“I Know My Students Better Than I Ever Have”

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“I know my students better than I ever have.”

As this teacher’s coach, those words made me smile. They warmed my heart because I knew the impact this teacher was going to have on her kids because of the truth in that statement.

It’s been my pleasure to partner with a couple of teachers this school year as we (teachers and coach) have navigated the waters of small-group instruction in reading, incorporating the five components of reading into their instruction.

Teaching students to read is an astoundingly complex cognitive process.  When we sit down to read, we are using phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds), phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  The goal in elementary school is to get our kids proficient so that these components are used simultaneously to create an enriched reading experience.

We could compare this to teaching the game of basketball.  A coach would not just teach a player to dribble and think they could hit the court and play the game.  That coach would have to teach multiple skills so the player could integrate them all on the court and create the magical moment when it all comes together to play the game.

There are times when that coach teaches skills in isolation, shooting a lay-up, for example. But, ultimately, the real measure of the player’s ability is if they can apply that ability to shoot a lay-up in a game.

The same is true for reading.  Best practice in reading instruction says that when we sit down to teach kids how to read, the most gains in student achievement come when we’re incorporating all five components in small group reading instruction in a text that is at the child’s instructional reading level.

That is the adventure I’ve had the pleasure of being part of as two of my teachers and myself have partnered in building our knowledge on how to do this.

Admittedly, this adventure was frontloaded with a lot of information and time in knowing the components and knowing how to incorporate them all in a small group lesson.

What gave me great joy was to see how easily these two teachers picked up the this ability.  Within a couple of weeks, they were planning their own lessons, incorporating the five components, and in their words, the planning was not nearly as hard as they thought it would be.

Within just a couple of weeks, my teachers were telling me how intimately they knew their students’ reading abilities…better than they ever had.

Each time I would I sit down with these teachers to partner with them as coach and teacher, I planned to ask them how their anecdotal notes on the five components guided their instruction for the next week.  Before I could utter that question, they were telling me which kids needing phrasing work (fluency), which kids didn’t know how to break apart words using the vccv pattern (phonics), which kids needed to be pulled for an invitational group on open and closed syllables (phonics),  which kids had a deficit in vocabulary,  etc.

They knew their kids abilities in reading…their strengths and their targeted need.  They knew this because the witnessed the kids either succeed or struggle with these skills right before their eyes.

This was just after a few weeks of going through a coaching cycle.  So powerful.

And, we’ve only been in school for a little over a month. Just think the progress these kids are going to make in reading after an entire year of targeted instruction.

Are you interested in knowing your kids’ reading abilities to this extent?  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Keep your whole group lessons down to mini-lessons. Just because you’re teaching during that whole group time, doesn’t mean your kids are engaged and learning. And, it’s impossible to glean the knowledge you need on your kids’ abilities in the five components if the majority of your time is spent in whole group instruction.
  2. Make small groups a priority.  Every day.
  3. Begin building  your knowledge on the five components of reading.
  4. Talk to your coach or colleagues who can guide you in incorporating this into your instruction.

Take these steps, and it could be you saying you know your kids better than you ever have before. 

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Impacting Students a Book at a Time

What impacts student achievement?  High yield instructional strategies?  Absolutely!  John Hattie’s influences on student achievement?  Without a doubt!  Marzano’s nine instructional strategies?  Without a doubt.   And, I am passionate about all of these because they increase the chances student achievement exponentially.

However, there’s this one other thing I do as a teacher and coach that reaches kids like nothing else: exhibiting the love of reading and exposing them to the adventures and lessons that lie within the pages of a book.

I’ve written on this topic before (see “Mrs. Palmer Has Changed my Life” and “Inspire the Desire to Read”) so I won’t make this a repeat of that.  But, I will say, after presenting a lesson involving critical thinking tied to the Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, I was reminded of this impact. I relived the impact, the feeling it gave me to see the sparkle in the eyes of kids as they got so excited to read a book.  And, what did it take?  Just a little discussion and intrigue via a values line continuum and a few minutes of showing book trailers.

What’s my evidence for knowing this impact exists, other than my observation of how engaged the kids were by simply talking about the series?  Other than noticing how they asked with a hope in their voice “how many copies does our library have?” Other than them asking questions of each other that exhibited deep critical thinking?  All that was a teacher’s dream; it’s why we teach.  But, here’s the best thing.  Afterwards, a parent of one of the kids I presented to said that her daughter came home that day with a degree of excitement that was immeasurable.  She had such an excitement for the book series and reading in general that her mom had to buy the series immediately.  And, this was motivation to read in a child that had been lacking for quite a while. That was one of those moments we never forget as teachers.  It could potentially be the start of a life-long reader.

Here’s the thing: we have to instill life-long reading in our kids, and I’m here to say it can be done. I’ve seen it time and time again.  Why is this so important?  Among other reasons, voracious reading has a huge effect on student achievement, not just reading achievement.  We have to get our kids reading more and reading because they want to.  How are they going to get better at applying the skills and strategies we teach them, if they don’t read?  It’s like a coach teaching a basketball player to do a lay-up and then never giving them time to practice.  We have to get our kids into books to “practice” and apply the five components of reading.  And, just as important, we want them to build the foundation to make this a life-long activity.  I urge you, make the time in your school day to make things like this happen.  You will leave school that day with a warm heart.

