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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Mistakes Teachers Make in Reading Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 03, 2017 18 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the biggest mistake teachers make in reading instruction, and what should they do instead?

Contributors to Part One were Diana Laufenberg, Pernille Ripp, Valentina Gonzalez, Jeff Wilhelm, Barbara A. Marinak, and Linda B. Gambrell. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Diana, Pernille, Valentina and Jeff on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s guests are Regie Routman, Cindi Rigsbee, Shaeley Santiago, Wiley Blevins, and Dr. Rebecca Alber.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is an educator, teacher, and leader who works side by side with teachers and principals in underperforming, diverse schools and districts. She is dedicated to creating school cultures of empowerment and increasing and sustaining reading and writing achievement across the curriculum. Her latest book is Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for ALL Learners. (Stenhouse, 2018). For information on her many books and resources, see www.regieroutman.org:

I believe the biggest mistake regarding reading instruction is that teachers focus on teaching reading rather than focusing on teaching a reader. The same premise holds true for writing.

Always, we need to remember we are teaching a unique learner and that effective, joyful teaching and learning depend on utilizing each learner’s strengths, interests, culture, and background—as well as addressing shortfalls. Therefore, any reading program, curriculum, or framework is at best a guide that needs to be moderated and adjusted for the actual students in front of us.

Ten ways to keep our focus on the reader

1. Get to know your students.

Knowing our students makes it easier to teach them. Slow down now so you can “hurry up” later. Take the time you need through interviews, surveys, and conferences—oral or written—to find out not just your students’ reading histories but also what their passions and interests are and what their hopes are for learning in your class. Knowing the reader first as an interesting person pays big dividends for knowing how to personalize our reading instruction.

2. Focus on students’ reading strengths before addressing needs.

Hold a positive mindset that recognizes and validates strengths before deficits—no matter how small those strengths may appear to us. Only then can we gain the trust of the learner to effectively teach what s/he needs to move forward.

3. Respect the reader’s intelligence.

Read aloud daily outstanding literature without over worrying about concept load and levels. Students can understand much of content they are not yet able to read on their own, and immersing them in literary language develops vocabulary, background information, and concepts. Teach whole-part-whole—beginning with a whole text or big idea and embedding needed skills into a meaningful context. Teaching skills in isolation as a major reading approach is both inefficient and demeaning to students’ intellect. Raise important questions; supply necessary background knowledge, concepts, and vocabulary for understanding content. Employ flexibility and common sense to decision making regarding grouping, special needs, and pull-outs based on test results—especially important for our English language learners and underperforming students.

4. Have students spend most of reading time reading self-chosen books.

Use guided reading, shared reading, and teacher-directed lessons as a means to an end—proficient, happy, self-determining readers. Observe the 20-80 percent rule where about one-fifth of our time is spent on explicit instruction, including shared and guided experiences, and the vast majority of time is allocated to deliberate, intentional practice by students where students read. Quantity matters! You can’t become a good reader if you don’t read.

5. Establish with students a rich, diverse, accessible classroom library.

Honor students’ preferences and requests for authors, genres, and diverse texts. Organize the library with students—design, layout, categories, sign-out procedures. Prioritize purchasing books, before new programs and technology. Teach students how to choose books they can read and understand, and ensure the school and classroom collections have extensive, readable choices for all students.

6. Rely on one-on-one reading conferences for authentic assessments.

Beware of results that we have not confirmed ourselves. Sit side-by-side with a student to get a true assessment that includes checking for deep understanding. Mandated, one-size-fits-all progress monitoring, assessment and data analysis, and moving through levels can yield superficial results that do not lead to improved instruction and results.

7. Capitalize on the reading-writing connection.

Use writing-to-reading to turn students into readers. For emerging readers at any age, using their own language and stories on topics of interest that we write together, are the easiest texts for them to read. Word work and word study in the meaningful context of such texts is easier for students to grasp. At middle and high school levels, having students who struggle as readers write more—especially in response to a personal, supportive, handwritten note from their teacher—has been shown to positively impact reading comprehension.

8. Encourage student-directed talk.

Value and guide conversations as students take the lead. It’s been well documented that we teachers and leaders talk too much. Use book talks, book clubs, peer talk, small group work, and partner collaboration to model, practice, and promote high level, student-led literature conversations.

9. Put oral reading in perspective.

While oral reading is important early on for fluency and automaticity with words, overemphasis can be detrimental for comprehension for older readers who struggle and/or for young readers who read with understanding but do not test well—and are often penalized—when “reading” is detached from meaning and isolated to decoding words out of context.

10. Ensure students experience reading as an act of pleasure, passion, and love.

Do whatever is necessary to make reading joyful. That may mean giving more choice, doing more reading aloud and shared reading, focusing on students’ passions, writing texts together. Share stories of famous people who were severely disabled as readers and learned to read because of their relentless passion to know about a chosen subject. Physicist Albert Einstein is but one standout example.

