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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: We Need to Let Students ‘Read, Read, Read’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 09, 2017 25 min read
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(This is the final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; and Part Three 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.

Part Two‘s guests were Regie Routman, Cindi Rigsbee, Shaeley Santiago, Wiley Blevins, and Dr. Rebecca Alber.

Part Three‘s guest responses were written by Gravity Goldberg, Renee Houser, Tan Huynh, Samantha Cleaver, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (with his second contribution to this series), Emily Geltz, and Sarah Shanks.

This four-part series is wrapping up with commentaries from Rita Platt, Sonja Cherry-Paul, Dana Johansen, Dr. Mary Howard, Bonnie Houck, Ed. D., Sandi Novak, Emily Phillips Galloway, Paola Uccelli, and Julie Swinehart. I have also included comments from many readers.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls School District in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

Richard Allington, in his article The Six Ts of Effective Literacy Instruction, says it best, students need, “a steady diet of easy texts.” While I would argue that “just-right” texts is a better way to say it, I believe Allington, with this point, offers a solution to the biggest mistake teachers make in reading instruction. They don’t let kids read, read, read.

Aligned with this simple message, I offer my thoughts on the mistakes teachers make and the way to fix them.

Mistake: Overemphasis on grade-level texts—Good readers read. A lot. If we want students to read, we have to give them texts they can and will read. The dreaded Common Core State Standard 10’s emphasis on grade-level texts has pushed teachers to focus on “grade-level” texts and away from differentiated reading to meet each student’s needs.

The Fix: Differentiated, choice-based reading—Students should be taught to choose books that fit their reading interests and needs, and offered vast selections for independent and guided reading. How? Read how my elementary school does it here and a solution for disciplinary literacy here.

Mistake: Overreliance on “stuff"—Teachers, we don’t have time for worksheets, endless “mini-lessons”, or programs. They don’t work. If they did, we’d have long ago closed the achievement gap.

The Fix: Let them read!—You might be thinking, “Wait, isn’t this the same fix as above?” Yep. It is. I am not advocating for a hands-off approach. Students need teachers to guide them, to offer strategy and skill instruction, and to talk with them about texts, but all in the context of real reading. Learn about getting kids to “binge read” here and finding books for reluctant readers here.

Mistake: Too little accountability—Students, even when they really like to read, often won’t. There are myriad distractions, from whispering to a friend during quiet reading time to video games and tablets at home. Tough choices must be made and it is incumbent on teachers to help students make the choice to read at school and at home.

The Fix: Teach students to hold themselves accountable to goals—Students need to learn to set and meet reading goals. This can happen through structured work with goal-setting, adjusting simple assessments to get usable data for students to monitor, or even using an online quick check like my school does. We use Accelerated Reader. Learn about how I use it here. Other schools use Book Adventure, it is free. No matter how you teach students to be accountable for growing as readers, you must hold them accountable. Students need to see their success through meeting goals. Success breeds success. Reading breeds more reading.

I started with a quote from Richard Allington. I am fully aware and comfortable with the fact that he may not agree with everything I’ve suggested. Still, I am going to end with more powerful words from this edu-hero, “Remember, adults have the power to make decisions [about reading instruction]; kids don’t. Let’s decide to give them the kind of instruction they need.”

Response From Sonja Cherry-Paul & Dana Johansen

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are classroom teachers and the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning & Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Both are published by Heinemann. Sonja and Dana are educational consultants, presenters, and doctoral students at Teachers College. They can be reached on twitter @LitLearnAct or their blog litlearnact.wordpress.com:

The biggest mistake that teachers make is spending too much time on whole-class instruction and discussions and not enough time for actual reading. What’s interesting about this mistake is that it doesn’t happen in other subject areas. For instance, if you were to walk into a math classroom, you’d see students solving math problems. Step into a writing class, and students are writing. Go into a music class, and students are singing. However in so many reading classrooms, the students aren’t reading. They are listening to the teacher or they’re having whole-class conversations. Of course direct instruction and discussions are important. But they’re not the most important thing. Reading is.

