability formulae will still be able to use the AR program. Additionally, Renaissance Learning provides a search tool to find the ATOS level.

What are the Quizzes? What is the Student and Teacher Feedback?

AR quizzes are taken on computers, ostensibly under teacher or librarian supervision. The Reading Practice Quizzes consist of from 3–20 multiple choice questions (the number based upon book level and length), most of which are at the “recall” level. Students must score 80% or above on these short tests to pass and receive point credit for their readings. When students take AR quizzes, they enter information into a database that teachers can access via password. Additionally, Renaissance Learning has been expanding their range of quizzes. Of the 180,000 books, which have the Reading Practice Quizzes, 10,792 include audio files (in English and some in Spanish); 11,266 of the books have vocabulary-specific quizzes; and 869 have literacy skill quizzes.

Teachers have access to a plethora of individual and class reports, including progress monitoring, parent letters, and the TOPS Report (The Opportunity to Praise Students) reports quiz results after each quiz* is taken.

Both teachers, students, and parents have access to the following from the Renaissance Learning programs:

  • Name of the book, the author, the number of pages in the book
  • ATOS readability level (developed from word difficulty, word length, sentence length, and text length i.e., the number of words)
  • Renaissance Learning has also “partnered with the creators of the Lexile Framework, MetaMetrics, Inc., to be able to bring Lexile Measures into” their programs.
  • Percentage score earned by the student from the multiple choice quiz
  • The number of points earned by students who pass the quiz. AR points are computed based on the difficulty of the book (ATOS readability level) and the length of the book (number of words).

*Quizzes are also available on textbooks, supplemental materials, and magazines. Most are in the form of reading practice quizzes, although some are curriculum-based with multiple subjects. Magazine quizzes are available for old magazines as well as on a subscription basis for new magazines. The subscription quizzes include three of the Time for Kids series magazines, Cobblestone, and Kids Discover. www.renlearn.com

What about the Reading Incentives?

“Renaissance Learning does not require or advocate the use of incentives with the assessment, although it is a common misperception.” However, most educators who use AR have found the program to be highly conducive to a rewards-based reading incentive program.

Criticisms

Book Selection

1. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to its own books. Teachers who use the AR program tend to limit students to AR selections because these have the quizzes to maintain accountability for the students’ independent reading. Although much is made by Renaissance Learning of the motivational benefits of allowing students free choice of reading materials, their selection is actually limited. Currently, AR has over 180,000 books in its database; however, that is but a fraction of the books available for juvenile and adolescent readers.

2. Using AR tends to limit reading selection to a narrow band of readability. A concerned mom recently blogs about her experience with her sixth grade daughter (Lady L) who happens to read a few years beyond her grade level:

I’m not trying to be a whining, complaining parent here.  I’m simply trying to highlight a problem.  At our public library, there are bookmarks in the youth department that list suggested books for students in each grade (K-12th).  We picked up an 8th grade bookmark to get ideas for Lady L’s acceptable reading-leveled book.  Found a book.  Looked up the reading level  and found that it was a 4.5 (not anywhere near the 8.7-10.7 my daughter needed). http://inthemomzone.blogspot.com/2010/01/accelerated-readermy-take.html

3. Using AR tends to discriminate against small publishing companies and less popular authors. Additionally, valid concerns exist about the appropriateness of a private company effectively dictating the materials which children within the program may read. Although teachers may create custom quizzes for reading material not already in the Accelerated Reader system, the reality is that teachers will not have the time nor inclination to do so in order to assess whether an individual student has read a book that is not already in the system. Thus, the ability for a student to explore books which are neither currently commercially popular nor part of major book lists is severely restricted in reality by the Accelerated Reader program. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

In fact, many teachers are inadvertently complicit in this discrimination as they require students to read only books that are in the AR database. Many teachers include the TOPS Report as a part of the students’ reading or English-language arts grade, thus mandating student participation in AR.

