Monday, October 28, 2013

Who are the "good readers" in our secondary school staff?

"I'm not a good reader..." How many times have we heard students say this? How many times have we heard other educators say this? Too often, some "content-area" teachers, especially teachers of math and technological studies (communications technology, construction technology, health / personal services, manufacturing technology, technological design, transportation design, computer studies) do not identify as "good readers". Yet, these same teachers are frequent users of texts - often in authentic contexts - which suggests a need to shift attitudes and help these teachers recognize the influence they have as teachers of reading. 

Both Cris Tovani and Jacqueline Darvin discuss the importance of demonstrating to students the things that good readers do (typically through modelling, read alouds, or think alouds). While Tovani focuses on the use of specific strategies in the classroom (such as using text features, double entry journals, and modelling thinking to overcome challenging texts), Darvin's research took a closer look at tech classrooms (or what she terms, "vocational classrooms"). Darvin concluded that
"Vocational classrooms are discourse communities that combine the multifaceted worlds of school and work, the two places where adolescents and adults ... spend the majority of their time. They provide their members with opportunities to interact with texts in authentic, interesting ways that make use of the tools of multiple disciplines..." (17)
In some cases, the teachers in her study were unaware that they were not only functioning as "good readers", but that they were modelling great practice for their students. Teachers tended to use texts purposefully: "One difference between vocational and academic educators, they told me, is that tradespeople don’t usually read texts in a linear, sequential fashion. They use texts in bits and pieces to solve problems, research, and enhance particular stages of the projects in which they are engaged. They typically read not for the sake of gaining general knowledge but to accomplish particular goals and to gain specific information" (Darvin, 12). Tech teachers help students manage texts in order to perform specific tasks; teachers focus on text structures, reading with purpose, evaluation of the text, and other practices used in English classrooms. But, in many cases, students, and some teachers, do not necessarily value the reading of a recipe or a manual.  
"... two common misconceptions that several other vocational teachers also expressed in their interviews about reading. The first is that good readers should read quickly. The second is that only novels are real books." (Darvin, 13)
We need to help technological and mathematics teachers embed reading strategy instruction into their practice; that is, they need to name the explicit use of strategies in authentic tasks. Professional learning communities, professional development or any professional learning, needs to occur in cross-curricular environments and encourage all participants to share effective practice. We need to validate and honour different types of reading. Darvin suggests:
"...these educators clearly do not view themselves as proficient readers or highly literate members of society. These perceptions have likely been cultivated from their experiences with schooling and narrow societal views about high-status and low-status texts (i.e., The New York Times versus Popular Mechanics); which genres of texts are privileged over others and considered “real reading”; the speed at which a person should read; the linear, sequential order in which texts should be approached; the emphasis on summarizing and memorizing material; and so forth. This is unfortunate because it results in a “distancing” of vocational educators from the larger educational and research communities. This situation needs to be remedied if we are to learn from one another and bridge the highly publicized gaps between school and workplace literacies" (17).
My own experiences in an Ontario secondary school mirrors Darvin's conclusions. In addition to the fact that tech teachers don't identify as "good readers", I would add that there is a perception that tech teachers aren't "real" teachers since they may not have attended university. This is a divisive and dismissive attitude and doesn't help anyone, contributing to the "distancing" that Darvin notes. I've watched a committed chef work through this process, giving up two summers and evenings to get his teacher's certificate. And, he's an amazing teacher -- I would be seriously challenged to recreate the magic that happens in his classroom.

Staff attitudes matter; students learn from how we interact with each other. If the tech teachers and the English teachers (or the Math teachers and the Family Studies teachers) collaborate and share their work with students, it helps to validate both as effective teachers. More cross-curricular exploration of reading strategies is warranted. We are all "good readers"; we need to value different forms of text.


