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Student-centered learning motivates and engages.
Dr. Catherine Snow of Harvard University and her colleagues observed second and fourth grade teachers over a period of two years (1991). During this time they observed that effective teachers:
- provide explicit instruction;
- have classroom routines;
- challenge and involve students in learning;
- create a supportive, encouraging, and friendly classroom environment;
- schedule frequent library visits;
- design stimulating learning experiences;
- ask high level questions; and
- display student work around the classroom.
Studies by Richard Allington and Peter Johnston corroborated Snow’s findings (2001). It was more the teacher than the materials he or she had available that made a difference in students’ achievement. As you read the list of the characteristics teachers need to cultivate in order to create proficient readers and writers reflect on your practice. Outstanding teachers:
- have a deep knowledge of how to teach reading and writing;
- provide opportunities for monitoring and supporting students;
- use intrinsic motivation—motivation that comes from within the learner that often results from reaching specific goals;
- have the highest expectations for every student;
- make learning relevant to students’ lives;
- encourage diverse interpretations and alternative points of view; and
- are warm, nurturing, flexible, enthusiastic about teaching, and expanded their professional knowledge by reading journals, books, and discussing these with colleagues on a regular basis.
Self-Evaluate Your Teaching Practices
The question I ask teachers to reflect on is, Are my teaching practices more 19th century than 21st century? In the 19th and 20th century, teaching focused on preparing students to work in factories, on assembly lines, and on farms. However, the learning demands for the 21st century ask students to collaborate and use technology to learn and communicate globally and become creative problem solvers. It’s crucial to keep teachers abreast of the research on integrating technology into learning in meaningful ways. To accomplish this and create curious students who are proficient readers and writers who can collaborate to solve global problems, every school district needs to consider investing in teachers.
Ongoing Professional Study Develops Top Notch Teachers
When professional study occurs at the building level each week throughout the year, teachers can use research to develop and adjust their theory of learning, improve their teaching practices and students’ learning. Schools have a wide-range of inexpensive choices for professional study that includes reading and discussing professional articles and books, watching and discussing educational videos on TeacherTube and YouTube, and sharing and discussing lessons and interventions. In addition, I recommend that during these meetings teachers reserve time with colleagues for discussing students who aren’t making progress in reading in order to collect ideas that can move students forward.
Suggestions for organizing ongoing professional study:
- Have grade level teams or department members meet weekly during a common planning period. School administrators rotate through these meetings to learn with their staff and stay abreast of changes and adjustments in instruction, and materials needed for students. Librarians and media specialists attend a different meeting each week.
- Assemble the faculty and administrators bi-monthly during scheduled full-faculty meetings. Teachers and administrators can organize themselves into smaller groups that meet on specific topics the group agrees to investigate. To make this possible the principal or another school administrator e-mails teachers schedule changes and upcoming events a few days prior to a full faculty meeting.
- Invite an educator to your school to lead professional study on a topic that interests all teachers. Continue the professional study with bi-monthly or monthly Skype or Google Plus sessions between the educator and teachers so the effects of one inspirational day continue to boost teachers’ and administrators’ learning throughout the school year. However, teachers and administrators need to meet in small groups on a regular basis.
In addition to ongoing professional study, Richard L Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel developed six elements of effective reading instruction that can alter teaching practices and improve the achievement of all students in their classes.
Improving Every Child’s Reading Every Day
In 2012, Allington and Gabriel published a landmark article called “Every Child, Every Day” in Educational Leadership. The pair explained six elements of instruction that won’t cost school districts extra money or time. According to these educators, these six elements happen daily and are what all children need to become engaged and motivated readers.
- Every child reads something he or she chooses. Self-selected reading develops students’ literary tastes, builds on their interests, and develops the motivation to read, read, read!
- Every child reads accurately. Students who read accurately most of the time are good readers. However, “reading” texts at a frustration level fosters disfluent and inaccurate reading. This means placing students in texts at their instructional reading levels so they can improve and experience success.
- Every child reads something he or she understands. Common sense dictates that students should read books they can learn from and understand.
- Every child writes about something personally meaningful. Just as students cherish choice with reading, they also value choosing a topic for writing. Writing is not a prompt. Writing is selecting a topic that has meaning and relevance to the writer’s life.
- Every child talks with peers about reading and writing. Meaningful discussions about books and other reading materials improve comprehension as students listen to diverse interpretations. When students peer evaluate each other’s writing, they deepen their knowledge of writing process and help each other improve their writing.
- Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud. When teachers read aloud every day they provide students with models of prosody, expressive reading that shows understanding and fluency. In addition, teachers who read aloud improve students’ vocabulary, listening capacity, and knowledge of literary syntax.
Two More Recommendations
To make time for meaningful reading and writing, Allington and Gabriel make two recommendations for teachers and administrators to consider.
- Teachers eliminate most worksheets and workbooks and use the dollars saved to purchase books for class libraries. In addition, teachers need to use time gained for self-selected reading and writing and group discussions about reading materials.
- Schools should ban test-prep activities and materials that span several months. The authors pointed out that there are no research studies that support that test prep improves students’ reading proficiency or test performance. Outstanding readers do well on high stakes tests because they have the expertise to comprehend complex texts. Money will be saved by not purchasing test-prep materials, and can be spent on print and e-books.
It’s no mystery: for students to improve in reading and writing, they need to read and write every day. In addition to listening to the teacher read aloud, students need to read materials at their instructional level with the guidance of their teacher. However, they also need to read 40 to 60 self-selected books a year if they are to make adequate yearly progress. An exemplary teacher who stays abreast of research on best practices and technology can make all of this happen and reach every student in his or her class!
Allington, R. L. & Gabriel, R. E. (2012). “Every Child, Every Day.” Educational Leadership, 69(6): 10-15.
Allington, R. L. & Johnston, P.H. (2001). Good Fourth Grade Teaching. New York: Guildford
Snow,C., Barnes, !., Chandler, J., Goodman, I.F., & Hemphill, L. (1991). Home and School Influences on Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The Principal’s Corner
When teachers and administrators engage in online conversations about professional articles, they are engaging in effective, ongoing professional study that involves members of their learning community. You can use Google Docs to post articles to the entire faculty or to specific departments or groups. Doing this permits you to start the conversation by posting comments and inviting teachers to read the materials and join the discussion. The principal and teachers can read each other’s comments, continually extend the conversation, and enlarge their knowledge of best practices and research on integrating technology into a student-centered approach to learning.
This type of professional study is especially effective for schools with large faculties that do not have regular full faculty meetings or common planning times for teachers. If you are too busy to continually read and post worthwhile articles, invite a department chair, lead teacher, reading specialist, or school librarian to support you. When teachers learn and enlarge their knowledge of best practice, they can improve the learning of the children they teach.
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.
Follow Evan Robb on Twitter: @ERobbPrincipal