Reading Teacher Writes

Sharing a love of literacy with fellow readers and writers

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Ok, That’s IT! (It’s Reading That Creates Better Readers)

Ok, That’s It! I can’t take it anymore!

(NOTE: The following is an opinion piece meant to voice my own reflections about teaching reading and spreading the love of reading far and wide. I do not state specific research here — only what I have encountered in my years as an educator in general statements. Please be advised: I am only writing here. Please discuss with positive intent to improve reading education for students’ lifelong success.)

Every day I read research, posts on social media, journal articles, you name it. Each person or company attempts to sell their wares with the claim that they (and only they) can help students to achieve in the area of reading in school. AR (Accelerated Reader) gets the brunt of the criticism (maybe AR is the most widely used/well-known program for reading? I don’t know.), but there are other highly touted programs out there that claim high growth/better student achievement. Low test scores, lack of student growth, decreasing student achievement, poor school grades, are all indicators that something must be done about teaching reading in school. Students are failing. Schools are failing. Teachers are blamed, parents are blamed, schools are blamed. Politicians make grand speeches about how they can “fix” our schools. The hole that is student failure in reading is getting deeper. IF you ask “them.”

So what can we (namely, teachers) DO about this fiasco? I have a few ideas.

  1. Make reading in school FUN again. The fondest memories I have of school reading are of teachers who read aloud fantastic stories (using the voices of characters!) and showed us wonderful covers of beautiful books in well-stocked libraries, where we could choose what we wanted to read to take home. We got to use free time to peruse almanacs, maps, atlases, and we talked about the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not tales that grossed us out the most. Every year, my family saved money for the Scholastic Book Fair, because we would get new books to read and share. I was a good reader because I read. We read a lot.
  2. Make real reading a priority. Real reading. That means no snippets of articles or excerpts of stories that have been torn apart and meticulously “leveled” back together to “help” children read. Real reading. That means real books — not basal readers. Real reading. That means real authors weaving their own creations and illustrators designing the pages to make readers say,”Ah! Wow! Awesome!” Real reading, where students are led to practice (at least 20 minutes a day, uninterrupted, in school) with the help of a qualified reading teacher and supports that are there and can be taken away so students can transfer their learning from one text to another. (Yes, this means direct instruction, led by a teacher, and not a computer monitor.)
  3. Invite teachers to attend professional development: conferences, workshops, classes, etc. that will enhance their skills in teaching reading. Build PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) where teachers can learn with other educators and support each other in the work. (Yes! It’s work. That’s okay.) Have teachers practice “best practices” in reading, and watch how they — and their students — grow.
  4. Promote reading/literacy in each community in the nation. (Not just the affluent communities) Education is important, and reading is important for one to become an educated, intelligent citizen of our world. Be a reader yourself, spend time talking about reading, and spread the book love! (This is my favorite part of being a reader in the global community.)

I attended the IRA (International Reading Association, now International Literacy Association) Annual Conference in Minneapolis in 2009. I remember rushing to a session on reading research that would explain how to improve student achievement in reading (my area of teaching). I was so excited; I sat on the edge of my seat with my notebook in hand. I heard about research that spanned 5 years, with over a thousand subjects. At the end of the presentation, the main presenter looked at the crowd and asked, “You know what we found?” (“What? Tell me!” I thought. I readied my pen to the paper.) He gave a long pause and studied the faces looking back at him, and he smiled.

He said, “The more you read, the better reader you become.” 

I gasped (I could hear it.), I thought to myself, “What? Duh! I knew that!” Reading creates better readers.



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Update on Book Clubs

Update on Book Clubs: Letting Students Show What They Know

After the first week, the book clubs are still a hit! I noticed a few general trends and used my observations to speak with the groups today:

1) Students completely on their own will forget some of the skills and strategies they learned during the school year. A teacher facilitator’s job includes reminding students that they can, in fact, show what they know with a little review here and there. For example, one group was reading The Tiger Rising, and I noticed the readers completely skimmed over page 92 without saying anything to each other. (This whole page is absolutely an Ah-Ha moment! See Notice and Note signposts by Kylene Beers/Bob Probst.) I asked if I could butt in for a moment and had them reread the page. “Oh, yeah, we knew that.” I reminded them that when they stop naturally, that might be a place to share with others in the group. Maybe someone didn’t pick up on the signpost, and you all could have a great discussion. “OK!” Back to work.

