Sunday, September 28, 2014

Break through the frustration

I believe that teaching students reading requires that at least some of the reading they have is at their instructional and independent levels. I also acknowledge that the CCSS has something when it says we need to teach students to access challenging material. The Common Core proponents point out that manuals for many jobs are written at levels above that which high school textbooks are written. I believe this is true, but what they fail to point out is that people reading said manuals rarely do so cold for no general reason. They read manuals when they have background knowledge about the subject for a particular real purpose. When we put a document such as Obama's peace prize acceptance speech and ask students to read and analyze it, they may have little background knowledge (and many CCSS proponents would argue against giving them any) and they really do not buy in to the reasons that they are reading it. "Pleasing the teacher" is a common thread but lacking in robustness. "Learning to closely read texts will be important to your future" is a lame answer for most high schoolers. Fascination with Obama, the Nobel prizes or speech rhetoric may entice a few, but certainly not a majority. "It's on the test" or "the state/district/school board requires it" is about as lamely purposeful as many teachers get. Although many students lack what they consider real reasons for learning the material, they and their teachers are going to be held accountable for reading challenging, often "uninteresting" materials.

In order to teach challenging material, we need to provide scaffolding. Some examples include pre-teaching vocabulary, rereading for comprehension and providing non-linguistic background materials. Last summer I ran across an article that discussed presenting the challenging reading first, analyzing student comprehension, providing additional support material (ex. videos with content explanations, simpler readings with similar critical vocabulary, direct teacher mini-lessons and picture supports) at the students needed level and then rereading the challenging material for multiple iterations until comprehension is achieved. These strategies may indeed increase accessibility of the material, but they are all teacher directed and often time intensive.

For our significantly reading disabled students audio versions of the text may be used. This increasingly available tool is rapidly losing its limited distribution. Everywhere but schools we are allowed to use audio versions of just about everything. This strategy is not teacher directed, increases vocabulary and comprehension, but does not increase general "reading" of print.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris support an interesting mix of literacy instruction in their Reading Today (September/October 2014, p. 26-27) article, "Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or nothing Thinking." They suggest balancing instructional contexts to match text-levels. For material substantially above grade level (and I would say student not grade level), they suggest that the teacher does the print work, reading aloud, and the students would, in conjunction with the teacher, make sense of the material. For material at or slightly above grade (again I would propose student) level, they suggest shared reading in which the teacher and the students work together in a shared reading approach. For material at the individual level, they suggest students work in guided or small group instruction. They suggest independent reading varies in difficulty level based on student selection.  This is a fine framework for elementary programs where lots of reading groups and ELA specific time is abundant. At the secondary levels this is a bigger challenge.

Read alouds still provide accessibility and instructional opportunities for teachers of upper level content area classes. Small group work can offer support for struggling readers in the form of their more able peers, support personnel or the teacher. When we send students home, however, if they are not able to easily read the material they have been assigned, they are unlikely to read it. If the material is too far into their frustration level, even having read it to them may not enable them to independently access it. If we want students to read at home, it must be at or near their independent level or we need to provide supports to make it so, such as a paraphrased version or audio version. Yes, they need the challenging material, but they also need independently accessible material. This might mean the homework gets differentiated: three reading levels- one several years below grade level, one at grade level and one above grade level- or supports such as illustrated versions, video clips or the infamous Shakespeare written in modern English. As Burkins and Yaris assert, we need to balance the challenging material with the scaffolding and independent material. This is especially true when we want students to not only become better readers but learn the content as well.

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