Finally, we must go beyond teaching children how to read. We must develop in each of them the dispositions of a reader, that is, finding joy in reading and delving into reading for respite, curiosity, information, pleasure, and the sheer wonder of connecting with an author’s gifts to the reader—gorgeous language, storytelling, and fascinating ideas. Otherwise, we have denied students’ their rightful promise from us educators to become lifelong, inquiring readers.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher currently on loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she works on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over thirty years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

I’ve loved reading since the Dick and Jane books of the 60s, but I know teaching it can be difficult at times. (I know from experience what it’s like to prepare lessons for 7th graders who are reading at a 1st grade level, for example.) I consider reading instruction to be the most important part of the school day since the skill is required for every other subject, but, unfortunately, there are times when teachers choose practices that have little to no instructional value.

Those practices include “popcorn reading,” or any other kind of circle reading, where students take turns reading aloud. This activity can be a disaster as most students spend more time looking around to see when their own turn is coming up than they do listening to their classmates or, better yet, reading along and practicing strategies like “visualizing” and “annotating the text.”

Another issue is the controversial practice of leveled reading, and in particular, the student awareness of levels. Levels, like Lexile ranges, can be helpful for teachers as they plan appropriate reading activities, but to place students in a certain category as a reader is definitely counterproductive as children are aware of their own levels as well as those of their classmates. Expecting readers to select material that may or may not be identified accurately, and pigeon-holing them into a reading category doesn’t enable them to grow as readers.

One of my biggest concerns, though, and this particular practice wouldn’t fall into the category of actual instruction, is when teachers assign reading (and writing for that matter) as punishment. I once heard a teacher say, “You all can’t be quiet so you’re just going to have to read silently for the next hour.” Wait. WHAT? They should be jumping for joy to read silently, and the teacher should be the biggest cheerleader in the room for that opportunity. And don’t get me started on having students write sentences, essays, or anything else as punishment. No wonder they don’t like to write!

What good teachers do is establish a classroom culture that celebrates reading. The teacher should be a reading role model; students should see the teacher reading and participating in informal conversations about books and other texts. In addition, the classroom should be a place that offers a variety of reading materials for every student—informational texts related to student interests, as well as fiction texts and other genres, are important so that even the most resistant reader will have choices.

Read-alouds (with inspirational teacher animation), engaging author studies, fun vocabulary and word games, and interdisciplinary reading opportunities are all parts of a balanced literacy classroom. Instilling a love of reading by modeling and by providing the two most important pieces—plenty of time for reading and a variety of texts—will enable students to grow as readers

Response From Shaeley Santiago

Shaeley Santiago is an ESL Instructional Coach and Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for the Ames Community School District in Ames, Iowa. Prior to becoming a coach, she was an ESL teacher at Ames High School for 10 years. She is a big fan of social media for teachers; you can follow her on Twitter at @HSeslteacher:

The biggest mistake teachers make in reading instruction is squashing the joy of reading. This can happen for a variety of reasons including giving assignments that do not reflect real-world reading tasks or assigning reading materials that are not a good match to students’ interests or reading levels. Student selection of text is important for keeping students engaged and motivated to read.

However, this does not mean that all students will naturally and automatically fall in love with reading. Instead, teacher modeling via read alouds and guidance helping striving readers select appropriately engaging books are necessary. For English Learners (ELs), books that reflect their cultural background may not be easy for them to find. If they cannot relate to the characters or content of the story, they may struggle to read it. Teachers should be familiar with multicultural books such as those found on this Pinterest list as well as books from a variety of genres including graphic novels and high-interest nonfiction. Providing easy access for students to these kinds of books should be a high priority for teachers as it is an essential part of creating an environment where students value reading.

Once a student has selected appropriate reading material, he or she should be given time to read. As with many complex tasks, improvement in reading comes through repeated practice. The teacher should check in with students and conference with them individually to see where they might benefit from instruction in reading strategies. For example, if a student is struggling to retell the events of a story, the teacher can provide a model through a think aloud using a text to show how and what an expert reader does to recall events and organize them in a logical fashion. Mini lessons such as this should be tailored to the needs of small groups of students so the bulk of instructional time can be devoted to free reading.

Response From Wiley Blevins

Wiley Blevins, who holds an Ed.M. from Harvard, is an early reading specialist with a background in adaptive technology. He taught elementary school in both the United States and South America, and was Educational Director for both Scholastic and McGraw-Hill. Wiley has written and edited many phonics and reading materials, and is the author of Phonics From A to Z and Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades from Scholastic. He is also coauthor with Alice Boynton on several nonfiction professional resources, including Teaching Informational Text. In addition, Wiley writes trade books for children. He lives in New York City. For more information, go to wileyblevins.com:

For over two decades I’ve trained teachers on the seven key characteristics of phonics instruction (i.e., readiness skills, strong scope and sequence, blending, dictation, word awareness activities, decodable text, high-frequency words, PLUS well-trained teachers). But even when all or most of these characteristics are in place, we may still not get the results we expect. I’ve identified these 10 common instructional “offenders” we need to fix to help students succeed. No one issue by itself will cause systemic failure, but the presence of several can seriously undermine student learning.


