Reading & Literacy Opinion

When Real Reading Isn’t Happening ... Four Ways to Respond

By Ariel Sacks — December 28, 2016 8 min read
African American Girl holding book and reading in an elementary school lesson
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The New Year encourages—often requires—a reset of routines and expectations in our classrooms. One of the most fundamental routines in an English or any literacy-based classroom is the practice of reading. So what do we do when we give students a reading task, but we see that real reading is not happening? I’m talking about those moments when it seems like we’re stuck repeating directions, redirecting off task behavior, and even struggling to stay focused ourselves.

Maybe it’s just a wonky moment—or maybe it’s time to step back, evaluate what’s really going on, and change course.

Reading is a special and complex activity. If students are reading narrative of any kind, they have to be receptive enough to the words on the page to activate their imaginations so that they can enter the virtual world of the story, despite being physically at school in a room full of peers. If students are reading informational texts, they need activate their curiosity about the topic, while reading the words on the page—they must continuously renew that curiosity as they assimilate each new piece of information.

No one can do all of that without a great deal of focus, especially children who haven’t yet developed the attention controls we as adults generally have. When students are choosing behaviors that prevent them from entering the text, it’s crucial to take action and change conditions so that students will make the choice to read.

Here are some strategies for doing so. They are all connected, but looking at each one individually can help us focus our next steps.

1. Is it the environment? Invest in the routine of silent reading.

If you feel fairly confident that the reading is doable for students independently, try focusing on establishing or reestablishing the silent part of silent reading in your classroom. The reality is no one can read and chat at the same time--at any particular moment, we can do one or the other. If a student is continually starting to read, then getting pulled out of the text to listen to or speak to a neighbor, she isn’t going to become receptive enough to the text to be able to visualize what’s happening and activate the imagination for a true reading experience.

I think in many learning activities throughout a school day, students can get into a productive groove that does includes talk; often, this becomes a habit and a norm. Sometimes students simply do not realize that reading doesn’t work this way.

  • Try talking with the class students about the environment they need in order to “get into” reading (even if you already had this conversation back in September). You might chart their responses as a visual reference.
  • Start with a short chunk of silent reading, such as seven minutes. Use a timer.
  • Take a break from conferencing or supporting individual students during this time and quietly observe the class as they silently read, or read your own book alongside them. Avoid engaging with students verbally or doing anything that may distract even one student. Use nonverbal reminders if needed, like making eye contact with a distracted student and quietly pointing to the timer or chart, or moving to stand near an unfocused student’s desk while reading your own book.
  • Debrief with the class after the initial, short “experiment.” How did it go? Were you able to “get into” the reading now that it is silent? Troubleshoot together and set a goal to increase the amount of time the whole class can read silently.
  • Over time, the routine will become habit and you can return to conferencing with students and trust that the rest of the class will persist in their reading. I’ve had classes go from unfocused and resistant to begging for more reading time within a few days.

2. Is it certain students? Plan differentiated supports for individual students.

Once you get students clear on the routine, it usually also becomes apparent that some students really struggle to read independently. Focus on supporting them.

  • Can you help your struggling readers find a text that will meet the bigger goals of the activity, but that they can read on their own? Can you provide an audio recording of the text the rest of the class is reading?
  • If attention is the main issue, try having the student sit right next to you during independent reading time. If that doesn’t fix it, read a page to that student, then ask that he read the next page by himself, and record a summary / key idea on a sticky note. Check back. Repeat.
  • Can you pair a struggling reader up with another student to read? I love pairing up the whole class (usually in homogenous groupings) and having partners read aloud to each other. This makes for a lot of voices at once, but it’s somehow not distracting, because everyone is doing the same thing. I let pairs choose a space anywhere in the room, or even the hallway (if I trust them), to read together.
  • Pull together a small group of students who struggle to read independently. Have them sit with you as they take turns reading aloud to each other at a quiet volume, while the rest of the class reads independently. Utilize co-teacher or other available adults who can work with a small reading group. Sometimes non-English teachers are excited to help with this for a period of time. Sometimes a few days is all that’s needed to get into a productive flow, after which students can continue without the adult.
  • Give other students the option of forming a small reading group during reading time. It’s interesting to see who benefits from the social nature of a book group, and who prefers reading alone.