Students, themselves, are pushed into the trap of reading some, but not other, authors:

We had an author come and visit our school.  His book was mainly for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders.  The author did a great job talking about the writing process and then went into his newest book.  Students were so excited about the book because of the way he described it.  After he was done giving his presentation, he asked if there were any questions.  The very first question that came up, “How many AR points is your book worth”.  Depending on what answer he gave students would either still want to read it or for some the book wouldn’t be worth enough points and therefore not worth reading. http://www.brandonkblom.com/2016/04/why-we-are-moving-on-from-ar.html

4. Using AR tends to encourage some students to read books that most teachers and parents would consider inappropriate for certain age levels. Although Renaissance Learning is careful to throw the burden of book approval onto the shoulders of teachers and parents, students get more points for reading and passing quizzes on higher reading levels and longer books. Although an interest level is provided as is a brief synopsis/cautionary warning on the AR site, students often simply select books by the title, cover, availability, or point value. Thus, a fourth grader might wind up “reading” Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (4.7 ATOS readability level) and a sixth grader might plow through Camus’ The Stranger (6.2 ATOS readability level). Hardly appropriate reading material for these grade levels! Content is not considered in the AR point system and students are, of course, reading for those points.

For my own amusement, I decided to use the ATOS Analyzer to compare two books: Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s tale and hit movie, A Wrinkle in Time, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s decidedly-adult story, Crime and Punishment. For the former book I searched “a wrinkle in time grade level” and got these results: Scholastic 3-5, 6-8, Guided Reading Level W, and Book Source grades 3-5. I pretended to read Crime and Punishment as a senior in high school and passed the final only with the help of CliffsNotes® (I finally read it years later after earning my master’s degree as a reading specialist.)

I searched for excerpts for both books and copied text from the middle of each book at random. I followed the minimum word guidelines of the ATOS Analyzer and following were the admittedly non-scientific results: The 8.4 level for A Wrinkle in Time corresponds to a seventh-grade reading level, while the 5.7 level for Crime and Punishment corresponds to a fourth-grade level. Now, to be fair, the ATOS level for the entire A Wrinkle in Time is listed at 4.7, which would fall into the third-grade reading level, yet Accelerated Reading lists it interest level as Middle Grades (MG 4-8). Suffice it to say that the ATOS measure and AR readability levels cannot not take thematic maturity into consideration, nor are all sections of a book equal in terms of readability.

A Wrinkle in Time

Crime and Punishment

Reader Response

5. Using AR tends to induce a student mindset that “reading is a chore,” and “a job that has to be done.”

“As a teacher and a mom of 4, I do NOT like AR. As a parent, I watched my very smart 9 year old work the system. He continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take “too long to read” or they weren’t on the AR list. I finally told him to stop with the AR stuff, took him to the bookstore and spent an hour with him finding books he would enjoy. We have never looked back and I will fight wholeheartedly if anyone tries to tell any of my kids they ‘have’ to participate in AR.”

6. Using AR tends to replace the intrinsic rewards of reading with extrinsic rewards.

AR rewards children for doing something that is already pleasant: self-selected reading. Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant. No studies have been done to see if this is true.
Stephen Krashen Posted by
Stephen Krashen on December 17, 2009 at 10:40pm http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=2#comments

Again, Renaissance Learning does not endorse prizes for points; however, its overall point system certainly is rewards-based. Following is an excerpt from a post on the Elementary Librarian Community site:

Here are some AR reward ideas – things I’ve done in the past and a few things I’ve heard of others doing:

  • A trip to a local park
  • A trip to a local inflatable place
  • Popcorn, soft drink, and movie party
  • Ice cream sundae party (complete with fun toppings like gummy worms, marshmallows, various syrups, etc.)
  • Pizza party
  • Extra play time outside with bubbles and sidewalk chalk
  • Sock hop in the gym
  • Special lunch in the library
  • Breakfast with the principal

Most of those ideas have minimal costs. I’ve done an AR store in the past, where students “purchase” items with their points, but I don’t recommend it. It’s very expensive to buy the gifts, time consuming, and stressful helping the students figure out how many points they’ve used and how many they have left.

