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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

Response: Knowing ‘When to Stop Teaching Strategies and Just Let Students Read’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 29, 2018 13 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the roles of reading strategies in literacy instruction?

In Part One, the guests responding to the question were Colleen Cruz, Ross Cooper, Lindsey Moses, and Elaine Miles. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with all of them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Bonnie Houck, Ed.D., Christine Tennyson, Jules Csillag, and Kelly Wickham Hurst share their thoughts.

Response From Bonnie Houck, Ed.D.

Bonnie Houck, Ed.D. brings a lifelong passion for education and literacy to her work as a consultant, coach, speaker, professor, and trainer who specializes in literacy leadership development and positive school change. She is the author of Literacy Unleashed: Fostering Excellent Reading Instruction Through Classroom Visits (ASCD 2016) and works as a professor at Bethel University:

The goal of reading is to comprehend. The objective of every reading teacher is to foster proficient readers who LOVE and CHOOSE to read!

How the Brain Works While Reading

* When a reader interacts with text, the brain orchestrates numerous networks, including those responsible for processing vision, sound, language, schema, and cognition. It does this to analyze text and make meaning! As the brain learns to read, individual functions develop and neural pathways are built to support comprehension. As those pathways develop from footpaths to superhighways, our strength and stamina to read expands and comprehension deepens. The task of reading and decoding becomes automatic and our brain is free to connect what the author is saying to our own experiences and understandings. These connected reading experiences are engaging and we become motivated to read more often!

Why Strategies are Important

* Reading strategies are tools used to expand brain processing and build interconnecting pathways. Continued practice and application of strategies can develop the capacity to recycle information to further extend these connections. Our brain is similar to muscles that need exercise to develop and practice to work together. Just as an athlete engages in a series of exercises to build, stretch, and cultivate muscles to support a desired outcome, readers use strategies to focus their thinking and develop the cognitive processes to critically think and problem solve while reading to cultivate meaning.

* When an athlete works with a coach, they partner in the pursuit of excellence to study the complexity of their sport. Component parts are identified and practiced to strengthen and enhance skills. The coach identifies specific weaknesses and refocus’ training accordingly while modeling and guiding the athlete to a comprehensive mastery of his discipline. The goal is a seamless fluid orchestration of each component.

* Similarly, teachers use reading strategies to develop readers’ brains. They begin by selecting stories that support the explicit teaching of basic strategies to develop different neural pathways. Practicing reading strategies, such as monitoring comprehension, visualizing, predicting and inferring, questioning, making connections, determine importance, summarizing and synthesizing, during each phase of the process - before, during and after - can train the brain to actively integrate thinking to comprehend (Harvey & Daniels, 2015; Beers & Probst, 2012).

How Teachers Use Strategies to Develop Engaged Readers

* Before reading, teachers model how to activate prior knowledge and make predictions about the text to set the purpose for reading. During reading, teachers coach readers to ask and answer questions that draw focus to visualization of what is described in the text. This also helps the reader clarify words and ideas, and organize prioritize new information while making inferences and connections to construct meaning. After reading, teachers guide reflections and facilitate discussions to synthesize, summarize, and draw conclusions from the text to deepen understanding.

* Readers who develop the tools to take on the complexities of a text are also able to connect meaning to their own lives. Reading strategies build the brain’s capacity to automatically coordinate the visual, emotional, sensory, and cognitive demands of comprehension. By breaking down these specific “parts” into structured strategies we create opportunities for readers to strengthen and connect the vital components necessary to become proficient enthusiastic readers.

Response From Christine Tennyson

Christine Tennyson is veteran teacher of ELs and regularly participates in #ellchat-bkclub. You can follow her @cbtennyson:

Reading Balance: The Role of Reading Strategies

The goal of every literacy educator is to gift students the joy of reading and show how reading can support lifelong learning. We see reading as a window into knowledge and enjoyment and thus the key to a successful future. Yet, many students, including English learners, leave their K-12 education not reading at a post high school level, hating to read, and never reading another work of literature. While the nation is making progress in reading scores as reported by NAEP (2017), gains in reading scores, for all students, have risen at a much slower rate than math from 1992 to 2017 (NAEP, 2017). In addition, in the most recent assessment, NAEP scores show there is little change in the percent of students proficient in each of the three grades tested (fourth, eighth, and twelfth). This percent hovers around thirty-six (NAEP, 2017).

In her seminal book on reading for adolescents, “When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do,” Kylene Beers (2003) outlines what good readers do. Her list includes knowing a purpose for reading, being able to infer, using prior knowledge, monitoring for understanding, being aware of how a text it structured, knowing the meaning of many words, and using multiple comprehension strategies subconsciously (Beers, 2003). For good readers, these skills are not forced. For those of us that enjoy reading and engage in it regularly, we do not sit and determine how we are going to read a novel or the latest curriculum book; we just pick up the literature and read.

The challenge is how do we get students, especially those for whom English is not the first language, to read with accuracy and enjoy reading in their new language. For authors like Beers (2003) and Seravallo (2015), the answer is to teach them the strategic tools needed to develop their own automatic ability to apply strategies and thus independently comprehend text. Ferlazzo and Sypnieski (2018) further support the importance of explicitly teaching reading strategies to English learners.

