Questions & Authors: Finding the time for reading

A few weeks ago we heard from Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall), about the essentials of guided reading groups. In this installment of Questions & Authors Pat’s coauthor, Katie Keier shares some practical tips for making time for in-class reading.

We all agree that kids need lots of in-school time to read, enjoy books, and share their books and ideas with others. Besides the guided reading time, how else can we make that happen in classrooms where teachers are pushed to do test preparation and worry about their overflowing curriculum demands?

While guided reading is one time in your day to have your students reading, there are many more opportunities we, as teachers, can create.  If our goal is making sure we have kids who not only can read, but choose to read, then we must provide lots of opportunities within the school day to help all readers develop a reading process system and practice using it with meaningful, authentic texts. Having choice in what they read helps these readers see how reading can become a part of their lives. Our daily read aloud time, independent reading time and the teacher’s modeling can support not only the readers who struggle, but also every other reader in your classroom.

Read Alouds. I read aloud as much as possible in the classroom. There is no substitution for a teacher passionately sharing a book he/she loves. Bringing in new books that I find and sharing them with my students helps them see reading as something we do for enjoyment as well as a way to learn new things. I use picture books in every classroom I work in, from kindergarten through sixth grade. I share books from favorite authors, new books I discover that I know kids will love, and books connected to content area topics. What better way to introduce or sustain a topic in science or social studies than by sharing an engaging book? I also use interactive read alouds to teach reading strategies and to help children see a reading process system at work. Our writer’s workshop often starts with a read aloud, as students learn to read like writers through these mentor texts. I don’t see read aloud as a separate time that I may or may not squeeze in, but rather as a key piece of my instruction.

The books I read aloud to kids are the ones that don’t stay on our class bookshelves or in the library for long. Kids want to take these books home and reread them independently or with friends and family. It’s important to make sure your readers who struggle are not pulled out for intervention during read aloud time. This is not “just reading aloud”, but rather a critical time where they can hear fluent, expressive reading modeled, laugh or cry in response to a great book, share ideas and feelings with classmates, and hear a teacher think aloud.  Read aloud time also exposes struggling readers to books at a higher level than they can read independently. They need these opportunities to comprehend and participate in discussions.  Feeling part of the classroom reading community is important. Protect your read aloud time. All kids need to be there for it.

Independent Reading Time. Kids need lots of time, every day, to read books independently. It’s really the only way we can improve at anything – by practicing. Sadly, independent reading time often gets pushed aside in favor of test preparation workbooks, lengthy organizers for kids to record what they are reading (instead of reading), and other activities that take away from reading. Without sustained periods of independent reading time, our students will not be able to have the endurance necessary for the standardized reading tests they are required to take, nor will they learn to enjoy and love reading – our ultimate goal. Independent reading time is a necessary piece of every school day.

In the classrooms where I work, children have boxes or bags of books that are “just right” for them. Often these are books they have read with a teacher in guided reading groups, or a teacher has helped them choose based on a reading level. I agree that kids need to be reading these books every day. Books that are just right for them support their developing reading process system.  The more they practice reading strategically in appropriate level texts the stronger their system becomes.

 However, I also feel that kids need time to read books they have chosen, maybe for no other reason than that the topic or the picture on the cover interests them. A fellow teacher once gave me the idea of having kids keep their “just right” books in a large Ziploc bag. They could also have 4-6 free choice books outside the bag, in their individual book box or desk. It didn’t matter what kind of books these were. The agreement during independent reading time is that they have to read from their bags first, then they can read their free choice books. This has worked quite well at keeping a balance of “just-right” books with free choice books. And it’s amazing how often those free choice books end up moving into the bags as the kids become stronger readers!

Modeling what readers do.  When I tell my students that I read on Twitter that Chris Van Allsburg has a nonfiction book coming out in April, they are as excited as I am. I share author blogs with my students and videos on YouTube of authors reading their books. I bring new books into the classroom frequently, and share my excitement with my students. I love books and reading and love sharing that with my students. I try to be a constant model of what a lifelong reader does. I talk to my students about trying to navigate my way through the complicated owner’s manual on my new camera as well as how I read Pete the Cat to my dog because I was so excited to get it in the mail (and it’s one of those books that begs to be read aloud!)