So, How DO You Teach Fluency?

If you refer to a post I wrote in January ( The Power of Fluency Instruction ) you will see that we discussed the importance of fluency instruction. It is truly a bridge between phonics and comprehension.   With 10 years of experience in the classroom, I know all too well that what teachers need is not just theory and rationale, but also practicalities…resources they can actually take and use in their classrooms.  With that said, here are some fluency resources to supplement what you are already doing in your reading block.

Fluency K-2 Lesson This is a video on fluency instruction at the kindergarten through second grade level.  It was posted by the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins.

Fluency lessons This is a document that has easy-to-implement fluency lessons for all levels of readers.

Fluency practice outline This is a lesson approach by Timothy Rassinski and Nancy Padak that includes modeled reading, assisted reading, repeated reading, performance reading, word study and home and school involvement. It was put out by the International Reading Association.

Fluency Station Resources Here are some books you can purchase through The Literacy Store.  They are books you could put in a fluency literacy station.

Student fluency rubric This is a student fluency rubric put out by forthegoodofallstudents.blogspot.com.

Timothy Raskinski on itunes I would highly suggest these podcasts by Timothy Rasinski put out by Teacher Created Materials.  They are concise and help to explain clearly why fluency instruction is crucial.

Step-Up Comprehension Instruction

For those of who teach reading, we know that the goal of reading is ultimately comprehension.  I would also venture to say that those of us who teach reading comprehension do so using the release of responsibility approach, where there is first ample modeling, followed by shared reading (where the students and the teacher think together), and then finally interactive or independent reading (where students have the opportunity to practice a reading strategy on their own).

The question for us today is to what level do we teach comprehension?  Do you expect children of all ages to read at a deep level (of course, a deep level that is determined by their cognitive abilities)?  This means there are different levels of comprehension even at the kindergarten level, and without a doubt at grade levels above kindergarten. Do you have an awareness or  a deep understanding of what different levels of comprehension look like at your grade level.  And if you do not, do not feel bad. Teaching reading effectively is tough work and there is always more to learn (and only so much time in the PD schedule districts have).

If you are needing more knowledge on the different levels of comprehension, consider using these rubrics: http://www.readinglady.com/mosaic/tools/Strategy%20Rubrics.pdf   (Thanks to the Reading Lady website for providing this to teachers).   These are strategy rubrics for grade levels K/1, 2/3, and 4/5.  I have used these rubrics as I model effective small-group and whole-group reading instruction.  It is also good practice to put this rubric in front of your students. Teach THEM what surface level and deep level comprehension is.

And remember, the method by which a teacher teaches comprehension (mechanically or strategically) is important in ensuring the effectiveness of comprehension instruction (Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez, 2003). So, go forth and take your comprehension instruction to another level!

The Power of Fluency Instruction

As you look into most primary grade classrooms across the country, one would almost always see an abundance of phonics instruction.  If one would look into most upper elementary classrooms across the country, one would see an abundance of comprehension instruction.  Both of these scenarios are appropriate and supported by research.  In addition, it is likely to see phonemic awareness, particularly at the kindergarten and first grade level along with vocabulary at all grade levels. I would also venture to say that a multitude of reading programs hit these components hard.  But, the question is where does fluency fit in?  Is solid fluency instruction in our classrooms and in our reading programs?  According to Raskinski & Zutell (1996) programs and materials addressing reading instruction and teacher training seldom tackle reading fluency. Fluency is the bridge between phonics and comprehension, which necessitates the need  to examine its role, or lack there of, in our classrooms. In addition, oral reading fluency is one of the biggest predictors of reading achievement.

So, why does research say there is a lack of fluency focus in our programs and teacher training?  If you were to ask nearly every teacher if reading fluency is important, I have little doubt they would say absolutely.  However, if you were to ask if reading fluency is a major component of their reading instruction, the answer may not be the same.  The question is this: is this simply a matter of needing more professional development on the topic of fluency?  Perhaps this is not the only reason, but likely a big part of it.

So, here are some things to contemplate in relation to reading fluency in your classroom.

What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency includes the ability to decode words, automatic processing of material read (meaning the bulk of a student’s energies needs to be spent on comprehension, but that cannot be accomplished if they are not fluent), and the ability to read with prosody (expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Do your students know how to decode (including at the upper elementary level)? Please note, the teaching of decoding strategies should not end after the primary grades.  Upper elementary students are exposed to much more complex words, some they have seen before and others they have not.  Definitely beginning in second grade, and to some extent in first grade, students should begin to learn and apply the types of syllables.  Fourth and fifth grade students need to be able to apply their knowledge of syllables and their patterns (such as the VCCV) to decode words.

