Blogstitute 2016: Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

June 21st, 2016

Welcome back to week 2 of our Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. We are excited to bring you a post by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, whose latest book is the groundbreaking Who’s Doing the Work. You can still preview their book on the Stenhouse website, but first read their post below about why and how students reach a reading plateau and what you can do about it. There’s also some dancing involved. Be sure to comment or Tweet about this post for a chance to win our 10 new fall books! And be sure to join the #G2Great Twitter chat this Thursday, June 23 at 8:30 p.m. EST with Jan and Kim to discuss shared reading.

The Electric Slide Effect: Explaining Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

Whos Doing the WorkTraditionally, the gradual release of responsibility has been viewed as a process educators follow through a single lesson: teacher does, students and teacher do together, students do. However, a single lesson is often not enough. In many cases, students need varied levels of support on multiple occasions to get sufficient practice to really learn the thing they are trying to master. This means that, to avoid learning plateaus, we must hold tight to all four instructional contexts: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. As a whole, they provide students both the practice and the support they need to improve.

How Learning to Read Is Like Learning to Dance

Can you do the Electric Slide? The Electric Slide has been a dance party staple since we were teenagers, so over the years we have had multiple opportunities to learn and join in this dance. If you have ever learned the Electric Slide, or any other line dance, then you have keen insight into the gradual release of responsibility, including why each instructional context is critical for the transfer of learning.


Imagine you are somewhere with live music, the band begins to play the Electric Boogie, and the cool cats rush out to the dance floor. On cue, their feet and arms begin to sway and move synchronously. You stand along the edge of the dance floor admiring their coordination, feeling the call of the music, and wanting to be part of the fun. This watching from the side is like read-aloud, where a skilled other shows you the joy that can be yours as soon as you learn to read. This kind of reading aloud is a commercial for reading, just as watching people dance entices you to want to learn the Electric Slide.

You continue to watch carefully as the dancers move—right foot right, count to four, left foot right, cross behind the right foot—analyzing their strategies for changing direction or for keeping time. This close watching is also like read-aloud, when the more skilled other gives you a window into the strategies that will make the new task more accessible. When you are watching a dance because you want to learn to do it, you watch differently. The same is true for learning to read.

Jan and Kim 2014Shared Reading

Next, you move to the dance floor where the crowd dances as one. You stand behind someone who appears to be a viable candidate for So You Think You Can Dance? and attempt to jump in. Your dancing model holds the choreography, dancing steadily even as you stumble through the steps. Noticing your struggle, she begins to support you by counting or calling out the next step. Eventually, you bumble less and dance more. This phase of learning the Electric Slide is like shared reading. The learner approximates as the lead offers guidance while maintaining a steady reading pace.

Guided Reading

The song ends before you quite have the Electric Slide down. You, joined by a few other novices, pull your dancing friend aside to get both confirmation and guidance. Each beginning dancer works through a different sticking point, tries different movements, asks questions, makes attempts, and repeats the process until his or her Electric Slide is stabilized. The teacher celebrates your success, and you feel like John Travolta! You can’t wait to hear the Electric Boogie again! This small-group Electric Slide support is like guided reading, where the teacher watches the students work through the reading process independently as they identify tricky spots, try new strategies, and confirm or revise approximations.

Independent Reading

Finally, driven by your vision of yourself taking command of the dance floor, you crank up the Electric Boogie at home in your bedroom. As with independent reading, you choose how much or little you practice; you choose when and where to practice; and you even choose what music to practice to, switching to Don Henley’s All She Wants to Do Is Dance after you’ve replayed the Electric Boogie for the eleventh time. As you practice more and more, you mess up less and less, your confidence and your joy rise, and you begin to plan your groovy wardrobe for the next dance party.

Becoming a Cool Cat

We must confess: neither of us has mastered the Electric Slide. Like the teacher frustrated by the student readers stuck at the same place on the reading proficiency continuum, we find ourselves frustrated by our Electric Slide plateau. Why haven’t we ever mastered this silly dance that everyone else seems to have been born knowing? We think our need for an Electric Slide intervention has to do with our instruction, and the missing instructional contexts in our experience.

Learning involves progress across the gradual release, with each stage in this release represented by a different instructional context: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. In our case, with the Electric Slide, steps along the gradual release have been omitted, as is the case with reading in many classrooms today.

Historically, we have watched the Electric Slide and then jumped in expecting to be able to do it, always a step off, always facing the wrong direction. This is the equivalent of moving from read-aloud to independent reading without having time to stabilize and consolidate our learning through shared and guided experiences. We can’t learn the Electric Slide by skipping the instructional contexts that afford us the additional practice we need to truly master the dance, any more than we can skip shared reading and/or guided reading and expect students to progress as readers.