I feel that bringing excitement and enthusiasm about books into your classroom will get a lot of your readers who struggle to rethink what reading means to them. When you create this culture in your classroom, even your most reluctant readers will be motivated to find a book they enjoy. The more you read aloud great books, provide time daily for students to read in class, engage your class in conversations about books, take note of your student’s interests and find books that appeal to them, and support them in creating a reading process system, the more likely you are to have readers who not only can read, but choose to read.

4 comments February 16th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Essentials for guided reading

In this installment of Questions & Authors, Pat Johnson, co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4, talks about small groups for guided reading and how they can help students in grades 3-6 who are reading below their grade level. She offers some essentials that teachers need to remember when conducting these groups. Check back soon for more tips from Pat’s co-author, Katie Keier, on how to create in-school time for students to read, enjoy, and share books.

A common problem for students in grades 3-6 who are struggling putting a reading process system together is that they are often in books that are too hard for them. In order to avoid giving them “baby books,” they end up in novel unit groups and teachers try to pull them along with the other students. When the text is too difficult, the struggling reader expends all his energies figuring out the words and thus comprehension suffers. These readers often practice “fake reading” as they only pretend to look like they are engaged in these chapter books.  We would suggest letting them participate in these chapter book literature circle discussions after they have listened to the book on a CD or allowing another student, parent, or volunteer to read the text to them.  Then, in combination with that, these students participate in guided reading lessons with text that is more appropriate to their reading levels. Students in grades 3-6 who are still considered below grade level need some very focused teaching.  Guided reading small group gatherings are the perfect place for this.

Here are a few essential elements that help make the teaching in small groups effective for these students:

  • Use short text
  •  Keep meaning-making at the forefront
  • Plan in ways that help you tailor the lesson to the specific needs of the group
  • Allow talk time as you encourage students to negotiate the meaning of the text beyond the literal level and actually teach talking behaviors to maximize comprehension

Why short texts?  We find that using short text in guided reading helps both the teacher and students focus better.  Many high interest short texts can be found in children’s magazines or from the internet, in poetry, or in short stories or vignettes. It’s easier for struggling readers when the text is short.  They don’t feel so overwhelmed and approach the task with a more “I can do this” attitude. Remember, guided reading is a time for the students to practice putting their system of strategies together. Problem solving is part of reading, and if they are appropriately matched to the text, they will be able to balance word solving along with comprehension.  Also, the teacher can focus on the students’ comprehension better when the text is not a complete novel.  The whole guided reading lesson from start to finish can be completed in 2-3 sessions without the students losing interest.

Making meaning.  Always keep meaning-making at the forefront of the guided reading lesson.  Even if you have the students practicing a particular strategic action — such as, maintaining fluency, asking questions and searching for answers as you read the text, or using context clues to help figure out the meanings of unknown words — it’s still crucial to have students realize that  reading is about meaning-making. Fountas and Pinnell say, “Keep the language grounded in good texts so that students understand that their goal is to understand and notice more rather than to ‘do’ a strategy.” (p. 353). Let students respond to the text in a very conversational way. With short text it’s easier for students to go back to selected lines or paragraphs that confused them and get help from others in the group.  They learn how to build meaning together. 

Plan ahead.  Just like any other teaching that we do, planning ahead for our guided reading lessons is especially important for struggling readers. I use a sheet that lists four areas that help me think through the lesson. Focus: Why have I called these students together? What have my assessments and anecdotal notes told me that these students need practice with? Text Introduction: I jot down a 2-3 sentence summary of what this text will be about and then add a hook or question that will invite the children to talk about the topic. Connection and Purpose: I connect the lesson to previous lessons and then give the students a purpose for reading.  For example, “Read to find out as much as you can about this narrator, the “I” of this text.” Or “You just shared how dangerous tornadoes can be. Read to find out some ways to keep safe during a tornado.” Notes: I sometimes jot down a few ideas that are important for this text in order to get it’s full meaning.  I want to be ready to guide the students back to the text if their talk gets too far off topic.  Each teacher usually develops her own planning sheet based on what works for her and her students. 