7. Using AR tends to foster student and/or teacher competitiveness, which can push students to read books at their frustrational reading levels (without teacher support). In some situations, this competitiveness can lead to hard feelings or outright ostracism. Some students mock other students for not earning enough points, or “making us lose a class pizza party.” Here are two recent blog postings by moms who happen to be educators:

My son is a voracious reader, but AR had him in tears more than once. I had to encourage him to NOT participate in AR (which meant that his class didn’t get the stuffed cougar promised as a reward to the class with the most AR points!) in order to protect that love. He took a hit for his non-participation in school (he started reading books off the list and not getting points for them) but it preserved his love of reading. In my estimation, this love of reading will take him further in the long run. Stupid that he had to choose between school and what was best for his reading life. http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity&id=2567740:BlogPost:161876&page=5#comments

As an educator, it concerns me when I see students being punished with reading, as can be the case when I visit sites on a Friday afternoon, a day many grade levels offer students “Fun Friday” activities. Students who’ve completed their class and homework assignments for the week and have had no behavioral problems get to sign-in for fun activities. One teacher volunteers to monitor those who did not earn a Fun Friday, including students who did not meet their AR requirement for the week – and as a result, will be punished with staying in the non-FF room to read.

http://englishcompanion.ning.com/profiles/blogs/does-accelerated-reader-work?xg_source=activity

Note: Teacher comments regarding this section tend to be quite critical and can be summed up as “It’s not AR’s fault, but the teacher’s misuse of the program.” Interestingly, parent and student comments tend to blame the program, more so than the teachers.

8. Using AR tends to turn off some students to independent reading. Countless posts on blogs point to the negative impact of this program on future reading. From my own survey of sixty blogs, using the “accelerated reading” search term, negative comments and/or associations with the AR program far outweigh positive ones. Of course there are those who credit AR for developing them into life-long readers; however, would other independent reading programs have accomplished the same mission? In Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, he cites a few studies that demonstrate that after exiting an AR program, students actually read less than non-AR students. Plus, all instructional activities are reductive. Having students spend hours skimming books in class to prepare for AR test takes away from other instruction.

Donalyn Miller, author of the the Book Whisperer, claims that the

…use of Accelerated Reader may in some cases adversely affect students’ reading attitudes and their perceptions of their reading skills, particularly among low readers. Putman (2005) examined the relationships among students’ accrual of Accelerated Reader points, their reading self-efficacy beliefs, and the value they place on reading. Students who accumulated the most Accelerated Reader points showed increases in their reading self-efficacy. In contrast, students who fell in the mid-range of Accelerated Reader point accumulation showed decreases in both their reading self-efficacy and their value of reading. Finally, students who earned the fewest Accelerated Reader points showed the lowest levels of reading self-efficacy and value in reading of all three groups. Although use of reading management programs may encourage children who are successful readers, educators should be aware that program use may discourage less capable readers. These findings suggest that the Matthew effects described by Stanovich (1986) occur not only with reading achievement, but also with reading attitudes. More specifically, children with positive attitudes toward reading may read more and in turn develop even better attitudes toward reading. https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/book_whisperer/2010/09/reading_rewarded_part_ii.html

9. Using AR tends to turn some students into cheaters. Many students skim read, read only book summaries, share books and answers with classmates, select books that have been made into movies that they have already seen, or use web cheat sites or forums to pass the quizzes without reading the books. Pervasive among many students seems to be the attitude that one has to learn how to beat the AR system, like one uses cheat sites and codes to beat video games. Both are on the computer and detached from human to human codes of conduct. Students who would never dream of cheating on a teacher-constructed test will cheat on AR because “it’s dumb” or “everyone does it.”

In order to take Accelerated Reader tests without any reading at all, many students use sites such as Sparknotes to read chapter summaries. Other websites offer the answers to Accelerated Reader tests. Students regularly trade answers on yahoo.com. Renaissance Learning has filed lawsuits against some of the offending websites and successfully closed them down after a short time. An AR cheat site is currently the ninth Google™ listing on the first page for the “accelerated reader” search term.