Darvin, Jacqueline (2006). "'On reading recipes and racing forms' - The literacy practices and perceptions of vocational educators" Journal of Adolescent Literacy. 50:1. pp. 10-18.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 23-36.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Effective Group Work with Reading Instruction

The teacher announces a group project; the class audibly groans and eye-rolling reaches new heights. How does a teacher avoid this response? What does effective group work look like in intermediate / senior classrooms?
"Talk helps all learners articulate their thinking. Small groups also give more students a chance to participate in a way that they wouldn't do in large groups." - Chris Tovani, p. 98
In her book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12, Chris Tovani provides excellent examples of students at work in groups, sharing their thinking, discussing rich texts, collaborating on meaning, asking questions when they have trouble, and generally helping each other problem-solve the text. First, she addresses past poor experiences, asking her students to help define what doesn't work in group work. Next, she models (using the fishbowl strategy) what group work looks like (including the negative behaviours they identified) and discusses how to problem-solve for times when people are off task or conversation stalls. Interestingly, she doesn't abdicate all group responsibility to the students; the teacher's task is to provide timely feedback, which she does in the form of plus/minus notes, quoting students directly to indicate situations and thinking that moved the group forward versus behaviours or thinking that stalled the group.  And, of course, all of this is powered by providing students with rich, authentic, meaningful texts. Students are provided strategies like using post-its to record their thinking, make connections and share their findings.

I have experienced the classroom with both functioning and non-functioning groups and it's clear what makes the difference: the teacher's expectations of the group. If the teacher takes the time to appropriately group students (based on needs, interests, skills - any number of variables), explore behaviours that help and hinder group work, and generally agree to some norms, then group work has a shot at working. The best tools I have discovered recently are protocols (like those from the National School Reform Faculty of the Harmony Education Center), which basically are strategies for discussion; they are timed, inclusive, well-designed group discussion strategies which promote deep thinking and meaningful conversation. I have been using them predominantly with adult learners recently (teachers), in an effort to model effective group work strategies. Protocols help minimize negative behaviours - such as one person monopolizing the conversation - while focusing the group on the task at hand. Also, as Tovani points out, it's important to provide feedback while groups are working; they need specific examples of positive work behaviours and thinking as well as problem-solving strategies when faced with barriers to conversation.

Tovani's book is widely read because it's well articulated, well organized, and well researched. Her use of real-life examples to start each section is book-ended by a summary which collects key info for readers. Throughout, the text boxes provide great prompts, focus questions, and exemplars to aid understanding. I would recommend this book to colleagues or to a reader who is especially interested in strategy-based instruction in reading. When the text does focus on assessment, the focus is well placed on assessment for learning as opposed to assessment of learning.

Reference: Tovani, Chris (2004) Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Monitoring Reading: How can I Assess Student Comprehension?

An important piece of improving student reading is the constant assessment of student comprehension. Students need timely feedback on specific learning goals in order to know if they are improving their skills (and what to do if they are not). Sounds easy, but of course, it's more complex than that.

The Ministry document, A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment outlines the key purpose of assessment in literacy:

Assessment supports and furthers the broad goals of literacy instruction, which are
to enable each student:
• to become a strategic reader, writer, and oral communicator;
• to expand thinking skills (including metacognitive and critical-literacy skills), developing the necessary habits of mind;
• to deepen the motivation to learn;
• to develop independence as a learner.
In order to develop independence, educators need to constantly introduce new opportunities to students grow as readers by using their repertoire of strategies with increasingly complex readings (at least, this is what is suggested by the curriculum). I think the above list still applies to adolescent readers; my experiences working with reluctant readers indicate that motivation continues to be a significant challenge, but that ability is also a problem. Students in our Essential level classes (designed for students functioning below grade level) are broadly grouped into 3 groups: those functioning at grade 1/2 levels, those stalled out around grade 5/6 and those slightly behind in grade 7/8 levels. The students lack the strategic skills and/or thinking skills that define them as grade appropriate-competent. And, in many cases, students identified as MID (mildly intellectually delayed) are in our Essential classes; a common characteristic for this identification is a limited capacity for thinking, which may impact reading comprehension (as an aside, I find it odd that we still prescribe to tests that measure intellect and classify/ identify people -- often for years -- with that label).

Interestingly, a common concern for secondary school English teachers is that we struggle with knowing how to teach reading or how to effectively "diagnose" the reading levels of students. I think this translates to a difficulty understanding assessment for learning or as learning. We haven't been trained as teachers of reading and struggle to consistently monitor comprehension during reading and before reading. Additionally, it can be a challenge to find find appropriate tools for adolescents.  There are so many tools out there that it's often difficult to ascertain the most appropriate diagnostic tools to use with adolescents. Specific tests, like the Woodcock-Johnson or the Gates-MacGinitie are generally used by Special Education departments for testing, but not all students in Essential have undergone the testing. In our board, we use a range of tools from  PM Benchmarks (using Running Records) in our Primary/ Junior grades through to CASI in our Junior/ Intermediate grades through to OCA in our Intermediate grades (including grade 9). In secondary school, it's difficult to know what other tools to use for diagnostic assessments, but some teachers of Essential are able to use miscue analysis or running records. The real challenge lies in finding appropriate reading materials for adolescents functioning below grade level. Furthermore, as both the Ministry resources and Tovani argue, we have to have reading strategies fully embedded into daily practice, with constant monitoring of growth and feedback to promote growth.