Time for talk. What sometimes happens in classroom whole-group discussions is that a few talkers do all the discussing.  Struggling readers often become passive because they know there are others who will fill the silence.  So, meeting in small groups with only these struggling readers offers them more opportunity to get their ideas out. They may be reluctant to talk and offer opinions until they see the environment as a safe place to share.  It’s important that the teacher take time to actually “teach talking behaviors” as Maria Nichols says in Talking About Texts. Because of her work, I am more careful to support students as they learn to:

  •  Respond to each other
  • Provide evidence for opinions
  • Confirm for themselves rather than waiting for teacher approval
  • Grasp that their idea can be put on hold to delve further into another student’s idea
  • Realize that thoughts can be questioned.

In this supportive setting, the readers see that ideas and feelings you have about a text can change and grow over time.

No matter how you structure your reading workshop time, we hope that you are striving to meet the needs of the struggling readers in your classroom.  Small group instruction, tailored to the students’ needs, is very effective in supporting these students to grow into proficient readers.  Taking the time to find short, interesting texts for guided reading will add to your powerful teaching.

7 comments January 26th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independence Through Conferences

In More Than Guided Reading, author Cathy Mere shares her journey as she moved from focusing on guided reading as the center of her reading program to placing children at the heart of literacy learning. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cathy talks about how individual conferences play a big role in creating independent readers.

One afternoon during reader’s workshop, I knelt down beside Katie to talk about the book she had chosen to read, The Big Kick by Beverley Randell. Even though I had read this story aloud a million times, I was having a hard time understanding her retelling. She didn’t quite seem to get the gist of what she was reading. The story is about Tom and his dad who, while out in the yard playing soccer, kick the ball over the fence and have to try to find it. Since Katie seemed to be having a hard time understanding the story, I wanted to try to determine what was making the reading challenging for her. Was she actually having trouble reading the story or just difficulty understanding it? I asked if she would read a page or two to me and took a running record as she read.

As I listened, I noticed that when she got to an unknown word she would stop and look at me. My prompts to “try it” produced only puzzled looks. She was uncertain about how to help herself. I thought that if I gave her some strategies to try, she might be able to read with more success. Unfortunately, because Katie was not attempting to read tricky words at all, I had little information to go on.Was she able to use meaning to help figure out unknown words? Was she using available picture cues? Was she looking at the word and thinking about what it might be?

There was no way for me to know the cues she was attending to. As I talked with Katie I said, “I notice that when you are reading and you come to a word you don’t know, you stop and look at me. I want you to try to figure out the word on your own. Let me show you something I think might help. When you are stuck, go back a little and reread; then, when you reach that hard word, try something that makes sense. You can use the picture and think about the story to help as well.” We practiced rereading and attempting to figure out the word when she was stuck. Then, since she was still having difficulty, I reread with her and let her try the word, lowering my voice as hers took over.We did this several times, with occasional prompts from me. I praised these attempts, even though she did not always produce the word in the text, because they did allow me to see what information Katie was using to read new text. I put her back on my schedule for the following day. I wanted to follow up quickly, to make attempting an unknown word something she does independently.

Conferences That Shape Independence
While focus lessons allow me to develop common conversations in our classroom community, conferences allow me to shape my instruction to individual students. Changing my schedule to allow time for conferences has not only helped me to carry focus-lesson conversations into the workshop and learn about my students as readers, it has also allowed me to address specific student needs.

The readers in our primary-level classrooms read at their own pace and often have different needs. Instead of working with Katie in a small group, where my attention is divided, in a conference I can focus on her, jumping in quickly when she needs support, prompting her responses as necessary, and praising her attempts at reading.My goal is to support Katie with what is next in her learning, helping her to use new strategies to read increasingly challenging text with understanding.

Having time within the day to meet individually with students has made it easier for me to address the specific needs of my students. In classes of twenty-five or more, students are often not in the same place at the same time. Not everyone is going to be reading a book that is good for asking questions when my focus lesson is about that strategy, not everyone is going to need to learn strategies for figuring out challenging vocabulary, not everyone is going to need to learn to check through a word (search visually), and not everyone is going to need help in monitoring their reading. Conferences allow me to tailor my instruction.

Guided Conferences: I teach students something they need to know about
reading and we try it together. I am there to provide immediate support.
Conferences That Support the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I follow up on my
teaching of a new strategy or understanding from the focus lesson.
 Conferences That Extend the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I am able to teach
something that builds on the focus lesson and extends student learning.
Conferences That Develop the Reader: In these conferences, often more conversational,
I help students to develop a reading life.
Assessment Conferences: I am able to find out what the child knows and
understands about reading.

Add comment October 12th, 2010


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