Do you have students who have trouble in comprehension?  If so, do not always assume the problem lies in them not being able to apply reading strategies.  If they do not read fluently, they are only surface readers.  One cannot grasp the deeper meaning of text, if their energies are focused on reading fluently.

Do you teach expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace?  If not, do you need to seek out resources to help you with this?   Be sure to teach students that expression affects comprehension.  For example, pretend you are listening to a presenter and in your head, you are agreeing with everything the presenter is saying. In your head you are saying “right.”  Let’s say to your right though, there is someone who disagree with the presenter and they are also saying “right” in their head.  The way you say right is different than the way the person next to you is saying right. That affects meaning of the situation, just as it would in text.   So, teach your students expression and teach them how it affects meaning.  Do the same with phrasing, smoothness and pace.

Specific activities that teach fluency include the following: repeated readings, reader’s theater, modeling of fluent reading, read aloud performances, and  use of a prosody rubric, among a multitude of others.  See Timothy Rasinski’s work for more ideas.

In Conclusion

Take some time to consider your reading instruction and the reading program you use.  Does fluency instruction exist?  If so, is it sound and consistent instruction?  If not, what resources can you find to assist you?  Perhaps a book, a colleague, a reading specialist?  Whatever the case, continue to develop and build on your knowledge on fluency, the all-too-often forgotten component of reading.

Good-Fit Books are Imperative

Winter Break in most districts are coming to an end. Teachers and students have had time to relax and recharge with families and friends, and it’s now time to return to the classroom with a mindset (hopefully) of forging ahead to accomplish goals during the second half of the year.  The beginning of second semester often times is a time for re-establishing classroom rules, procedures and expectations.  It’s also a time to conduct benchmark assessing to analyze growth in students and to define instruction and interventions.  All this is important. But, please, let us not forget the importance of re-visiting how to choose good-fit books.

Finding good-fit books is typically hit hard at the beginning of the year, but not always so hard in January.  After conducting benchmark assessments, it is imperative that you share with students how their reading levels have changed and whether that impacts the types of books they are choosing.  The most recent research and advice from Richard Allington suggests that good-fit books are defined as those where students can read with 99 percent accuracy.  That percentage used to be 95 percent.   The bottom line is that in teaching good-fit books we must continuously teach students that independent books needs to be read with a high level of accuracy.  This may mean they don’t yet get to read that popular book that everyone is reading.   (Though they could always read a books like that with their parents or adult at home).

One of the biggest factors in a student’s overall achievement is amount of reading the child engages in.   Along with the five components of reading, assessing and providing interventions, we must teach students how to find good-fit books so that their independent reading time is engaging and their books are at their independent reading level. That means we make time in our day to teach this.  Curriculum is why we are at school, but there are things beyond the curriculum that is imperative to teach.  Good-fit books instruction is one of those.

Teaching Reading is Complex; Make a Commitment to Learn More

Teaching reading is one of the most complex cores to teach, one reason why us challenge-loving people take it on with such passion.  I’m not sure that an educator can (or should) ever reach the point where they know enough about reading to justify not continuing to learn about this area of study.

Reading is the foundational skill for success not only in work life, but also in personal life.  When teaching someone to read, you’re giving them a skill that may help them one day to pick up a book about marriage, because theirs is in shambles. Or, there may be someone who picks up  a book about autism, because they have suspicions that their child has characteristics of it.  In work life, I would venture to say that the majority of careers that exist have a component where someone either has to read as a part of the profession or may choose to read to continue their knowledge on a subject, and thus excel past those who do not read. (And yes, research shows that the most successful people in our society read).   The importance of reading is brought up because it is lacking in our society, even by some inside of education.  Knowing the importance is the first step. Then, the next step is knowing that reading instruction is a challenge to take on. It is by far more than “sound the word out” and “tell me about the story.”   It is a metacognitive process, which means we have to teach students to think about their thinking. (See Tanny McGregor’s Comprehension Connections book for more explanation).  Other challenges in teaching this subject include the following: elementary teachers are responsible for teaching more than just reading, making it harder to be an expert in the area of reading, having enough experience to fully grasp what reading is, having a deep understanding of the five components of reading, knowing how to pinpoint where a struggling reader is “caught up” at, and having adequate professional development in the core area of reading.

With all that said, let us not get caught up in the challenge, but rather some solutions.  How can we improve our knowledge of core reading instruction with limited time in our schedules?  Here are some options one may consider: devote 15 minutes of reading per day to continue your knowledge on the topic, commit to listening to one reading podcasts a day from itunes (such as Choice Literacy, Voice of Literacy or Teacher Created Materials), go observe a teacher you know is strong in reading instruction, use your district instructional/literacy coach, make a commitment to collaborate with your team on reading instruction for 10-15 minutes each week, and  listen to your students read as much as possible.

My Twitter profile says that I am a literacy advocate.  I absolutely believe in the power books have in changing lives.  But, I also know, teaching reading is complex and difficult to say the least.   The good news is we can always continue to improve as teachers, if only a small commitment is made. So go forth, make that commitment.  Your students deserve it!