Blogstitute 2016: Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

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.

Read-Aloud

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

14 comments June 21st, 2016

Now Online: Who’s Doing the Work?

1075Teachers everywhere are concerned about students whose reading development inexplicably plateaus, as well as those who face challenging texts without applying the strategies they’ve been taught.

In their follow-up to Reading Wellness, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris explore how some traditional scaffolding practices like read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading, may actually rob students of important learning opportunities and independence. They argue that if we want students to use these reading strategies indepdendently, we must question the ways our scaffolding is getting in the way.

Who’s Doing the Work? suggests ways to make small but powerful adjustments to instruction that hold students accountable for their own learning. It offers a vision for adjusting reading instruction to better align with the goal of creating independent, proficient, and joyful readers.

You can preview the entire book online!

1 comment March 23rd, 2016

Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:

physics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this one?

physics2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

8 comments July 8th, 2015


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