Friday, July 17, 2015

Strategies for struggling readers

In special education it is rare that I run across a student with grade level or above reading skills. It almost seems as if the powers at be have decided that if the student does not read significantly below grade level, their disability must not negatively impact their learning. When we look at the 12 or so percent of students identified with a disability, the 5-10% served by 504 plans (studnets whose disability is not significant enough for an IEP but still require modifications- often this catch all includes students with significant health issues or ADHD), and the students receiving remedial assistance through mechanisms like AIS, RTI and repeating a grade, a significant portion of an age group is reading below grade level. Looking at the 3-8 Federally mandated test results from 2013 for NY, a state that traditionally is in the second quartile of the nation on test scores, only about 35% of students scored at proficient or above levels. (These results were, however, typical of the first year of CCSS tests.)

Therefore it behooves us to figure out how to address the reading needs in our classes. Lois A. Lanning's book, 4 Powerful Strategies for Struggling Readers Grades 3-8: Small Group Instruction that Improves Comprehension, looks to address this concern. First I would like to interject- most students in middle or high school do not need a prescriptive phonics program such as Wilson Reading or Orton-Gillingham, but the approximately 10% of struggling readers with issues around phonics do need this area addressed. Ms. Lanning also does not address fluency or language needs that negatively impact comprehension. Assessments should be completed so that students with these needs receive instruction in these areas as well. All students benefit from attention to both fluency and high quality language instruction and they should be components of any classroom.

Interestingly, the author does give a nod to the role of language in reading. Her suggestion to approaching the book is to read the glossary first. We would be loathe to provide this instruction to students; very few would get much out of such reading. Her rationale is that we need to approach reading remediation with a common language. Many authors and researchers use the same terms to indicate different things, so coming to the table with a common understanding of what she means when she says something is a prudent attempt to maintain consistency. She does begin each chapter about a strategy with a vocabulary section which accomplishes this common language goal without reading a glossary.

Her strategies are summarizing, making connections, self-regulation and inferring. These are not sequential strategies. We weave them throughout our reading to assist with comprehension. They can, however, be explicitly taught on an individual basis. Part of strategy instruction is generalizing the strategy once it has been taught. This is where we start really interweaving the skills. She provides an explanation of each strategy and then three sample lessons. Most of these lessons address small groups reading a single grade below level. This is an optimal lowest group for many teachers. Practically speaking, in many places reading a single grade below level is no cause for recognition, no less concern.

Having taught inferencing many times I really liked her suggestion: Frown and ask students how you are feeling. This is a great and simple explanation of an inference in a real world application. This is definitely a model that I can use. I especially like the fact that it does not require any "materials" up front. As an itinerant, I have the pleasure of toting all my materials. Something that does not require stuff is always a good inclusion in my bag of many things.

Another important point that she makes several times throughout the book is that strategy instruction needs to begin on material at the student's level. If the reading is too complex for the individual, even if it is grade level work, is not good choice to begin strategy instruction. Yes, we must move them from their comfort zone of reading to classroom materials, but when introducing a strategy, the reading needs to be brought down to the student. It can reinforce content area instruction- low reading level textbooks or web passages targeting younger students on the same material the student is learning in class. It can be hi-lo novels to demonstrate fiction strategies. The important thing is to start at the child's reading level, teach the strategy and then move the to grade level material. For students who lack appropriate background knowledge of the passage, introduce the vocabulary as well. This could be through a picture book, video, realia, fieldtrip or some other experience. ELLs, students with disabilities, and students from poverty often do not have rich academic backgrounds. We need to connect their individual prior knowledge to the academic prior knowledge. This is the second strategy that she discusses. It is especially important in dealing with vocabulary.

Perhaps the most important take away for me, however, are the five pages of observer target questions- one for each phase of strategy instruction. Questions like did the teacher specifically identify the strategy that will be the teaching point of the lesson? make connections to other strategies? select appropriate texts for the students and teaching point of the lesson? provide opportunities to for students to generate their own questions and solutions? design the activity so that each student is capable of independent success? provide specific points of discussion. This form, though cumbersome, would be great for directing a conversation about the lesson with either a peer or administrative observer. For a teacher who was comfortable using video tape, it would provide a checklist of points to look for in review. I think with some juggling, it could be rewritten to include fewer pages.

This book provides a framework for thinking about how to address reading instruction in grades 3-8. It also, however, has concepts that could be easily adapted to the high school program as well. Teaching comprehension skills is critical for student success. If we truly want our students to be successful, teaching skills that are widely applicable and useful is critical.

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