Organizing Reading Instruction
In grades four and five most teachers have a large block of time for reading and can organize instruction into three or at the most four guided reading groups. Once students enter middle school, teachers have 42 to 50 minutes to teach reading, therefore, meeting frequently with guided reading groups becomes impossible.
Whether your curriculum is based on guided reading, reading workshop, or a more traditional model, three teaching and learning practices should be an integral part of instruction: Instructional Interactive Read Aloud, Instructional Reading, and Independent Reading. In this newsletter, I will discuss the benefits of each one of these teaching practices.
Instructional Interactive Read Aloud
Reading can be taught, and having the teacher model in a think aloud how she applies a reading strategy builds and/or enlarges students’ mental model of how a strategy works. For this aspect of instruction, I suggest that the teacher models with a short text that matches the genre and/or theme that ties a reading unit together. Short texts can include a picture book, an excerpt from a longer text, a folk or fairy tale, myth or legend, a short, short story, or an article from a magazine or newsletter.
Once you’ve modeled how to apply a strategy such as making inferences, add the interactive component. The goal is to involve students as soon as possible for two reasons:
- You can observe students’ thinking process. You can also identify students who don’t respond and confer with them to explore their reasons not participating. Once you know why active involvement is minimal, you can help them gain the confidence to participate by helping them prepare to answer a question.
- You’ll involve students in the lesson and make it interactive instead of passive. Involving students in the lesson can lead to engagement and an investment in the learning.
Here are some skills and strategies that you can model in interactive read aloud lessons:
- Making inferences
- Identifying big ideas and themes
- Identifying central ideas and themes
- Locating important details
- Skimming to find details
- Author’s purposes
- Purposes of informational texts (nonfiction) and literature (fiction)
- Literary Elements and how each supports comprehension: setting, protagonist, antagonists, plot, conflicts, other characters, climax, denouement
- Informational text structures and how these support comprehension: description, compare/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solutions, sequence, question/answer
- Word choice as a guide to pinpointing mood or tone
- Vocabulary building with an emphasis on: general academic vocabulary, figurative language and comprehension, using roots, prefixes, suffices, discussing concepts, diverse word meanings, and different forms of a word.
During class, the teacher can continually circulate among students to observe and offer quick, desk side conferences.
Instructional reading should happen during class. Students need to read materials at their instructional reading level—about 95% reading accuracy and about 85 % comprehension. Organizing instructional reading around a genre and theme—for example biography with a theme of obstacles—permits students to read different texts and discuss their reading around the genre and theme.
The reading workshop model is ideal for this type of reading instruction. The class opens with an interactive read aloud lesson that lasts about ten minutes and occurs daily. These lessons include vocabulary and word building. You can find books for students in your school library, your community public library, and in your class library and school’s bookroom (if you have one). Instructional reading books stay in the classroom, as students from different sections will be using the same materials each day.
Teachers have students chunk instructional texts by putting a sticky note at the end of every two to three chapters. When students reach a sticky note, they stop to discuss their books with a partner and then a group of four. During this stop-to-think time, students can write about their books, connect the theme to the book, and apply strategies and skills the teacher has modeled during interactive read aloud lessons.
Partners should be no more than one year apart in reading levels so they have something to contribute to each other. Students reading far below grade level learn with the teacher.
Reading forty to sixty self-selected books can become the achievement game changer, especially for students who read below grade level. Students can read graphic novels, comics, magazines, e-books, and print books. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read, read, read!
Have students keep a Book Log of the titles they’ve read and reread. Do not ask students to do a project for each completed book, for that will turn them away from reading. A book talk a month and a written book review twice a year on independent reading is enough. Trust and a personal reading life are what your building. In the archived newsletter, “Independent Reading” you’ll find directions for four book talks and for writing book reviews. You’ll find this newsletter under the tab, “Resources” on my website.
Students should complete thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. Try to set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school.
TEN Ways to Improve Students Reading
To develop students’ reading proficiency and motivation to read, you need to balance instructional and independent reading. Both kinds of reading are the foundation of these ten suggestions.
- Instructional Reading: teach students to comprehend and think deeply about instructional materials to enlarge their vocabulary, enlarge their prior knowledge, and develop understandings of complex concepts such as human rights.
- Independent Reading: in addition to instructional reading, students read thirty to fifty books a year —books they can read with 99% to 100% accuracy. Like sports, to improve their reading students practice skills and build automaticity in applying specific strategies.
- Choice: give students choice in independent reading materials and as much as possible with instructional texts. Choice results in motivation and engagement because students explore their passions and interests.
- Easy Access to Reading Materials: one of my eighth graders pointed out, “we need all kinds of reading [materials] at our fingertips.” My hope is that teachers will build class libraries with 700 to 1000 books and magazines on a wide range of topics and reading levels.
- Teacher Reads Aloud: read aloud to introduce students to different authors and genres and model how you think about texts. Choose materials students will enjoy!
- Discussions: these make learning interactive, help students clarify their hunches, and provide accessible peer models for thinking about texts.
- Book Talks: invite students to present a book talk a month to advertise favorites. Over ten months, students will be introduced to 250 to 300 plus books recommended by peers.
- Silent Reading: set aside twenty to twenty-five minutes of silent reading at school. This can be instructional and independent reading. Have students read at home for thirty minutes each night.
- Readers Notebooks: 4invite students to complete informal written responses in their notebooks. Students can draw, draw and write, or write their reactions to read alouds and instructional and independent reading.
- Conferences: hold three to five minute conferences to discover students’ reading strengths, build self-confidence, and determine whether scaffolds are needed. Show students how to confer with one another and document their paired discussions.
These ten ways to improve reading provide research-based practices that can help students develop positive attitudes toward reading and read, read, read to build stamina and proficiency.
The Principal’s Corner
Including the three layers of reading into a middle school curriculum brings balance, engagement, and motivation to the curriculum and holds the potential of improving reading for all students. When the teacher models how she/he applies a skill or strategy to a specific text, the teacher provides opportunities for all students to observe how a skill or strategy works. Instructional reading asks students to apply specific skills and strategies to texts that can improve students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and skill because these texts stretch students’ thinking with the teacher, the expert, as a supportive guide. Equally important is independent reading: easy, enjoyable texts that students self-select on topics, genres, or by authors that interest them—texts about two years below students’ instructional level.
In my school, I hold teachers accountable for the three types of reading. I encourage teachers to set an independent reading goal for students of forty books a year in addition to their instructional reading. Independent reading that offers students multiple opportunities to practice what they learn from instructional reading can develop students’ personal reading lives and accelerate their reading achievement.
To support independent reading, try to find and allocate funds to build teachers’ classroom libraries so students have quick access to books. Once-a-week-visits to the library are not enough to meet the forty-book challenge.
Here are some sites to Google to find outstanding books for class libraries:
- Teachers Choices and Children’s Choices: a yearly list from the International Literacy Association
- Orbis Pictus Annual Awards for Nonfiction
- American Library Association’s Annual List of the Best Young Adult Books.
- The National Association of Teacher’s of English (NCTE) annual list of Books for a Global Society
- The Newbery Award Winners
- The Children’s Book Center’s annual list of multicultural books
Evan Robb, Principal Johnson Williams Middle School and author of: The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.