AR is Reductive

10. Using AR tends to supplant portions of established reading programs. In my experience, teachers who use AR spend less time on direct reading instruction. Some teachers even consider AR to be solid reading instruction. However, AR does not teach reading; AR tests reading. The expectation of many teachers is that students are learning to read on their own or are dutifully practicing the reading strategies that their teachers have taught them.

Note: As an M.A. reading specialist, this is my biggest problem with AR. Teachers can teach reading to their students, Accelerated Reader tends to devolve the learning responsibility to children. The AR tests quiz students; the tests do not teach students. Now, I certainly value independent reading; however, there are plenty of other options than using AR which don’t supplant reading instruction.

11. Using AR tends to train students to accumulate facts and trivia as they read in order to answer the recall questions. Teachers and reading specialists encourage students to establish the purpose for their reading. Setting the purpose helps the independent reader narrow down the self-monitoring of text to focus on those ends. For example, an adult reading the instructions for bicycle assembly on Christmas Eve would establish the reading purpose as putting the parts together so that the resulting bicycle will be functional and safe (without too many parts left over). With AR the purpose for reading is clear to most students: PASS THE READING PRACTICE QUIZZES WITH HIGH SCORES TO CONVERT TO THE MOST POINTS. Again, most all questions in the Reading Practice Quizzes are recall. Recall questions are designed to ascertain whether students read the book, not understand the book. Students receive few extrinsic “rewards” for higher order comprehension: making inferences, connections, interpretations, or conclusions as they read. Reading is reduced to a lower order thinking process. Students read to gain the gist of characterizations and plots. The Florida Center for Reading Research noted the lack of assessment of “inferential or critical thinking skills” as weaknesses of the software. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerated_Reader

Renaissance Learning has paid attention to this criticism, and now has 869 literacy skills quizzes; however, these quizzes cover less than 1% of the books that include the Reading Practice Quizzes.

12. Using AR tends to take up significant instructional time and teacher prep time. Students have to wait their turn to take quizzes on the classroom computers or the teacher has to march the class down to the library or computer lab to allow the students to do so.

The incentives schools develop with the AR program also take away from instructional time. One parent details her frustrations with the program:

When the librarian tallies up all of the people who have passed a book (not a goal, but just ONE book), everybody gets a chance to come to the library to select a prize (these are dollar store purchases to include child-like toys and snacks). The English teachers are asked to send the students when the coupons come (a disruption of classroom time). The reason for this is to send a clear message to the students who did not pass a book. It is to make them feel bad, I presume. Tell me how this fits into anything that looks like motivation. This includes students who took a quiz the day before coupons were made and distributed who now have to sit in class while all of their classmates go down to collect a prize.

AR recommends a minimum of 35 minutes per day of reading on its website. The National Reading Panel’s conclusion of programs that encouraged independent reading was “unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency.” p.12).

The AR management system is extensive and time-consuming. With all the bells and whistles, it’s easy to understand why the teacher’s investment of prep time leads (for many) to using AR as a primary, rather than supplementary, means of reading practice within the assigned instructional reading block. Teachers know that technology takes time.

13. Using AR tends to reduce the amount of time that teachers spend doing “read-alouds,” guided reading, teaching class novels, teaching reading strategies, leading literary discussions, and delivering assessment-based reading instruction. For example, Jim Trelease, chief advocate of the “read-aloud” was an early advocate of AR, even keynoting three national conferences for AR. However, in his sixth edition of his popular The Read-Aloud Handbook, Trelease turns quite critical.  AR teachers tend teach fewer core novels and to limit class discussions because of the time considerations or because a discussion would give away AR quiz answers. Besides, the computer can ask the questions instead.

What we do know from reading research is that direct instruction in phonemic awareness, the alphabetic code (phonics), syllabication, reading fluency, spelling, and vocabulary development should be the primary reading instructional tasks to build reading comprehension. AR cannot claim that the program, itself, reinforces these concepts and skills acquisition, but certainly independent reading does so. Of course, other options for independent reading, such as reading at home, do not take up significant amounts of class time.

