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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

‘Allow Time for Children to Read Whatever They Want’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 12, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series.)

The new question of the week is:

What are ways to help students develop intrinsic motivation to read?

The late Ken Robinson talked about the importance of creating conditions where intrinsic motivation can be developed and nurtured. He compared it to a farmer, who doesn’t force crops to grow. No, the farmer creates favorable conditions where they develop. This series will be discussing how to create those kinds of favorable conditions where an intrinsic desire to read can grow within our students.

You might also be interested in previous columns appearing here on Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning and on Reading Instruction.

Today’s guest contributors are Melissa Butler, Sawsan Jaber, Jennifer Orr, and Katie Alaniz. All of today’s writers also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

“Reading is its own reward”

Melissa A. Butler, Western PA Writing Project, is a writer and educator living in Pittsburgh. She focuses on noticing as an interdisciplinary method of practice, especially the noticing of small, ordinary objects in our lives. Follow her on Twitter at @butler__melissa:

Children’s intrinsic motivation for learning can sometimes feel like a lofty goal—a pie-in-the-sky vision of our grandest dreams for all children. But supporting children’s inner drive for learning anything, especially reading, is about the small things we do.

Children are born with intrinsic motivation for learning, including learning how to read. Thus, it’s not what we add to help children develop intrinsic motivation, it’s what we remove so children retain their curiosities and inner motivations for learning, including reading.

What can we remove?

Omit rewards for reading. No stickers. No ice cream. No certificates for a “free” restaurant food item. Any connection between reading and receiving a reward for reading will grow interest in the reward more than reading itself.

Stop tracking the number of books read. No lists. No numbered goals. No comparisons and winners. All of this focuses on the amount of reading instead of what is read and the joy of reading itself.

No bribes or praise. Sometimes we don’t realize how we subtly teach children to focus on external motivators. Saying “good job” or “you’re smart” directly in response to children’s reading (or their amount of reading) operates as a reward. Also, deals like “once you read for an hour, you can watch TV” is also a reward system.

If we take these things away and children don’t read, what can we do?

Talk with children about what they are reading instead of focusing on how well or how much they are reading. Notice what you say and reflect on yourself. It may take some time to shift this.

Expand your notion of what constitutes reading. Talk with children about all kinds of reading—back of a cereal box, comic book, piece of artwork, picture book, sign at the bus stop, song, chapter book, graffiti, letter from a friend, text message. Authentic conversation about ideas that interest children will support their thinking about the world and inspire them to continue to read and learn.

Allow time for children to read whatever they want. The majority of time in school and out of school should be time for children to select their own books/texts and read for their own purposes. Adults can suggest new genres, forms, and content through conversation, but this needs to happen organically as children grow as readers.

Read yourself. Children watch the adults around them. As adults, we need to read, carry around books, talk about books, cry and laugh, remember characters, find connections, and love books right along with children.

Reading is its own reward. We read to learn, to laugh, to cry, to experience new worlds. We read to feel the process of reading. We read to find ourselves. We read for a million reasons and feelings all our own.

We need to allow children to find their own processes and reasons for reading. To do this, we need to stop trying so hard to entice children to read and instead learn to trust them.

“Every student wants to belong”

Dr. Sawsan Jaber, a global educator of 20 years in the U.S. and abroad, has a passion for facilitating critical conversations about equity. She is an OVA board director and the founder of Education Unfiltered Consulting. Follow @SJEducate:

Every student wants to belong. That sense of belonging to a community is often one that provides a cushion for students to push themselves out of their comfort zones and develop their capacities as learners and citizens of their world. Finding themselves in what they read in the curriculum can really help enhance that sense of belonging. Adolescence often brings with it questions of identity. Accurate representation of heroes and role models from all backgrounds can help students shape their identity around those they can relate to. All it takes is one good connection, one good hook, one good book, and the fire for more can be ignited. The key in classrooms and literacy instruction is to place those books in front of our students making them accessible. The next step would be giving them the opportunity to engage with those texts in meaningful ways. What often happens in English classrooms is the death of the love for literacy via worksheets, reading check quizzes, and one novel for all students.

In my two decades as an educator, more than half of which I have spent in an English classroom, I have found that collaborative small groups of students who congregate over a shared book of their choice are very powerful and serve two purposes: helping students find their voices in books and connect to them in authentic ways and building relationships between students working together that eventually extend beyond the classroom tasks. There is nothing more powerful than connecting to a read you feel you can relate to and talking about it with other students who relate to it in different ways. These connections help build understanding and empathy for those differences because a well-crafted learning opportunity will lead students to share their stories and the contexts of their perspectives. It is through these connections that the seeds are planted for students to love reading and connecting with others over a good book.

