Tagged: teaching reading

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TEACHER VOICES: Dave Keller, #1

Helping Sonia and other struggling readers

Dave Keller - TEACHER VOICES - Iserotopefavicon Sonia is a girl in my 10th Grade History class that really struggles with reading. She tries hard and wants to do well, but her reading skills make mastering course content very frustrating.

Every year I have students like Sonia. She has a well-cultivated look, is rail thin, well-known if not popular, and says she wants to be a model. Whenever she is bored, she pulls out a phone with a cracked screen and jabs at Instagram photos. For teachers she is a bit of a behavior problem and has a prickly personality reserved for us adults. At the start of the year, she eyed me warily whenever I worked with her one-on-one.

Every year I have countless conversations with the frustrated parents and counselors of students like Sonia. Everyone wants to help the Sonias of our school get better grades, but few have found a way to help these struggling readers. This year I’m trying a few new things in my classroom and am having some limited success.

The teacher’s manual I grew up with says teachers can help struggling readers in activities in which heterogeneous groups do close reading together and then “report out,” where these small groups present what they’ve learned from the text to the whole class. The idea is that skilled readers support those who struggle when students work as a team to answer guiding questions.

Through my years of teaching, I have been frustrated with this method for a few reasons.

  1. Students like Sonia hide during small group work, presumably because they don’t want their problems with reading to be known.
  2. No matter how I structure the whole class “report out,” I rarely see the entire class engaged in listening and learning together. In other words, the traditional method lacks student engagement.

This year, I’m trying three things intended to increase the engagement of all students:

  • Groups of 3. When students are in groups of three, there is better overall engagement. I’ve seen Sonia playing a leadership role in her group of three, which never happens in larger teams.
  • Opinions matter. Close reading questions that call for opinions increase engagement. I see more disagreement and deeper conversations when I use opinion questions. Sonia rarely attempts the type of question that requires a right answer. However, she constantly answers questions that call for her opinion.
  • Students in circles for discussions increases engagement. After a few tries of circle discussions, students begin to talk to each other (not just the teacher), they listen more closely to each other, and I can see them building knowledge together. As for Sonia, she struggles to participate, but I see her paying attention the entire time and really trying to find a way to get into the conversation.

Sonia doesn’t look at me as warily as she used to. She still doesn’t understand much of what she reads, but I’m content with her progress in baby steps right now.

However, I’m left wondering whether baby steps are enough. I don’t think it is, so next I’ll change the way I am supporting Sonia’s reading of the textbook. favicon

Ed. Note: Dave Keller (@dkeller101) has been teaching Social Studies for 17 years, consistently looking for new curriculum and methods of instruction. While experimenting with technology in education, Dave focuses on teaching the reading and writing skills required for studying our social universe. He has taught classes throughout the Social Studies discipline in a variety of high schools, including a large comprehensive inner-city school, a charter school, and a competitive independent school. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at Piedmont High.

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We must teach reading deliberately

favicon By high school, most teachers don’t teach students how to read. There’s an assumption that students either know how or they don’t. If they don’t, that’s too bad.

That’s partly because high school teachers rarely learn about reading in their teacher preparation programs. I remember that I took a reading course two or three years after I received my preliminary credential. Things are likely different now, but any way you slice it (that’s the first time I’ve ever written that), high school teachers aren’t equipped to help students who struggle to read.

We must change this. I’m happy that I get to work with teachers who are.

An example: One teacher in Hayward has founded a reading cohort this year. Teachers meet once a month to talk about how they can teach reading better. Their basic text is Reading for Understanding, which I like. Mostly, they share ideas and try things. I get to attend the meetings, too.

Here are a few posters they made for the classroom:

My favorite thing about this teacher and her colleagues is that they’re not waiting for some expert to tell them “the right way” to teach reading. They don’t expect some important person from the Common Core to deliver a PD. They don’t look to me for all the answers. I’m happy they don’t — because it’s clear that there’s no one right way.

More important than any specific strategy is the consistent consciousness of teaching reading, the professional intent, the deliberate commitment. Little activities are nice, but they’re only effective when teachers think reading is important and are engaged in inquiry around what works. favicon

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A thoughtful critique of David Coleman

favicon Several posts ago, I encouraged English teachers to follow David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core State Standards, because of his power to change the way we teach reading.

Colette Marie Bennett, an English teacher in Connecticut, is on the case.

In “David Coleman: The Cheshire Cat of Education,” Ms. Bennett is as leery of Mr. Coleman as I am. Her thesis: “Coleman has materialized, like Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic Cheshire Cat, as the cool outsider who surveys education as a Wonderland ruled by nonsense.”

Ms. Bennett offers several excellent reasons for her leeriness. She contrasts her 21 years in the classroom with Mr. Coleman’s zero. She “remains unconvinced” (as I do) that a greater emphasis on close reading (the New Criticism approach) would significantly improve reading skills. (It might bore students.) And she prefers a balanced approach to reading instruction, one that blends close reading with Reader Response and independent reading.

I agree with Ms. Bennett. To teach reading well, we can’t approach it in just one way. Even if Mr. Coleman is right, his unmitigated push toward one teaching method is too absolute and will not engage all students to enhance their reading skills.

The biggest criticism that Ms. Bennett advances is that Mr. Coleman is an outsider, and she’s tired of non-educators telling teachers what to do. She concludes:

Carroll’s Cheshire Cat character is a tease, an enigmatic riddler who offers judgments and cryptic clues but no  solution to the frustrated Alice. Coleman is education’s Cheshire Cat, offering positions in education but with no evidence to prove his solutions will work.

Unfortunately, even though Mr. Coleman does not have evidence to support his conclusions, neither do most English teachers. The fact is, by high school, our students enter our classrooms as poor and reluctant readers, and it’s not clear right now what the best approach is to accelerate their skills.

My work this year — engaging teachers to put reading at the front of their practice — hopes to deliver some data for this inquiry. And I’m pretty sure that this hybrid approach that Ms. Bennett and Kelly Gallagher and I embrace is the right one, but in order to counteract Mr. Coleman and other strong political forces, we’ll have to have more numbers. favicon

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NewsHour report on teaching reading

 Learning Matters’ John Merrow reported last night on the PBS NewsHour about reading instruction and the trend toward teaching less fiction.

It’s 10 minutes long. Please take a look:

Merrow reviews three major reading instructional approaches: basal readers, balanced literacy, and core knowledge.

Most elementary schools have moved away from basal readers, even though the approach is cost-effective, and now use a balanced literacy program, which offers a combination of teacher-assigned texts and student independent reading.

The Core Knowledge approach, developed by cultural literacy proponent E.D. Hirsch, has become more popular with the spread of the Common Core standards. In Core Knowledge, “content is king,” Merrow says. Instead of focusing on teaching strategies, the idea is that students become better readers by building prior knowledge. The more you read, the better reader you become.

What’s interesting to me is that each of these programs does not immediately meet the demands of Common Core, with its emphasis on close reading, evidence, and New Criticism.

And yes, I’m still worried about the demise of fiction. Although I love informational texts, the last two years, I’ve come to realize the importance of fiction in young people’s lives. Here’s another article that supports my view: “You Are What You Read.” While nonfiction will build our analytical skills, fiction builds our empathy.

Please let me know what you think!