3. Is it the task? Simplify your expectations to promote, not disrupt, the flow of reading.

Sometimes I catch myself going around the room explaining and re-explaining directions. An obvious response is to review the directions and model the activity with the whole class again. However, when the task involves reading, it’s worth asking our selves whether the assignment actually supports students’ reading.

For example, when we assign students to read something and fill out a graphic organizer, sometimes we’ve created the distraction ourselves. We’ve designed the organizer to help students track or analyze key elements, but in effect, this is pulling readers away from the act of reading.

  • If you think an accompanying task like a graphic organizer may be what’s impeding students’ reading, try separating the reading and writing tasks. It’s okay to make this decision in the middle of a period if something’s not working.
  • Tell the class, “Let’s put away the graphic organizers for now and focus just on reading. We’ll take some time later to go back and do this work.” The task you’re now putting off will be just as beneficial—if not much more so—as a rereading activity once students have been able to access the text.
  • Be open to the realization that the accompanying task was overly complicated or unnecessary. Sometimes, we create too much “noise” in our instruction and just need to let go of something, to emphasize what’s most important. If real reading isn’t happen, we must prioritize it.

4. Is it the text? Build or repair students’ positive expectations toward reading with interesting texts.

Many of our students have to exert tremendous effort and self-control when they read. To offset these challenges, students need to have a sense that their effort will pay off with a satisfying, pleasurable, and/or thought-provoking experience.

It’s possible to lose an entire class of students with a poor text selection. (Raise your hand if you have done this before ;) Likewise, it’s possible to invigorate an entire class (or individual or small group) with compelling and appropriate text choices.

  • Take text selection very seriously! I can’t say this enough. I devote a whole chapter of Whole Novels For the Whole Class to my approach to choosing books for students. A free text selection tool “Five Domains of Good Chemistry,” which uses some of the concepts from the book, is available here].
  • If we are selecting texts for students, we need them to trust that our selections will be worthwhile and rewarding. If we choose a text that flops with students, no matter how much we love it ourselves, we have to acknowledge the harm and take action to recover students’ attitude toward reading in our class. Make sure the next whole class text (whether it’s a short piece, a film, or a whole novel) is one that will really capture students’ minds--even if this means adjusting the yearlong plan. If students don’t actually read, how helpful was the plan anyway?
  • Allowing students choice in their reading is essential, and I strive for a balance between student selected and common texts. When students are self-selecting reading materials, we still play a vital role in supporting their choices. If many students resist reading books they’ve chosen, we have to consider whether we’ve helped them find materials that really interest them. One excellent book can change a students’ attitude toward reading forever!
  • Invest in getting an array of exciting books into the room and into students’ hands. A colleague of mine did a wonderful thing when he helped all of his students get public library cards; but he soon discovered this wasn’t enough. So he started going to the public library himself each week and checking out a bunch of books to show students during class. Even though they couldn’t take his personal library books home, students became visibly eager to read, and they knew how to go to the library to get the books for themselves.
  • I know teachers who don’t have autonomy over the texts they bring to students due to mandated curricula or funding constraints. This makes my blood boil, but I will save this topic for a separate blog post.

The sad reality is that in classrooms across the country, there is a quite a lot of resistant behavior from students in response to reading. Sometimes it may be quiet resistance, and sometimes it may be loud.

The good news is that there’s so much we can do to fix this! Often, small changes make a big difference. Other times, pausing to take an honest look at the situation will give us the courage to make a larger change. Either way, our students’ reading has got to be a priority in 2017.

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