2) Some students won’t be able to keep up with the assigned reading. Someone is always missing homework, and there’s always a reason for it. The group was upset at this one person, but the student had a family issues excuse, and needed encouragement more than a lecture.  My personal connection made the group think: “Remember when I had to leave and go to the doctor for my eye? I didn’t get my work done for a few days. My team helped me to catch up; it wasn’t nearly the problem it could have been because I got the support I needed.” Together, we set up a plan so the student could get back into the swing of things. Crisis averted!

3) Choice reading is the best, most engaging sort of reading that students do in school! How many times have we read the research by Donalyn Miller, Kylene Beers, Richard Allington, Nancy Atwell, and the many others who support reading what students choose to read! Transfer of skills, ladies and gentlemen! It works!

I love watching my students show what they know. They are excited, engaged, and energetic book club participants, and I am a captivated observer! Keep calm and read on! (Who said that?)


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SOLSC Day 25: Making Sense of Sentences

Slice of Life Small LogoThank you to the ladies at Two Writing Teachers ( for hosting the March Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Making Sense of Sentences

I read “Let’s Get Higher Scores on These New Assessments” by Timothy Shanahan in this month’s issue of The Reading Teacher (published by ILA). The journal really hit the spot with me in March. My school is so wrapped up with raising test scores that it’s easy to get sucked into the “test prep” mode of teaching. Every year it happens: “What are you going to do to prepare for ISTEP?” Well…I’m going to teach my students to read, to think, and to show what they know. I’ve never been one for “test prep” strategies, such as workbooks of reading passages with attached comprehension questions, written by testing companies to supposedly get kids to higher achievement levels. I know they don’t work; I’ve known for years. Shanahan stated, “The problem with this very popular approach is that it doesn’t work…It’s as effective as pushing the elevator button multiple times to hurry it along or turning the thermostat to 90 degrees to make a room warm up faster.” (460)

What does work, then, when it comes to passing standardized tests? Shanahan recommends teaching students to tackle those reading passages in a manner that will help them to show what they know. Once students know how to play the testing game better– once they have clear strategies that work — they can perform better. These approaches will help students to take action when they don’t understand. Students can have some control and power over these readings, and face their demons head on. One of the strategies is to teach students to “make sense of sentences.” This basic sentence know-how will help students to achieve.

First, students should read the difficult sentence and ask a couple of questions: 1) Who is involved? and  2) What is happening? I remember learning The Shurley Method 20 years ago. The “Question-and-Answer Flow” had students ask (after reading the sentence): “Who or What is (doing the action)?” Then they ask: “What is being said about (the “Who” or “What”)? For example:

The young boy ran quickly.

“Who ran quickly?” (The boy)      “What is being said about boy?” (he ran quickly)

This is a very basic account of The Shurley Method; there’s much more to the question-and-answer flow. My point (and Shanahan’s premise) is that once students know how sentences work, they can figure out what the sentences are telling them, and, therefore, answer questions and comprehend more easily.

Another strategy is to teach students how to take sentences apart in meaningful ways. In the example above, students can use the questioning strategies to help them to find the subjects and verbs. When moving to longer sentences, Shanahan noted that students can “break a sentence up at the punctuation points and at words like and, or, and that.” (461) Commas in sentences have a purpose; knowing how to break the parts down, and then reconnect them, aids comprehension. The article used a long sentence, as would a standardized testing passage. For my purposes here, I’ll use a passage from our current social studies textbook,The Western World:

“Italy remained divided into small states until the mid-1800s. At that time, a rise in nationalism, or strong patriotic feelings for a country, led people across Italy to fight for unification. As a result of their efforts, Italy became a unified kingdom in 1861.” (Holt McDougal, 531)

In this passage, “nationalism” IS “strong patriotic feelings for a country” (vocabulary). Once students know how to break up the vocabulary word from its appositive, they understand that the sentence actually defines the word, and then sentence as a whole becomes easier to handle. The last sentence has a dependent clause: “As a result of their efforts…” A student should say, “What? What is the result?” They can look for the “finish” at the end of the passage.