Richard Allington says, “Many schools allocate 90 minutes to reading instruction through grade 6. But much of that allocated time is not available for actual reading as other activities typically occupy large chunks of the allocated lesson time. In observing more and less effective elementary teachers, sheer volume of reading was a distinguishing feature of the high-achievement classrooms” (54). Reading for volume helps students grow stronger as readers. It just makes sense that students need to practice reading during reading class. Actual time for reading must be valued in the classroom. As Lucy Calkins reminds us, “Eyes on print” should be the main priority of your reading instruction. It just makes sense.

How can teachers fix this mistake? Start with the 15 minute rule. We can attest to how difficult it can be to find time for actual reading in our classrooms. We both teach middle school students, and it can be challenging to find time in our 45 and 90 minute schedules. But we make it happen. We prioritize it above all else. We do this because we know that it’s the best way for our students to improve as readers. We’ve seen the results year after year. Even setting aside 15 minutes a day can help a reader grow. Think about it: 15 minutes a day multiplied by 180 school days a year = 45 hours of reading. Wow! That’s a lot of practice time! Now imagine doubling that time to 30 minutes a day, and you have 90 hours of reading. That amount of practice with reading can help your students improve their reading stamina, comprehension, and vocabulary. So begin with 15 minutes a day. You will see your students’ engagement and interest in reading soar. When we value actual reading time in the classroom it does make a difference in the life of a reader.

Response From Dr. Mary Howard

Dr. Mary Howard is a literacy consultant and author of RTI from All Sides; Good to Great Teaching (Heinemann). Mary does presentation and supports teachers as a reading coach across the country. She co-moderates #G2Great weekly twitter chat and blogs at www.literacylenses.com Twitter: @DrMaryHoward FB (Slow Twitter): Mary C Howard:

I recently listened to Larry Ferlazzo’s wonderful podcast, Avoiding the Biggest Mistakes We Make When Teaching Reading. I nodded enthusiastically with each biggest mistake shared by four literacy experts as others quickly vied for attention. Before I knew it, five interrelated biggest mistakes were scribbled on scrap paper:

  1. Trusting publishers over professional impact: In recent years, boxed scripts have gained renewed popularity at staggering financial and professional cost. As we reduce reading to expensive instructional packages, educators are robbed of ongoing professional learning with in-the-trenches support from knowledgeable literacy coaches. A tragic side effect of this mismatch is that professional decision-making has been devalued.

  2. Over-emphasizing whole class instruction: More one-size-fits-all boxes have led to more one-size-fits-all instruction. These whole class experiences usurp precious minutes that could be spent on powerful small group and side-by-side practices. Flexible teacher-supported instruction and student led collaborations have thus been forced to take a priority back seat.

  3. Silencing student voices: This increasing whole class instructional sameness has meant that the teacher has by necessity become the primary voice in the room. As a result, student discourse has been disproportionate and student talk cast aside as irrelevant. We could shift that imbalance by inviting their voices to lift into the learning air in ways that enrich learning while informing our practices.

  4. Segmenting the instructional day: Controlled practices have led to detailed minute-to-minute schedules that are often at the expense of an instructional design where each piece works in concert. When literacy is viewed as an invisible thread that ties our learning day together, we are afforded room to celebrate the reciprocal nature of reading and writing across all subjects, grades, and settings.

  5. Allowing spreadsheets to define children: Each of the preceding mistakes have increased the professional reality of numbers, labels and levels. While these can offer a source of information, they cannot label children or be used to make life-altering decisions that ignore the child beneath the spreadsheet. This unfortunate trend is relegating children to a ‘fix-it room’ where we have summarily supplanted the first line of defense (classroom teacher).

These five biggest mistakes combined with those discussed in Larry’s podcast, reflect major flaws in literacy. These issues will forever thwart our efforts to re-design the literacy experiences our children deserve as long as we refuse to acknowledge and rectify them...

And that would be the biggest mistake of all!

Response From Bonnie Houck & Sandi Novak

Bonnie Houck, EdD, is a consultant, coach, speaker, professor, and trainer who specializes in literacy leadership development and positive school change. She has authored Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016) and works as a professor at Bethel University.

