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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Help Our Students Become Better Readers - Part Four

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 23, 2012 9 min read
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(You can see Part One of this series here, Part Two here, and Part Three here)

Even though I’m receiving plenty of questions from readers (but could always use more!), I periodically take on a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.” This post is a the fourth in an expanded five-part series responding to one of them:

“What is the best advice you would give to teachers trying to help their students become better readers?”

Professors Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington contributed their responses two weeks ago. Nancie Atwell and Cris Tovani shared their thoughts in last week’s post. And Regie Routman, Laura Robb, and Kylene Beers contributed to a post earlier this week.

Today, I’m included responses from four guests: Kelly Young, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Jago.

I’ll be concluding this series next week with a special post including many insightful comments left by readers, contributions from Donalyn Miller (aka “The Book Whisperer”) and from another talented teacher colleague, along with sharing a few of my own suggestions.

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young has been my mentor since I became a teacher eight years ago. He is a trainer and consultant with Pebble Creek Labs, and I have learned more from him about being a teacher than from anyone else. Kelly has had a huge influence on the major positive changes that have occurred at our school -- and at many others -- over the past several years. You can contact Kelly at kelly@kellyjyoung.com :

Every teacher can make a difference in student reading success. It’s not some one else’s job, and if we all get more skillful, committed and focused on making the reading act interesting and successful for students, collectively we can make a big difference. And, the best news is we can start now.

As for more specific actions steps, the suggestions are simple, however transferring these ideas into new practice and sustaining such changes is a more difficult proposition. At its core, it is really an altered set of priorities and values, anchored in a belief that reading is vital and that together we can make text come alive for children.

To the teacher, I would share the following advice:

Create lots of opportunities for students to read. Students get better at reading by reading, and reading a lot. I don’t mean teachers reading to kids, or choral or round-robin reading, I mean students themselves reading everyday, for a significant portion of each class. This needs to become a new norm. A question teachers ought to ask themselves is “who is doing the work?” We need classrooms where students read--and write, and talk--about their reading often and a lot, every day.

Hone and expand a repertoire of literacy strategies. If teachers hope to make schools and classrooms more intellectually exciting institutions, students and teachers must interact with text and ideas in a multitude of ways. Thus the act of reading becomes different daily-- varied, novel, interesting-- which derives from a rich instructional repertoire. The research base is replete with powerful literacy strategies--read alouds, think alouds, inductive model, cloze technique, etc. Study and learn them. They will make reading different and exciting, daily.

Teach, present and provide only interesting text. There is great writing in every discipline. I don’t know where we got complacent with presenting students with boring, poorly written, uninteresting text. Why? Become committed to building a bank of truly interesting writing in your discipline--short read alouds, articles, and books. We don’t build character or stamina by making students persevere through bad text. Engage students with text that is relevant, respectful, appropriate, and engaging. It’s out there.

Teach comprehension. Teaching comprehension is different than testing it. We confuse the two. Assigning readings and grading understanding is not teaching comprehension. Students of all abilities, but especially those who struggle with understanding text, need examples and models of how good readers interact with and make meaning of text. What do good readers do before, during and after reading? Make this meaning-making visible and transparent. Let students in on the constant internal conversations good readers are having with themselves and print while reading.

Keep the focus on reading. The objective is reading, not reading the objective. A lot has been made of teachers teaching to the standards, and students understanding the standard being taught. The truth is that a rich lesson encompasses many skills and embodies many standards. The highest order learning objective is fostering a love for reading, and larger, a love for learning. Focus first on teaching rich and dynamic lessons. Standards are easily embedded. Know what standards are being taught, yet always remember our true objective is making lessons engaging and appropriately challenging, not checking off standards covered.

These tips seem pretty standard-fare, yet as our majority practice they are far from the norm. There is no work more worthwhile or consequential.

Response From Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors in the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University (Fisher is also a classroom teacher at Health Sciences High & Middle College), and have authored books on several topics, including literacy, RtI, and formative assessments. You can visit their website:

There are a number of ways that teachers can improve students reading, from inviting students to read widely from texts they can read to building students’ vocabularies such that they increase their fluency and make meaning from their reading. We expect that a number of people will respond with great examples for all of these things, so we thought we’d focus on the role of teacher modeling.

As we noted in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching, at some point in every lesson we think that the teacher should model his or her thinking. Thinking is invisible, and the only way that students get to experience expert thinking is if we talk about it. Of course, there are all kinds of things teachers can model, from how to solve a quadratic equation to the use of perspective in a Picasso painting, we will focus on aspects of teacher modeling that build students’ ability to read.

Teachers can model their own comprehension through such cognitive strategies as predicting, inferring, questioning, visualizing, and so on. When teachers model their comprehension, they should include HOW they did this, not just what they did. For example, while reading Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Orlean, 2011), the teacher might say, “I can visual his temper in my mind because the author tells me that he snapped, barked at judges, and was nearly unmanageable.”

In addition to comprehension, teachers can model word solving, text structures, and text features. When teachers come to an unknown word, or a word that might be unknown to their students, they can model the use of context clues, word parts, or the use of resources. In terms of text structures, teachers can model their understanding of plot, cause and effect, problem and solution, literary devices, and a host of other structures that authors use. And finally, teachers can model their understanding of text features such as diagrams, figures, charts, illustrations, among others.

Modeling is not a quick fix for struggling readers. Rather, it provides students with examples of cognitive work that readers do as they read. Modeling helps students develop habits, habits that they will use when they regularly hear their teachers use them. In other words, modeling is a long-term intervention for students. Essentially, it sanctions the hard work required in figuring out what the author was trying to say.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Orlean, S. (2011). Rin Tin Tin: The life and the legend. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Response From Carol Jago

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school for 32 years and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her latest book is With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature:

Of the two or three things I know for sure, one is that students who read more know more. And as a result of knowing more reading the next book, the next article, the next poem is that much easier. It’s a classic case of the Matthew Principle. In education as in society, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Teachers spend a great deal of time trying to fill the gaps in students’ background knowledge, but it is difficult to make students listen to a lecture, even a mini-lecture, on World War I before a lesson on Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Where do you start?

Maybe a place to begin is with John Singer Sargent’s painting “Gassed.”

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I invite students to look closely at the painting and to ask questions. I then have students do homework research to find answers to lingering queries about trench warfare, mustard gas, World War I. The following day, students pool their findings and read the Wilfred Owen poem.

After talking about the painting and developing their own base of knowledge, reading the poem seems none too difficult. This approach is not about offering students an illustration for a poem. It is a process through which students build background knowledge that when applied to a new text assists with comprehension. Along the way, students develop confidence reading poetry. It’s a virtuous cycle. To keep those wheels turning, consider a contemporary poem by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate. It appeared in The Guardian on July 31, 2009, to mark the deaths of Henry Allington and Harry Patch, the last surviving veterans of World War I.

I ask students to speculate on why a contemporary writer might choose this topic for a poem? How and why has Carol Ann Duffy leaned on, borrowed from Wilfred Owen’s poem? What seems to be her message to a contemporary audience?

When teachers back away from expecting students to read complex works, we abrogate our fundamental responsibility to broaden their horizons. Why should it seem old-fashioned to ask teenagers to put down their Xbox controllers and pick up a book? If we want students to know more, they will need to read more.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be compiling reader suggestions in a future post in this series.

Thanks to Kelly, Douglas, Nancy, and Carol for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I won’t be posting a new “Question Of The Week” until this series is completed next week, but feel free to send a question in if you have one in mind! And don’t forget to contribute your own advice on teaching reading...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.