"In our profession, we've come to believe that assessment is about giving credit for the right answer. If we're looking only for the right answer, then students often will not risk admitting confusion. This really puts us teachers at a disadvantage, because then we have to play the role of mind reader. Without the assessments that can guide us, we have to guess where to take our teaching. It's so much easier if we can get our students to share their thinking." - Chris Tovani, p. 115

When it comes to assessments of reading, intermediate teachers still often design language arts/English units around texts (like the novel); in our secondary schools, we often use Scholastic magazines, Orca readers or HIP books to provide appropriate high interest, low readability resources for students. While there needs to be some measurement of comprehension, more important is the metacognition - the assessment as learning. Teachers need to model (through think-alouds, for example) how to reflect on their reading; students need explicit instruction in how to reflect. Metacognitive prompts need to guide student reflection to explore new strategies as they become more proficient readers. It's a balance of activities to monitor comprehension before, during, and after reading that will help promote independent readers.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 3: Planning and Classroom Management. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Tovani, Chris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Upper Grand DSB. (2003). Blueprint for Literacy: A Handbook of Effective Teaching Practices.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Strategy in Reading: the 3 Rs +1

The following post was created for an Additional Qualifications class (Reading Specialist, Part 2). 

Using Retell, Relate, and Reflect

At its simplest level, the 3R prompts - retell, relate, reflect - are about summarizing, making connections, and thinking deeply about a reading (fiction or non-fiction). It is a simple way to organize student responses, but can be a powerful way to engage critical analysis, especially when paired with scaffolded instruction (eg. providing sentence stems, think-alouds, guided practice, descriptive feedback). 

However, if the prompts are too vague, it can be challenging for students to understand how to adequately respond. The use of success criteria or a rubric helps alleviate this concern.

Below is an example of the strategy in use with texts about reading.

Front CoverTovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension , Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke/ Stenhouse.

"The only reason to teach kids how to be strategic readers is to help them become more thoughtful about their reading." - Cris Tovani (9)
This comment from Tovani really resonated with me; we spend much of our time "teaching" strategies, but do we really ensure that they are well integrated into students' reading habits? Ideally, they should internalize this process. I also really like Tovani's suggestion that we focus on a few really powerful strategies and teach them really well (5-6). I relate to this because, as a teacher of adolescents who struggle with literacy, I have spent a lot of my time trying to find the "magic bullet" solution (which, of course, doesn't exist). I have used many of the strategies in Tovani's book, but I am not sure that I have helped students learn them really well. I can think of a couple of strategies that we've used regularly, which is part of the key to making it a habit. More important though, is Tovani's final point in the introduction of this book:
"Meaning doesn't arrive because we have highlighted text or used sticky notes or written the right swords on a comprehension worksheet. Meaning arrives because we are purposefully engaged in thinking while we read." (9)

I love the text feature at the end of each of Tovani's chapters -- the "What works" questions for reflection and a "Teaching Point" to focus on. This book will provide very helpful for my work; points such as, "Good readers don't need end-of-the-chapter questions or isolated skill sheets. They ask their own questions, based upon their need for a deeper understanding of specific aspects of the text." These summaries at the end of each chapter are great as "take-aways" and are truly cross-curricular in nature. I love the focus on authenticity in reading; this is such an important part of helping students become better readers. If we continue to ask them to read materials that they neither care about nor like, then of course they won't read that fascinating article on the history of Canadian law (just because we find it fascinating doesn't mean they will too!)

That said, there is something about a teacher's enthusiasm and passion for a subject that, in turn, excites kids. They need to see reading strategies modelled and explained clearly. And nothing does that better than the Read-Aloud (especially when paired with explicit instruction of strategies, like the Think-Aloud).

Fisher, Douglas, James Flood, Diane Lapp, and Nancy Frey (2004). "Interactive read-alouds: Is there a common set of implementation practices?" International Reading Association (pp. 8-17).

Oster, Leslie (2001). Using the Think-Aloud for Reading Instruction. The Reading Teacher Vol. 55, No.1 September 2001 (pp. 64-69).