In reading instruction, this Electric Slide pattern of skipping instructional contexts is classic, with one instructional context favored over another until there is a pendulum swing in the other direction. For example, pre-Common Core, many children received a lot of guided reading instruction, leaving very little time for read-aloud and almost no time for shared reading, which made the shift brought about by the Common Core predictable! Since the Common Core and its emphasis on text complexity, educators have shifted to doing a lot more read-aloud and shared reading, and in many cases almost no guided and/or independent reading.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to avoid the Electric Slide effect in your students, if you want the reading strategies you teach students to transfer to their independent practice, then hold tight to all four instructional contexts. These four ways of supporting students’ authentic interactions with text work together as a whole and give students the varied practice they need to grow.

See you on the dance floor!

Jan & Kim

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 22nd, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    Interesting comparison. I never would have thought about a line dance comparison to reading, but it makes so much sense! I also have often wondered about this plateau and have speculated that it could be related to the differences in structure and complexity of non-fiction vs. fiction texts.

  • 2. Lisa C  |  June 23rd, 2016 at 5:29 am

    I love this comparison! Gradual release us perplexing to some people and I think this illustrates it beautifully!

  • 3. Delia Garrett  |  June 23rd, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Great analogy. I particularly like the culminating thoughts that
    ” authentic reading” practices are key for enhancing student progress.

  • 4. Elisa Waingort  |  June 23rd, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Thanks for this post. I’m currently reading your book with other teachers on FB. Your book is making me think a lot. I don’t always seamlessly agree with everything that you say as I’m reading, but I am seeing where the parts fit into the whole. I do have a question about the comment above that we can’t jump from read aloud to independent reading without doing shared and guided reading first. I think you meant that we need to do all of these structures simultaneously in the classroom and provide the appropriate level of support to our students. However, I hope you can clarify this as independent reading has always been a staple in my classroom regardless of what other structures were in place at the time depending on the grade level I was teaching. Thanks for responding to my query.

  • 5. Julie O'Neill  |  June 23rd, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Hi Jan & Kim! Thanks for reminding us teachers about the value and connectedness of a balanced approach to literacy. Your electric slide comparison will be helpful when talking with parents about the components of our literacy program.

  • 6. Jennifer  |  June 24th, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    I am participating in the book study on FB. I am really enjoying the conversations we are having around your book. Thank you for publishing it. It has opened my eyes into how I can move kids forwards. I have at least one group of students a year that seems to plateau at a reading level. Implementing read aloud and shared reading will help students move forward.

  • 7. Teresa F  |  June 25th, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Although this book is intended for lower grades than what I teach, the steps you mention can still be used in the higher grades. Students need lots of guided practice to move toward independence. I have found that I sometimes rush from the first step to the last one without providing enough guided practice that some students need. This post was a good reminder of the importance of each step in the process.

  • 8. Diane Anderson  |  June 25th, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    A fun comparison to help remember that each of the four instructional contexts are important in learning to read because each offers a different aspect of support and practice.

  • 9. Christie  |  June 28th, 2016 at 6:15 am

    I am literally LOL because there is a party in my school community every year and everyone hits the dance floor for the ES and I so want to do it like they do! But, because this party is only once each year, and it’s the only time I “practice,” of course it doesn’t go well. I need to do it more often, just like reading practice. I am a kindergarten teacher and have held firm to the four reading contexts — it’s a battle of time. I also think that a powerful addition to my personal “program” has been taking home book bags on Fridays with our GR tub books. This chance to practice at home, and read to family members, has been empowering for my students.

  • 10. Terje  |  June 29th, 2016 at 2:23 am

    Your comparison with dance is easy to connect to. Taking dance lessons helped me to understand my students and their learning struggles better. I appreciate that your book was available for preview. I ordered it for our school library and look forward to rereading it in print version.

  • 11. Karen Wood  |  June 29th, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    A coworker forwarded this to me and I am very glad she did. This looks like a book I need to get my hands on!

  • 12. Marge Andrews  |  June 30th, 2016 at 8:32 am

    This is so true! So many of the teachers we work with forget about using shared reading to introduce a new genre or text structure and in doing so, miss an excellent opportunity to introduce and model reading strategies in an efficient way. Shared reading is powerful practice and not just for kindergarten and first grade.

  • 13. Erika Victor  |  July 6th, 2016 at 9:31 am

    I like your analogy. I am picking up the book at ILA this week and look forward to reading more. This truly has been an amazing summer for PD reads!

  • 14. Vicki  |  July 22nd, 2016 at 6:04 am

    Great analogy. Teaching at the college level this is s wonderful structure for students to think about the different purposes for types if reading

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