Sandi Novak, an education consultant, has served as an assistant superintendent, principal, curriculum & professional development director, and teacher. She has authored three books: Literacy Unleashed (ASCD, 2016), Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions (Solution Tree, 2016), and Student-Led Discussions (ASCD, 2014). She also authored the On-line ASCD PD Course, Building a Schoolwide Independent Reading Culture:

Shift the Ownership of Learning to the Students: Teach More—Talk Less

Teachers are motivated by student growth and success. In the relentless quest to meet the needs of all students while fostering growth, teachers can lose sight of their overarching goal—shifting the ownership of learning to students. To accomplish this important goal, teachers need to teach more and talk less!

The Gradual Release of Responsibility

The Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model of instruction has proven effective in improving literacy comprehension and achievement for decades (Fisher & Frey, 2014). Teachers “shift” the heavy lifting of learning to students through varying modes of instructional delivery, moving from whole group focused instruction, where learning goals are explicitly taught and modeled, to guided practice with small groups, to student collaboration and discussion, to individual application of learning.

The Challenge of Content Versus Process

21st Century teachers are expected to ensure that all students meet grade level standards, while growing a minimum of a year in every subject. This means that a teacher must provide excellent grade level instruction, while differentiating to accelerate struggling students and extending opportunities for those that have mastered content. With the national implementation of common standards, teacher quality legislation requiring ongoing evaluation, and annual assessments to monitor these areas, teachers feel pressured to deliver content rather than to support students in the process of learning.

The Challenge of Time

Research supports that the reading instruction requires 90-120 minutes each day with an additional 30 minutes for writing and language arts (Taylor, 2011). However, most schools provide significantly less instructional time, causing teacher stress and a sense of urgency to “cover” content. This pressure often results in an increase of whole group instruction. The teacher is “telling” students what they need to know instead of modeling the process, supporting practice with coaching, and discussing individual implementation of the learning while providing feedback, i.e. the Gradual Release of Responsibility. Mistaking the focused lesson as the critical part of the learning process, learning becomes work and the teacher carries that workload!

Overcoming the Challenge

To embrace the notion head-on, we CAN shift the ownership of learning to students by trusting decades of research supporting the GRR and focus on process. Each day, visualize what you want students to learn. Focus on the learning target and self-articulate what students will be able to do as a result of instruction. Consider the needs of students to determine possible areas to differentiate. Plan your focused lesson to explicitly teach and model this goal several times within the context of reading. Consider the time you have to provide small group guided and collaborative experiences. Identify the culminating activity to assess the degree to which each student has mastered the learning goal. Write the student learning target and include performance criteria. Use the GRR as your guide!

Collaborate with Leaders

Our work with leaders using the Literacy Classroom Visit Model (Houck & Novak, 2016) has provided a process for visiting classrooms to inspire collegial conversation among leaders and teachers. Principals and coaches now have data to guide conversations with teachers; whereas, teachers have self-reflection and growth data to analyze how they are “teaching more to talk less” which shifts the ownership of learning to the students.


Fisher, D & Frey, N (2014) Better learning through structured teaching: A Framework for the gradual release of responsibility, 2nd. VA.: ASCD.

Houck, B., & Novak, S. (2016). Literacy Unleashed: Fostering Excellent Reading Instruction through Classroom Visits. VA: ASCD.

Taylor, B. (2011). Catching Schools: An action guide to schoolwide reading improvement. NH: Heinemann.

Response From Emily Phillips Galloway and Paola Uccelli

Emily Phillips Galloway is assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. Phillips Galloway’s research, which includes quantitative and qualitative studies, explores the relationships between academic language development and reading skill in adolescents with a focus on English Learners and has been featured in Reading Research Quarterly, Applied Psycholinguistics and Reading and Writing. Her recent book is entitled Advanced Literacy Instruction in Linguistically Diverse Settings: A Guide for School Leaders, co-authored with Nonie Lesaux and Sky Marietta.

Paola Uccelli is Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research in educational linguistics examines language and literacy development in monolingual and bilingual learners—in the U.S. and abroad—and informs research-based pedagogies that seek to empower all learners’ voices. Uccelli’s research is featured in scholarly journals, such as Journal of Child Language, Applied Psycholinguistics, Reading Research Quarterly, and Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

In this post, we focus on an area of reading that is challenging for adolescent readers, yet has remained invisible to teachers and researchers until recently: the teaching of academic language. In all classrooms, whether we are teaching English Language Arts or mathematics, teaching content area vocabulary has become a common practice. This focus is certainly warranted. Content area vocabulary, often signified by bold print, points to the central ideas and concepts within a knowledge domain.