“Students need access to books”

Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:

There are, I think, three critical pieces in this goal, no matter the age of the students. The first is getting books into students’ hands. In our schools and in our classrooms and in their homes, children have to have lots of access to books. They need books in different genres, by lots of different authors, at many different reading levels, on as many topics as possible. There should be fiction books and nonfiction books and graphic novels and choose your own adventure and books of unbelievable facts and more. This should include audio books in whatever formats as well. There is no such thing as too many books if we want students to develop an intrinsic motivation for reading. They need books in their hands.

The second piece is that we need books that will push themselves into kids’ hearts. Students should be surrounded by books they can connect with and see themselves in. They need books that tug at their emotions. Books that make people feel lots of feelings, joy and pain and laughter and fear, are books that kids will want to share and return to again and again. Many of the books I remember from my childhood and the ones I’ve loved in the years since then have been books that wiggled into my heart and stayed.

Finally, we need to be sure we have books that will get into kids’ heads. Books that will make kids ask questions and look at the world differently. Books that will push kids to want to talk to each other and to the adults in their lives about what they’re reading. Books that will have kids searching out more reading. Our primary goal should be getting books in kids’ hands, hearts, and heads.

Related to this are a couple of actions we can take as teachers (beyond stocking a massive classroom library and giving our students free access to the school library). We can talk about books. We can book talk a different book every day. We can have reading conferences one on one with students and talk about books. We can read books, or even just parts of books, aloud to classes. Our enthusiasm and joy around books will be contagious. However, we shouldn’t be the only ones talking about books. We need to make sure kids have time to talk to each other. They should book talk books to each other, have reading conferences together, share books, and read to each other. Students need access to books, and they need time and space to read and share to develop as readers, as ones who love and need to read.

“Peer-assisted learning”

Katie Alaniz, Ed.D., is a faculty member and director of online learning and professional development within the College of Education Behavioral Sciences at Houston Baptist University. As a teacher and digital learning specialist for over a decade in both public and private schools, including her service as a digital learning specialist at River Oaks Baptist School, Dr. Alaniz guides fellow educators as they meaningfully integrate digital resources within their classrooms. Together with colleagues at HBU, Dr. Alaniz has co-authored Naturalizing Digital Immigrants: The Power of Collegial Coaching for Technology Integration and Digital Media in Today’s Classrooms:

Although reading is widely believed to be the “key to success,” far too many American children fail to learn to read within the early years of school. Many struggling readers find it exhausting, if not impossible, to reap substantial benefits from subsequent instruction. Sadly, students who struggle to read are also prone to a diminished sense of confidence. For these reasons alone, elementary teachers desperately need effective tools to support young learners in building early-reading proficiency. Often, however, the available options fall short of fitting the bill. Proven strategies for targeting the needs of a diverse range of students can be difficult to come by.

In the face of mounting academic divergence within traditional classroom settings, an inventive, free, and peer-oriented approach known as the Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies for Reading (PALS) program points to significant gains in student reading ability, regardless of learning differences.

PALS was originated by Douglas and Lynn Fuchs, along with colleagues at Vanderbilt University. Across all grade levels, the program was designed to assimilate several key features. First, PALS involves reciprocal tutoring roles. Students are assigned partnerships, and each pair consists of a higher- and lower-performing student. Although the higher-performing student begins each session in the role of “coach” (tutor), and the lower-performing student is initially the “reader” (tutee), both students have opportunity to serve in each role throughout one session. To establish rank, a teacher must order all students from the most- to the least-proficient reader. The teacher then divides the list in half, pairing the strongest reader from the first half with the strongest reader from the second half, and so on.

Another common element of the PALS program is that all students receive opportunities to actively participate in reading and to experience success. In order to heighten the time students spend actively on task, PALS integrates frequent chances for verbal interaction between partners. The coach is responsible for offering timely, constructive feedback to the reader as needed, thus increasing the students’ chances of success during PALS reading segments.

Additionally, PALS allows teachers to enrich their lessons through additional opportunities for practice of those skills taught within the core curriculum. Activities encourage the development of fundamental reading skills (such as decoding, fluency, and comprehension) that require a great deal of practice to master.

Finally, PALS is comprised of a collection of prepared activities, which students are taught to put into practice within their partnerships. After the teacher presents a series of brief lessons, the students may then devote their entire attention to the actual content of the lessons to be completed independently with their partners.

The results of research on PALS are promising, indicating that even those students identified as struggling readers made significantly greater gains on numerous indicators of reading achievement after participating in the PALS program than similar students receiving standard reading instruction. Additionally, teachers can seamlessly adapt PALS for use in other areas of the curriculum. For example, the PALS format could easily be modified to suit the needs of students learning math facts with flash cards and various math manipulatives. With creativity, the potential uses of peer-tutoring programs within the classroom are unlimited.

Ultimately, PALS shows great promise as an effective supplement to traditional teaching techniques. It can be used to promote vital reading skills, as well as to provide for the academic diversity within the classrooms of today. Perhaps the most significant benefit of the PALS program is that it utilizes one of the greatest resources available to every classroom throughout the nation— the students themselves.

Thanks to Melissa, Sawsan, Jennifer, and Katie for their contributions!

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