Shanahan presented more techniques in the article; I’m using his guidance for my mini lessons. Teachers can teach students ways to read text so that they understand and can help themselves towards success. When teachers teach the transferable strategies of reading, students will learn. “Test prep” then becomes “reading prep” or “learning prep” — something that the students can use every day of their lives, and not just on tests. Timothy Shanahan provided instructors with sensible methods to help students become stronger readers. He mentioned a few excellent strategies; I chose “making sense of sentences” for this post, because that’s what I’m currently doing with my students. I hope to see students’ standardized test scores improve, of course. I really hope my students will use their new-found knowledge to become strong, life-long readers and learners. A teacher can only teach, and hope.

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Student Engagement…Defined?

Administrators are looking for engaging lessons. Outside observers are looking for engaging activities. Teachers want engaging activities for their students. “Engaging” – a buzzword in education, to be sure.  What is “engaging” in classrooms, anyway?

The dictionary defines engaging as an adjective meaning charming and attractive. Hmm. Are lessons not engaging because I don’t write neatly on the chalkboard? Am I not dressed attractively enough to engage my students in the learning? Am I not charming enough? I tried synonyms for engaging: winsome, fetching, alluring. Now I’m supposed to be Prince Charming to be engaging? How am I ever going to get my students to learn anything? Then I changed my search to “student engagement in education.”

According to Chapman (2003), “the term ‘student engagement’ has been used to depict students’ willingness to take part in routine school activities, such as attending classes, submitting required work, and following teachers’ directions in class.” In my search to define student engagement, I also found Skinner and Belmont’s more comprehensive definition (1993): “[Students] who are engaged show sustained behavioral involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.”  If students are engaged in lessons because they choose to select activities, initiate action, exert effort, and show positive emotions, then how can teachers help them to choose these desired behaviors? Is it really a “dog and pony show?” I say, “No.”

My continued goal is to implement engaging activities where students choose to act, exert effort, and show positive emotions during the school day. I made a list of Dos and Don’ts to guide me in my journey:
DO                                                                                                     DON’T
use activity and movement in the classroom                 use worksheets to teach
show students how exerting effort leads to success      assign “busy work” I won’t grade
set the purpose for each lesson/activity/reading            sit down at my desk and watch students
communicate clearly                                                     tell students to “figure it out” themselves
create choices                                                                assign every student the same work
show positive emotions about learning                         give the “evil eye” to students
give opportunities of time to learn                                 hurry students to get the work done

Some of these Dos and Don’ts may seem vague or uncertain (of course I’m going to give the “evil eye” to a student who is wasting time, but only after I have clearly taught the procedures, lesson scaffolds, etc. and he/she is still not exerting effort to get the task done), but it’s a starting list for me to remember to be engaging in the classroom.

What is your definition of student engagement? How will you teach engaging lessons this school year? It’s almost time to start!

Chapman, E. (2003). “Alternative approaches to assessing student engagement rates.”Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 8(13).

Skinner, E.A., & Belmont, M.J. (1993). “Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4). p. 572.


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Curriculum Tip: April 2, 2013

Taking a Break

It’s spring break here, and I was just thinking about how great it is to have some time to read for fun. No homework, no lessons, no projects. Just reading. Research concludes that any time spent reading helps one to become a better reader. What are you reading?

Spring Break Book List — Feel free to share your list with us!

Life of Pi (Martel)

The Happiness Project (Rubin)

Liar & Spy (Stead)

The Last Lecture (Pausch)

My Beloved World (Sotomayor)