In 1993, Stephen Krashen, one of the leading theorists in second language acquisition (SLA), published “The Power of Reading.” This book made waves even for those outside the SLA . In this text and in the follow up edition ten years later, Krashen did a meta-analysis of reading research and came to one conclusion, people become better readers by reading. They read books they had chosen. Krashen (2004) contends when people read for pleasure, books they choose, they improve their reading abilities at much higher rates than those who sit in classrooms working solely on comprehension strategies. Another text that argues for the free voluntary reading (FVR) is Miller’s (2009) “The Book Whisperer.” As a teacher/author who conducted her own action research, Miller (2009) found when students read independently selected books, they began to love reading and craved the next book. In her text, she discusses the importance of creating a reader’s notebook to collect readers thoughts and hits at students using strategies, but her emphasis is on the self-selected reading books. (Miller, 2009).

The question becomes what do both of these approaches to teaching reading mean to teachers in the classroom, especially teachers of English learners whose students struggle with reading independently at grade level?

There is no simple answer. Logic and reason tell us that reading, not learning to read or practicing strategies will create a love for reading and thus increase the ability to read. We can also reasonably deduce that nothing is less engaging than constantly stopping reading so often that the joy of a good story or the draw of a compelling text diminishes the love of reading. However, if students don’t know how to comprehend the text, even when they can sound out the text, teachers have to do more than just offer reading material to students. Even Miller (2009) hints at helping students report on what they are reading. In addition, Ferlazzo and Sypnieski (2018) argue that their classroom experience supports the benefit of teaching reading strategies. This dichotomy invites teachers to find their own way and hopefully their own balance between teaching reading strategies and releasing students to read their own books.

This educator urges balance with a slight tip in the direction of FVR and self-selected books. English Learners will benefit from prescriptive application of strategies tailored to their educational and language needs based on data. They will also benefit from reading extensively from different genres. While strategies are important, the real conclusion of the research is teachers need to know when to stop teaching strategies and just let students read. Here is the simple answer to how teaching reading strategies work. Teachers need to release students to read and grow as readers. They need to help students choose books they can read and then get out of the way.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (2017). The Nation’s Report Card. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov.

Beers, K. (2003). When Kids Can’t Read: What teachers can do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ferlazzo, L. & Sypnieski, K. (2018). The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of practical ideas to support your students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Response From Jules Csillag

Jules Csillag (@julesteaches) is a licensed speech-language pathologist, consultant, writer, and adjunct professor who works in New York City. She is the author of Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve (Routledge, 2016):

I think of reading strategies as being like the rules of the road. Before people start driving, they take driver’s ed so that they can learn these rules, and at that time, remembering them is a conscious process. With practice, as drivers become more skilled, these rules become second nature, or more automatic (or so I’ve been told since I’m still a new driver!). The thing with conscious processes is that they can be less efficient and more laborious, so as educators, we need to be aware of how much cognitive load applying reading strategies may take, and to ensure that we also encourage students to read for pleasure and enjoyment.

Just as different new drivers require additional work with parallel parking, but maybe not with a 3-point turn, we need to ensure that the reading strategies we teach are individualized and differentiated. Some students will naturally summarize what they’ve read, but may need support with self-monitoring, whereas others may be the exact opposite. Therefore, it’s best to expose students to a variety of strategies, and help them be self-directed in choosing what works best for them (with your support, if needed).

One important concept in reading strategies is that they often need to be employed before you read, while you read, and after you read. Some examples are listed below:

  • Before reading strategies

    • Read the headline/title
    • Skim images/graphics
    • Think of questions related to what the article/story will be about
    • Activate background knowledge of the topic

  • During reading strategies

    • Monitor for understanding
    • Form mental image
    • Make inferences
    • Connect what you’re reading with other things on a similar topic, theme, etc.

  • After reading strategies

    • Summarize
    • Share what you have read about (in conversation, in writing, in pictures, etc.)

There are of course many more, these are just ones that are commonly employed, and which have been research-validated. Once again, these strategies are about being intentional when you read, and they are not intended to all be used, or all be used at once.

Students can use these strategies in groups, too. Groups can be homogeneous, where all students are working on the same strategy, and others can be heterogeneous, where each student is responsible for a different strategy, and students can be “experts” at their strategy.

Technology can help students annotate, make visual notes, or record spoken notes before, during, or after reading. This can be done via Google Docs or Google Docs with the Kaizena Add-On, Diigo, Screencastify, or various visual tools (pixlr.com, Google Drawings, Canva, etc.). Tech tools can also be used by teachers as ways of reminding students of the strategies, or even to make a video or voice recording of themselves applying various strategies. Some tools for this include Google Docs (with optional Kaizena Add-On), InsertLearning, or Screencastify. Finally, technology can help students work together while employing various strategies with most of the tools described above.

With all this talk of strategies, I also want to urge educators to help make reading fun! Reading engagement correlates more with academic success than socioeconomic status (OECD 2002), though reading enjoyment correlates with school performance even among “non-leisure readers” (Mol & Jolles, 2014). Lest we think that reading for pleasure is somehow lighter or lesser reading, researchers have found that “each style of literary engagement has its own cognitive demands and produces its own neural patterns” (Phillips, 2015), so we also want our students to value both types of reading, and be able to make the mental switch between the two types, as needed.

With time, these rules of the text will become internalized, so students can be safe and independent readers!

Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of 6 and grandmother of 2 and lives with her husband in Springfield, Illinois:

Reading strategies mean nothing without building into them the practice students need. Too often, scripted content is separated from the time it takes to practice them. When we ask “what are we reading for today?” or “how is this relevant to us?” we open a whole new perspective from those learners about WHY they want to read. Give them a reason. But also make space for the practice and listening on your part, as the teacher, to give quick and helpful feedback.

Thanks to Bonnie, Christine, Jules and Kelly for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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