Because the goal of reading, even for our youngest learners, is to use text as a source for building knowledge, teaching ‘key words’ is important. The challenge, though, is that making sense of any text also requires knowledge of the other words, phrases, and, sentence structures that surround content area vocabulary on the printed page (e.g., words such as ‘however’ and ‘perhaps'; phrases such as ‘for example’ and ‘it may be the case'; and sentence structures such as embedded clauses). These pieces of language—sometimes called core academic language—are found across content area reading materials. When we teach core academic language, we help our students gain access to the language that, among other functions, conveys how ideas are connected or how certain an author is about a statement. The challenge, though, is that our reading instruction has not traditionally focused on teaching core academic language because we’ve only recently begun to understand its role in proficient reading and content area learning.

Over the last six years, we’ve conducted a series of studies examining the core academic language skills of nearly 7,000 U.S. public school students in grades 4-8. These studies suggest that the majority of upper-elementary and middle-school students, including those where English is the primary language spoken at home, are still developing the language skills needed to understand nuanced relationships between ideas in text, to grasp a writer’s stance on an issue, and to unpack the multiple ideas often conveyed in a single complex sentence. While our students are often skilled at conversational language, they may be unfamiliar with the types of language that appear in school texts. This is especially true for students who have historically experienced reading difficulty, or who often have fewer opportunities to engage with grade-level texts that contain core academic language.

More impactful reading instruction hinges on recognizing the language skills that students bring to the classroom and on identifying those that they do not. Reading complex texts is a challenging task, so naturally, this instruction occurs best in the context of texts on high-interest topics, nested in units focused on important ideas and framed by questions that our students are motivated to answer. The goal of reading instruction, after all, is to give students the opportunity to engage in authentic ways with text.

Additional high-leverage instructional practices include selecting a short segment (2-3 sentences) of grade-level text to ‘unpack’ as a class. By first asking students to collaborate on paraphrasing the information in the text—a task that requires tackling the disciplinary and core academic language it contains—the language and background knowledge students bring to the classroom serves as an important resource for knowledge-building. The class then works together to generate a final paraphrase, often negotiating the meaning of the words in the text, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of the language and content than could be achieved by a single student working alone. Unlike many ‘close’ reading exercises, these instructional episodes are short, focused on textual language in the service of meaning, are built on what students know about a topic, and are highly engaging. This reading instruction acknowledges the challenges that adolescent readers face in accessing the academic language of complex texts—and our role in supporting them.

Response Form Julie Swinehart

Julie Swinehart has been teaching secondary language arts for eighteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last three in Amman, Jordan. A recent convert to the workshop model, she likes to blog about and share her learning and experience with others. Follow her on Twitter at @SwinehartJulie and read her blog:

One mistake is thinking that we know what’s best for our students all the time. Often, student voice and choice are more important than teacher input, and it’s easy to forget choice in reading material can make all the difference in the world to kids.

Teachers have favorite books, and historically have designed units around select titles. While it’s often fun and easier for the teacher, as the teacher gets to read and teach his or her own favorite books every year, it’s less student centered than it could be.

Instead, teachers should to decide what skills they want to teach, what the learning targets are, and then make some key decisions: do students need to read a core text together? If so, the text should match the learning targets, rather than trying to match learning targets to teachers’ favorite texts.

If students don’t all need to read a core text in order to meet the learning targets, then teachers can decide if students need to read the same type of text. If so, the titles students are allowed choose from should be varied and current in order to meet their needs and interests.

If the targeted strategies and learning don’t require a specific type of text, then students should be given as much voice and choice as possible. Often, this type of wide choice coincides with teaching good habits of reading. In other words, it encourages and teaches students how to develop healthy reading lives.

This is the most essential reading teaching any teacher can engage in, as students need to read much more than they can possibly read in class alone. If students don’t discover and develop their own healthy reading lives, the skills and learning targets they’ve worked on all year will get rusty and fade away, as there will be no extended practice.

