Standards Opinion

How Teams Can Work Together to Improve Student Reading

By Ariel Sacks — December 06, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

You’ve probably been in a meeting like this: your grade team is looking over recent student achievement data, trying to make sense of it and come up with sensible next steps. Someone notes that many of the students who performed poorly in math also performed poorly in English, and their difficulty with reading is holding them back in understanding math word problems. Social studies and science teachers agree, adding that struggling readers have trouble with the work in their classes as well. For a moment, the meeting seems to be moving in a productive direction.

Naturally, everyone turns toward the English teacher(s) in the room, with eyes that seem to be to saying, “Why haven’t you fixed this?” It gets awkward.

Someone cuts the tension with a comment along the lines of, “This is why we all have to teach reading.”

An administrator nods, “That’s what the PD last June was about.”

Some teachers nod, while others roll their eyes. Everyone has a good reason.

Reading is a skill necessary in pretty much any academic subject, so we all need to teach it. The eye rolls, however, remind us that we can say this all we want, but that doesn’t make it clear how we should go about it, especially when content area teachers are struggling with their own content, pacing calendars, and the same staggering diversity of readers that challenge us in the ELA classroom. And that PD in June? It didn’t help teachers make actionable plans, and it hasn’t been discussed since. I’ve witnessed a version of this cycle in every school I’ve taught in.

No Shortcuts To Better Reading, But A Clear Path Forward

Part of why these conversations never seem to go away is that there are no shortcuts to improving reading skills. Yes, there are techniques that can be taught, but their effectiveness will depend on the individual student’s needs, the reading context, and the teacher’s ability to connect the two. English teachers aren’t just holding onto silver bullets that we can pass on to content area teachers to immediately serve the wide range of readers in the room. And if we had them, we would have already used them ourselves, and the discussion would be moot.

But there is a very real way teachers across subjects can work together to strengthen our readers. According to a large body of research, what actually works is when students spend time reading something of interest (generally of their choosing) in a supportive environment. It makes sense—we get better at the things we spend time doing.

In secondary schools, where English teachers often have just 50-minute periods, we really struggle to provide enough time for our students to read on a daily basis. Perhaps we can devote an average of 20 minutes of our class daily class period to sustained reading. If that’s all that students are reading in an entire day, that’s not enough—especially when students need to catch up on years of not reading enough. Twenty minutes a day is barely treading water.

How We Can Work Together

I think teams of teachers can and should work together to increase the amount of time each student spends during a school day reading productively—by that I mean, reading something interesting (generally of their choosing), in a supportive environment.

The content, the supports, and how they fit into the overall structure of the class are variables, but here are the requirements that will ensure the time you devote will pay off in terms of students’ reading skills.

a) The students genuinely want to read the text. Even if it’s not the exact activity they would choose to do on, say, a Saturday afternoon at home, in that moment, they feel interested. Offering choices is often the best way to tap into intrinsic motivation. Showing interest in the reading materials ourselves also makes an impression. Finally, if the materials connect to the students’ lives and/or to questions they’ve asked in relation to the content of the class, the interest will be higher.

b) There are texts accessible for each student—generally based on reading level but also through the supports offered. In content areas, I strongly suggest ordering class set subscriptions to magazines written for your age group. The offerings here at Scholastic are great with selections appropriate for all ages and subjects. In my ELA classroom, I like to have a class set of NY Times Upfront Magazine, which provides accessible articles on current events. Students run to read them each month.

If cost is prohibitive, see this post for an urgent plea to school leaders to fund books—and other reading materials. Meanwhile, you can always print out a variety of articles from sources like Newsela (with similar content adapted to different reading levels) or NY Times, or any interesting blog posts.

Books can also be used in content areas. A science teacher I know has copies of science-related books, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Omnivores Dilemma Young Reader’s Edition, as well as audio recordings for both. At specific points in the year, he introduces a book to the class, and students can opt in to reading it. A social studies teacher I know has a whole library of books, historical and current, fiction and non fiction, that are relevant to the study of history. She gives students time to read a book of their choosing (as long as it has some connection to a historical topic or theme) three days a week at the start of class.

c) The environment is conducive to reading for pleasure. If students are reading independently, the room is quiet. The teacher has set an expectation that everyone really read. The points above will help make this a feasible request without having to resort to threats to enforce quiet. Other than the requirement of actually reading, this is a low stakes activity. Students should not have to worry about being judged on their reading ability.

There are no required takeaways, no strings attached; no worksheets, reading checks or tests of comprehension. If your classroom or school is so grades-oriented that ten minutes daily of no-strings attached will create a great deal of trouble, try simply entering a participation grade for students for “reading in class.” Let students know you are doing this, and enter those grades in real time—not as a “gotcha,” but to send a message that this practice is as valuable as any other activity in your classroom. Ideally everyone will receive full credit. Do this a few times, and you will probably not have to continue. (Also, check out Starr Sackstein‘s Hacking Assessment for ways to shift your classroom culture away from grades.)

Finally, support students as needed. In some cases, this means helping students choose materials they will find interesting and be able to read independently. In other cases, this means asking a few students to read at a table with you. You can read aloud to them or allow them to volunteer to read portions aloud (no forcing). If some students want to read aloud to one another in pairs, and can manage this with quiet voices, encourage it.

Listening to texts counts—it’s an integral part of learning to read in the first place, so for struggling readers, it’s an especially meaningful support. Allow students to listen to audiobooks. Consider also allowing students to listen to quality podcasts connected to your subject, even if the text is not available for following along.

Adopt the “Reading Do Now” Across Content Areas

In this recent post, I shared my practice of starting class with 10 minutes (sometimes more) of independent reading, and my reasons for doing so. Given the need for students to read at a much higher volume throughout a school day and week, I encourage teams to take this on across content areas. If ELA teachers include reading time daily, and each content area teacher begins class with independent reading time just one day per week, we have almost DOUBLED students’ weekly reading volume. If science and social studies teachers are able to do this twice per week, well, the math works out even better :)

The more comfortable, interesting, and successful reading experiences students have, the more they build the dexterity and confidence they need to confront the challenging texts. An investment of time across subject areas is worth everyone’s while.

What will your team commit to doing?

[Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash]

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.