14. Using AR tends to make reading into an isolated academic task. With each student reading a different book, the social nature of reading is minimized. Research on juvenile and adolescent readers emphasizes the importance of the book communities in developing a love for reading. The focus on individual-only reading with AR results in fewer literature circles with small groups sharing the same book and discussing chapter by chapter, fewer online book clubs, fewer literacy centers, and fewer Socratic Seminars and literacy discussions. After all, students can’t collaborate on the Reading Practice Quizzes and discussing books would skew the quiz results. Ironically and unintentionally, some of the AR cheat sites devolve into book discussions.

15. Using AR tends to drain resources that could certainly be used for other educational priorities. The program is not cheap. While librarians are always (along with counselors, art, and music teachers, and reading specialists) the first on the budget chopping block, the pressure to build up the AR library collection always grows. For each $15 hardback purchase, there is an additional cost of close to $3 for the AR quiz (minimum purchases of 20). This amounts to a de facto 20% tax on library acquisitions. Another way to look at this is that a school library able to purchase 300 new books a year will only be able to purchase 250 because of the AR program. AR costs that library and those students 50 books per year. A typical elementary school of 500 students spends around $4000 per year on AR.

16. Using AR tends to replace teaching to diagnostically-based reading skills deficits, such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and reading fluency as advocated by the National Reading Panel Report. The STAR Test is hardly diagnostic in terms of the full spectrum of reading skills, despite its flimsy claims to point out potential reading issues in the teacher reports. AR neither assesses, nor teaches phonemic awareness, decoding/word attack, syllabication, vocabulary, or reading comprehension strategies.

17. Using AR tends to limit differentiated and individualized instruction. Students are not grouped by ability or skill deficits with AR. The teacher does not spend additional time with remedial students for AR. Students do not receive different instruction according to their abilities. Worse yet, many teachers wrongly perceive AR as differentiated instruction because all of their students are reading books at their own reading levels. Again, there is no reading instruction in AR.

Research Base

18. Although a plethora of research studies involving AR are cited on the Renaissance Learning website, few of the AR studies meet the strict research criteria of the Institute of Education Services What Works Clearinghouse. Noodle around the What Works Clearinghouse site and see other programs with much higher gains. Stephen Krashen, educational researcher, stated,  “Despite the popularity of AR, we must conclude that there is no real evidence supporting it, no real evidence that the additional tests and rewards add anything to the power of simply supplying access to high quality and interesting reading material and providing time for children to read them.”

Author’s Summary

There simply are far superior and effective independent reading programs for beginning and older, struggling readers. Additionally, plenty of other independent reading plans or programs work well without the excess baggage of the AR program detailed above. Click here to learn How to Develop a Free Schoolwide Reading Program. Is there life for a school after AR? Check out this article, written by two elementary principals who have lived to tell the tale.

What About AR’s Competitor? HMH (formerly Scholastic) Reading Counts!

In this companion article, I summarize the Reading Counts! (RC) program and provide comparisons to Accelerated Reader™. Additionally, I analyze three of the RC program claims and offer counterclaims for educators to consider before purchasing this independent reading management system:

Claim 1: Students improve their reading more when the complexity of the text they read matches their reading ability.

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

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. 

*****

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 BUNDLEIdeal 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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To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question

Don't Read Class Novels Out Loud

Class Novels

In terms of teaching literature, I live in two worlds. I am an English-language arts teacher and a reading specialist. Although the two worlds would seem to be quite complementary, this is not always the case.

As an English-language arts teacher, I love teaching the nuances of the author’s craft. I live to point out allusions, symbolism, and an occasional foreshadowing. I am ecstatic when I am able to lead my students into the “ah ha” experience of how a passage reinforces the theme of a novel. I believe that we English-language arts teachers do have “content” to share with students. Go ahead… try to convince me that being able to identify the omniscient point of view is not a critical life skill. Make my day… My students need me; they are dependent upon me to teach them this content.

However, as a reading specialist, I also believe in the skills/process side of reading. In this world, my aim is to work my way out of a job. I have to change dependence into independence. The more students can do on their own to understand and retain the meaning of text, the better I have accomplished my mission. I need to train students to become successful independent readers in college, in the workplace, and at home.