It’s essential to get input from students when choosing core texts, book club titles, and classroom and school library collections. When students have voice and choice in what they read they will read more. It’s that simple.

Responses From Readers

Rachel Libick, Kansas/Missouri Board Member of the International Dyslexia Association:

The big mistake in reading instruction is not adequately preparing teachers to instruct in reading.

There are only 25 programs in the nation that are accredited by the International Dyslexia Association as effectively preparing teachers to work with dyslexic students. This is out of the approximately 2600 colleges and universities accredited in the United States—which translates to less than 1 percent of colleges and universities having programs that align with the IDA’s standards for teacher preparation. (It should be noted that not every college or university has education degrees, and this percentage does not take that into account)

When teachers are not prepared to work with dyslexic students, they are not prepared to work with up to 20 percent of their classroom population. This lack of education contributes to frustration for both teachers and students, creates a lack of clear communication between parents and teachers regarding a student’s particular struggles, and often causes a delay in finding appropriate interventions or accommodations.

Dale King:

The biggest mistake is not teaching a skill to mastery. Teachers are sometimes pressured to “move on” and feel time restraints. When a skill isn’t taught to a mastery level (which requires pre-assessment and post-assessment), it simply aren’t learned and can’t be applied to future learning.

Melissa Orkin, Ph.D., Maryanne Wolf, Ph.D., Kirk Vanacore, B.A.:

Over three decades ago, Allington (1983) remarked that fluency is the most neglected of reading processes. It continues to be so, both in the schools and in research, for reasons ranging from inequality and inadequate instruction in the classroom, to a prevailing theoretical misconception of the complexity of the skills involved.

Recent evidence demonstrates that in order to achieve fluency, students must become automatic not only in their retrieval of phonological and orthographic knowledge, but also in their access to the syntactic, semantic, and morphological skills that facilitate comprehending sentence structure and word meaning. Together these multi-componential linguistic processes—phonology, orthography, semantics, syntax, and morphology—form what we refer to here as the POSSuM skills approach. It is the interaction of these processes across single words, sentences and passages that allows a student to simultaneously read and understand text with fluent comprehension.

Within this view, fluency is no longer reducible to a matter of speed; rather, it represents a level of automatic processing in all the underlying word-related processes that allows readers to decode text fast enough and effortlessly enough to allocate their attention to the varied comprehension processes involved in understanding and analyzing text. Our evolving understanding of the multiple processes that contribute to fluent reading supports the need for explicit instruction in the multiple components of written language, particularly for those students who will, without such intervention, never achieve their full potential.

Pat Sekel:

An overarching concept that all teachers, particularly those of reading, must deeply understand is the necessity of structured, sequential, and explicit teaching for all students, since 49 percent of reading skill in 6th grade dependent upon phonics. Having been a graduate level professor of reading for several years, more than 50 percent of my students believed that ‘teaching comprehension’ was all that was necessary!

Reading teachers of emergent through primary grade students should be well aware of the deep impact phonemic awareness, in particular manipulation tasks, has on instant word recognition.

Jennifer Hampton:

It is my opinion, the single biggest mistake educators make in reading instruction is assuming if they look like competent readers in K and 1, they will continue to be strong readers in later grades. This ability to decipher text comes from the simplicity of early text and over reliance on context clues, such as pictures and what makes sense. These are strategies which can actually provide children with the information needed to navigate a simple text. However, these strategies of relying on context clues do not hold up over time. It is my strongly held belief this is why the NAEP scores continue to show 68 percent of our nation’s 4th graders read below grade level. They simply don’t leave early grades with the skills needed to navigate more complex text in later grades.

It is critical young children be taught how to read with heavy emphasis on decoding skills, which provides them the skill they need to attack unknown, multi-syllable words in later grades.

Cherryne Luesang:

I think the biggest mistake reading teachers make is to forget that kids need and love to be read to. Parents can read to their kids nightly and impact student achievement.

Nora Matthews:

The biggest mistake teachers make in reading instruction is spending time teaching emergent readers to look for context clues when they should be spending more time developing their phonemic awareness and phonics/blending knowledge.

Thanks to Rita, Sonja, Dana, Mary, Gonnie, Sandi, Emily, Paola and Julie, and to readers, 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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