The Read-Aloud takes some work to do, but is not a difficult strategy to employ in any classroom. It's important to use more complex texts for read-alouds; if it's too easy, you may lose students. As Fisher et al argue, "Read-aloud texts, which are typically more difficult for children than their independent reading texts, are often followed by a brief discussion of the events and themes." I especially like this as a practice for guided reading; we should be challenging all levels of readers in our classrooms.

Also outlined as important is the need for reading fluency - something that not all of the teachers in the study were able to do (14). I found the Frey et al article really interesting as it suggests that there is a "right" and "wrong" way to do the read-aloud; yes, it's always a good idea to read-aloud, but what's more important are the strategies and supports that go with it.

"Because children move from hearing to reading to telling to writing original stories that include the literary patterns to which they are exposed (Peck, 1989), the read-aloud is paramount in a child's literacy development." (Fisher et al, p15)
Teachers need to be explicitly trained and need to practice this skill to ensure that it has a positive impact. I especially like that the article outlines a study of the skill; too often we (literacy leaders and teachers) jump from one strategy to the next big thing. It' s always good to have evidence to support the use of a strategy as best practice.

Another effective practice is that of the Think-Aloud, which pairs well with the Read-Aloud, as Fisher et al explained (13). The explicit use of discussion prompts or questions before, during, and after reading help students see and hear what good readers do (to borrow Tovani's phrase). Leslie Oster's article explains the use of the think-aloud as as assessment tool (especially assessment as learning or for metacognitive awareness) and an instructional tool, which demonstrates the power of this strategy. I find it fun to use this in class; students get a kick out of hearing a teacher explain his/her thinking and hearing the connections their teacher makes.  It can be challenging, as it's not always a linear process, but paired with a graphic organizer (and here's where Retell, Relate, Reflect would work well), it is powerful. I like that Oster talks about pushing students to go deeper, moving beyond the obvious (ideas explicitly stated in the text and even inferences) to critical analysis while still validating their obvious observations (66). Validating a student's idea is so important, especially for a reluctant reader. If a student is struggling with comprehension, then just identifying an obvious statement about the text is necessary, if only to build confidence in reading. Paired with this is the student's ability to ask a question; even reluctant readers should be able to articulate questions (they might need guidance to come up with higher level questions), as Tovani pointed out to the students in the demonstration class (3).

To sum up, I return to Tovani's central idea for literacy instruction:
"Instead of thinking of this work as teaching 'content-area reading' or 'reading at the secondary level', I think of it as teaching students how to remember and reuse the information we ask them to read." (7) 
I firmly believe that literacy underlies everything we do as educators. It does not matter what subject-specific curriculum is being taught if a student cannot access and comprehend the information. Secondary school teachers have a responsibility to continue direct instruction in literacy; I would argue that good teaching relies on being able to help students access text in responsible manner.  Students need to feel empowered to react to the information they are expected to read and comprehend; they need the skills to read, retell, relate, reflect, and react accordingly. 
"Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future. In a complex and sometimes even dangerous world, their ability to read will be crucial. Continual instruction beyond the early grades is needed." (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999, p.3 as quoted in Vacca)
Vacca, Richard T. (2002).  "From Efficient Decoders to Strategic Readers." Educational Ledership. ASCD. Vol. 60, No. 3. Reading and Writing in the Content Areas. Pages 6-11.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Getting to Know Your Students as Readers

Schoolchildren reading, 1911. USA Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

A first step in helping students become better readers is to identify their strengths and needs as readers. Building on student strength is a great way to address needs (as I have learned through the appreciative inquiry model). We need to start reluctant adolescent readers where they are and work from there. To do this, surveys and self-assessments are important tools.

The following is a worksheet assessment for students found in Appendix 1 of the Ontario Ministry of Education's  Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. It clearly targets Junior level students, but could easily be adapted for Intermediate / Senior students.