Which leads us to our dilemma. When we teach a novel or short story, how much of our instruction should be teacher-dependent and how much should be teacher-independent? My thought is that we English-language arts teachers tend to err too frequently on the side of teacher-dependence and we need to move more to the side of teacher-independence.

As a reading specialist/staff developer at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, I have had to opportunity to see hundreds of teachers “in action,” teaching a novel or short story to students. From my experience, the predominant way that English-language arts teachers work through a text is by reading and dissecting the entire text out loud (an in class).

The reasons that we hang on to the teacher-dependent mode of reading out loud (or via student popcorn reading/CDs]podcasts) and dissecting the text are varied:

1. We want to earn our pay-checks by being the ones responsible for student learning.

2. The text is too hard for students to understand it on their own.

3. We like being the “sage on the stage.”

4. Students lack sufficient prior knowledge.

5. Reading out loud is a behavior management tool.

In sum, we distrust the readiness of students to handle the challenging tasks of reading and thinking on their own. We know that we do a better job of understanding the text than our students.

The way we casually describe what we are teaching is informative: In the staff room, a science teacher asks what we are teaching. We respond, “I’m half-way through teaching Julius Caesar,” not “I’m teaching my students such and such a Standard…”,” nor “I’m teaching Roman history through…”, nor “I’m teaching these reading and literary skills through…”, nor “My students are learning…” We tend to view the literature as our curriculum and not as an instructional vehicle. When the literature is treated as an end–in-itself, we are ensuring that our instruction remains teacher-dependent. After all, we are the keeper of the keys. We know “Julius Caesar” better than the students (and probably Will himself). A high school colleague of mine literally had memorized every word of the play and worked her students through the play from memory. That’s teacher-dependence.

How to Move toward Teacher-Independence

Create Independent Readers

Create Text-Dependent Readers

1. Lose the Guilt

We really need to relieve ourselves of the self-imposed or colleague-imposed guilt that we are not really teaching a short story, poem, or novel unless we read and dissect every word out loud.

2. Become a Coach

We need to become coaches, not spoon-feeders. Let’s coach students to become effective independent readers by giving them the skills to understand the text on their own. Here are some effective reading comprehension strategies that will move students toward that independence: https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-teach-reading-c…

3. Get strategic

Some reading out loud and dissecting text is essential. But when to do so and when not to do so?

A good guideline to help us decide how much to read out loud, with explanation and gap-filling, is word recognition. Simply put, if the novel, story, etc. is at 95% word recognition for the vast majority of students, then there should be less reading out loud, i.e., the reading is at the independent reading level of students. If there is lower word recognition, then more reading out loud/working through the text will be necessary (or the book selection is inappropriate for the students) for this instructional reading level. For more on how to use word recognition to inform instructional decisions, see my blog at https://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/how-to-get-students-to… As a relevant aside, I feel that word recognition is a much better indicator of an appropriate student to text match than a lexile number.

4. Trust Your Judgment-Not Just Data

Of course, using this rather clinical criterion of word recognition has its limitations: maturity of theme, unfamiliar historical context, amount of allusions or figures of speech etc. After all, we all know students who “read” the last Harry Potter book and Twilight with enjoyment, albeit limited comprehension, when their word recognition rate was at the instructional end of the spectrum, so motivation is an important factor in determining what can be left to independent reading.

5. Focus on the Pay-offs

Independent reading of text has significant pay-offs. Reading independently at the 95% word recognition level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session.

6. Experiment with Alternative Instructional Approaches, But…

Reciprocal teaching, literature circles, GIST strategies, partner reading, jigsaw. Yes. But don’t leave out what should be the primary instructional approach: independent reading with teacher and peer support. My FREE download below will be a helpful start toward this goal.

If our goals are to foster the abilities to read independently with good comprehension/retention and to inspire young adults to read for purpose and pleasure as lifelong readers, then we’ve got to cut the cords and become more teacher-independent and less teacher-dependent.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

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

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

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

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

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