    Young learners need a lot of time to master phonics skills. A newly taught skill should be systematically and purposefully reviewed for the 4-6 weeks following its introduction for students to achieve mastery. Note how often you review a new skill after its introduction. Increase practice opportunities through additional words in blending lines, dictation, and repeated readings of decodable stories.


    Students progress faster in phonics when most of the instructional time is spent applying the skills to authentic reading and writing experiences, rather than isolated skill-and-drill work. Devote at least 50 percent of a phonics lesson to application exercises.


    The connection between what we teach and what young learners read powerfully affects their word-reading strategies (Juel and Roper-Schneider, 1985), phonics and spelling skills (Blevins, 2000), and motivation to read. Examine the books your K-1 students read. Students should be able to sound out over 50 percent of these words based on the phonics skills you have taught to date. If not, offer more controlled text until they develop comfort and control in their reading abilities.

    Teachers of struggling readers often spend too much instructional time doing the “heavy lifting,” such as over-modeling and having students simply repeat. Support struggling students by providing corrective feedback and minimize “parrot” activities.


    Use transitional times when phonics manipulatives are distributed or collected to review skills (e.g., sing the ABC song, do a phonemic awareness task, review sound-letter action rhymes). Plan for 3-4 transitions per week.

    Teachers with a phonics or linguistics background are better equipped to make meaningful instructional decisions, analyze student errors, and improve the language and delivery of instruction. Explore teacher knowledge and attitudes toward phonics instructional materials and routines within grade-level teams.


    Teachers often spend too much time on fun and easy activities and less on the more “meaty” activities that increase learning. Keep lessons fast-paced and rigorous while still engaging students. Devote most of the time to blending, word building, dictation, and reading connected text.


    To ensure mastery, assess phonics skills over an extended period of time. Weekly assessments focusing on one skill often show movement toward learning, but not mastery. Cumulative assessments help you determine which skills students have truly grasped and which learning is decaying.


    Most curriculum focus on one-syllable words in Grade 2, yet the stories 2nd graders read contain more challenging, multisyllabic words. Spend more time transitioning to longer words at this grade (e.g., going from known to new words, like can/candle).


Some curriculum overemphasize phonics, while ignoring other key aspects of early reading needs (e.g., vocabulary and background knowledge building) that are essential to long-term reading progress. Modify your reading time to provide better balance.

Response From Dr. Rebecca Alber

Dr. Rebecca Alber is an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education where she teaches teachers. She is a literacy specialist, blogger and consulting editor at Edutopia, and a compulsive reader. She dips into the Pacific as often as she can get away with it:

Providing too high level a task with a readability level out of reach for students is a mistake that teachers often make. Reading acquisition research shows us that if a text is 1.5 grade levels higher than a child’s readability level, she will capable only of decoding that text. So what we do as reading instructors is we ask students to summarize or analyze or critique a short story or informational article, however, it may be way out of reach for them in terms of comprehension. For example, I’ve given a group of teachers in a workshop a really complex article on economics to read. Nearly all of them spent the ten minutes simply decoding the text. I then asked them to make an argument for or against the author’s stance. They all struggled, one or two were able but the rest were not. We do this to children all the time in school. We throw inappropriate text at them that is out of out their range of comprehension and expect them to do heavy analysis and application (particularly with English Language Learners). You can offer tools, yes, scaffold and front load vocabulary, but if the text is more than a grade level-and-a-half beyond their current reading level, they will spend their time frustrated and not growing as readers in the way they would if given appropriate level text. Reading development is gradual and we have to resist the urge and misnomer that giving struggling readers snazzy graphic organizers along with hard texts will somehow boost them to grade level reading.

So as reading instructors, we need to first know the reading level for every student and meet them there. It’s fine to give them a challenge with a piece of text that is a bit above their individual level but we need to provide appropriate tools and support, along with frequent formative assessments, so they are successful when we do this. I advise teachers to not go above one grade level, and if you do, make sure the beginning task is at least low-level Bloom’s Taxonomy (for example, recall, name, list, find). If we turn students off to reading by continually only assigning complex text with complex tasks, then we damper their opportunities to improve as readers.

The Common Core Standards calls for “exposure to a range of texts and tasks” so that is an invitation to have students read highly accessible text and provide accompanying tasks that are straightforward yet engaging. These occasions help students develop a love for reading; they will inspire students to read on their own, independently, outside of the classroom. And what’s the single best way to improve reading skills? By reading.

Thanks to Regie, Cindi, Shaeley, Wiley and Rebecca for their contributions!

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

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Look for Part Three in a few days..




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