Self-Assessment Survey: A Portrait of Myself as a Reader, Writer, and Speaker

Think about yourself as a literacy learner and indicate the number beside each statement
that best reflects you as a learner.
1 – not at all like me 
2 – sort of like me 
3 – a lot like me

I enjoy discussing ideas and issues with others. ______
I enjoy doing oral presentations. ______
I can explain ideas and information clearly. ______
I am comfortable presenting in front of others. ______
I would rather talk about ideas than read or write about them. ______
I speak clearly and can easily be heard by others. ______

I am a good writer. ______
I like to use lots of description and new words in my writing. ______
I like to write in point form or fill in charts. ______
I only write in school. ______
I use e-mail and chat rooms on the computer. ______
I like to write things like newspaper articles or informational pieces. ______
I like to write imaginative narrative stories. ______
When I write I try to spell all the words correctly the first time. ______
I keep changing and improving my writing. ______

I am a good reader. ______
If I have trouble reading I use lots of different strategies to understand. ______
I find reading non-fiction texts easier and more interesting. ______
I take a long time to read things. ______
I read outside of school. ______
I read more on the Internet than in books. ______
I read sports books or how-to books to learn about things that interest me. ______
I would rather read magazines than books. ______
When I read I see pictures in my head. ______
When I read I worry about saying the words just right. ______

Circle the types of reading you enjoy.
Fantasy            Mystery books      Comics
Adventure       How-to books       Sports stories
Riddle and joke books                 Real-life stories            Stories set in the past
Humorous stories                         Newspaper articles      Fact books
Magazines                                    Animal stories              E-mails
Romance stories                           Legends and poems      Websites
Copyright: Olybrius, Wikimedia Commons
I do like that the inventory includes electronic versions of reading and writing (emails and chat rooms), but it does so in a very limited way. Many of today's teens are avid users of internet tools and we need to be asking questions about their online use as it applies to reading. I would add to the list of types of reading: blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and online discussion boards. It is especially important to validate the reading choices of reluctant readers.

Another approach is to question students about their reading habits and materials with a series of questions; this requires students to write out responses, which could be useful is you are also attempting to get a sense of student writing. However, it might be challenging for some students; a great accommodation would be to complete it as an interview. This particular survey, from Nancie Atwell, via, will likely work with intermediate students, but may not with reluctant readers.

Reading Survey
1. If you had to guess…
How many books would you say you own? _____
How many books would you say are in your house? ____
How many books would you say you’ve read in the past year? _____
2. How did you learn to read?
3. Why do people read? List as many reasons as you can think of.
4. What, in addition to books, do people read?
5. What does someone have to do in order to be a “good reader”?
6. What kinds of books do you like to read?
7. What, besides books, do you like to read?
8. How do you decide what you will read?
9. Who are your favorite authors/writers?
10 Have you ever re-read a book? List the title(s) of anything you’ve read more than once.
11. Outside of school, how often do you read?
12. In general, how do you feel about reading?

I also like the approach posited by Frank Serafini in his book, Classroom Reading Assessments: More Efficient Ways to View and Evaluate Your Readers. He includes tools for observation of students, which are important to supplement self-assessments by reluctant adolescent readers. Many reluctant readers will have difficulty filling in an inventory (or may simply refuse to do so). Thus, observation becomes very important to garner more data about students.

Observational Guide for Reading and Readers (circa 2009)

General Info
___ is able to choose an appropriate text for independent reading
___ reads daily, chooses to read
___ carries a book each day
___ explores a variety of genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, magazines, etc.)
___ is able to sustain reading for an extended period of time
___ uses library frequently
___ uses computers for information
___ uses reference materials for inquiry

Reading Strategies
___ attends to paratextual elements (title, cover, end pages, etc.)
___ recognizes miscues
___ draws inferences from texts
___ understands directionality, concepts of print
___ draws upon prior knowledge
___ makes predictions based on experiences with texts and life
___ does not over-rely on decoding strategies
___ exhibits effective sampling of visual information
___ confirms, cross-checks information
___ monitors comprehension and self-corrects when necessary
___ adjusts rate of reading depending on text and purpose
___ is able to visualize when reading
___ can summarize what has been read
___ knows various purposes for reading
___ asks questions when reading
___ notices elements in design and illustrations
___ makes connections to other literary texts
___ uses context clues appropriately
___ reads fluently with expression
___ is able to read most/all high-frequency words

Response to Reading
 ___ is able to talk about what has been read
 ___ discusses details about text
___ notices illustrations
___ can connect with character’s actions/motives
___ reads other connected texts
___ makes recommendations for other readers
___ is able to conduct book talks

I'm hoping to explore the topic of reading inventories further in my new Reading Specialist course; it's particularly important to find resources that will work for intermediate/senior students.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Atwell, Nancie (1998). In the Middle. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Serafini, Frank (2010). Classroom Reading Assessments: More Efficient Ways to View and Evaluate Your Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.