4 Paradigm Shifts That Can Improve How You Teach Reading
by Lynn Esser, Renaissance.com
I loved being a middle school reading and social studies teacher for five years. As an avid reader myself, I enjoyed opening my students’ eyes to the possibilities and adventures books offer. However, reflecting on my years in the classroom, a few things come to mind that I wish I had done a differently to be more effective.
1. From Facilitating to Modeling
There’s a difference between facilitating and modeling reading practice
When I was teaching, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) and SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) models were common teaching methods across the U.S. and my school was no exception. Everyone from principal and teachers to administrative staff spent the first 30 minutes of each school day reading in hopes to model to students how much fun reading was.
However, what students really needed from me was not to just read at the same time as them, but to actively facilitate their reading practice. If I would have moved around the room and conversations with them about what they were reading, checked in on their comprehension, encouraged them to try a new genre, pushed them to stick with a book or debated with them about the author’s intent, my students’ reading practice could’ve been more deliberate and beneficial. I missed an opportunity to better understand their interests, struggles, and successes, and most importantly, to connect with my students on an personal level.
2. From Standardized to Personalized
Reading practice can and should be personalized.
DEAR time in my classroom was totally open and unstructured where my students could read anything that piqued their interests. One of the things I did well, and would encourage other teachers to try, is to let students read wherever they wanted to in the room, whether that was next to a window, at their desk or lounging on the floor. I think we can all agree that reading is much more enjoyable when you are comfortable and fully immersed.
But location preference aside, I could have improved and personalized reading practice by putting parameters around the reading materials that they chose based on their individual reading level. I know that some of my students consistently flipped through books that were way too easy, while others regularly chose books that were far too difficult. At the time, I was excited to see the students enjoy reading every day but I now know that many were reading as a task, rather than to learn, explore and grow.
My students time would have been better spent reading books in their “sweet spot”—challenging, but not enough to the point of frustration, while not easy enough to induce boredom or complacency. It seems obvious to me now, of course students aren’t going to grow if they are consistently reading texts that are too easy or hard. I should have guided them to appropriate level texts without taking away their choice. In fact, they probably would have enjoyed reading more because they would have been reading at the right level and wouldn’t be frustrated or bored. Success is motivating!
3. From Accountability to Creativity.
Practice can require accountability, and it doesn’t have to be boring.
Sure, my students “read” 30 minutes every day, but I didn’t hold them accountable enough. Instead, I gave them the freedom to move around as much as they wanted and switch books as often as they decided. There were students like Jarvis who spent the bulk of his time searching for something to read. There were also popular books, like the Guinness Book of World Records, that I have no doubt some students were simply turning pages to look at the cool pictures.
I should have held my students accountable for their practice. By accountability, I don’t mean that every book needed a book report, a summary or detailed notes. That would have taken away any joy they may have gotten from those 30 minutes. Instead, I simply mean a way to monitor their reading. This could have been as basic as a reading log, a 30 second respond recorded to a private YouTube channel, a tweet–anything. This is where you can allow students to bring their own creativity to the table.
Using a reading log, for example, would have helped me quickly identify those students who were having trouble finding something engaging. I could have talked with them about their interests and made some suggestions. Reading logs may have prompted me to push students to finish a book rather than switching day-to-day which might have resulted in them tackling longer texts. I could’ve pushed this idea to blogging, or multimedia responses through apps that promote creativity.
Further, they could have discovered the agony that many of us know of having to put a book down just when it’s getting good, leaving us with the anticipation and wonder of what will happen next. I’m sad to say that I might have robbed a few students of these experiences by not holding them accountable and encouraging them to push through and finish longer books.
4. From Isolation to Socialization.
Reading is a social activity.
In spite of these changes I would make now, I’m proud to say many students came to look forward to DEAR time. It gave them the opportunity to discover favorite authors, genres or topics. They formed opinions and preferences when it came to reading. They began to actually enjoy, and for some, even love reading.
I wish I had capitalized on this opportunity more. I could have encouraged more social interactions around what my students were reading, instead of insisting on total silence. I should’ve reserved time for book talks to empower my students and let them share what topics were sparking their curiosity. Instead of having my students’ books neatly tucked away in baskets, I wish I would’ve displayed what they were reading more prominently and proudly.
I wish I had invited other teachers and administrators to talk about what they were reading and why. I wish I had displayed pictures of each one of my students and the title of what they were currently reading. I wish I had done more to make reading special for my students.
After five years as a teacher, four years as an administrator and now almost 10 years at Renaissance, I have been able to experience first hand what works in the classroom in terms of reading practice. I hope by reflecting on my past experiences, I can help other educators establish better reading practice methods and evoke a sense of wonder in students as they learn to read and read to learn.
Lynn Esser is a former educator, having spent almost a decade working in education as a teacher and assistant principal at Milwaukee Public Schools. Esser is now a senior product marketing manager for Accelerated Reader 360 at Renaissance, the leader in K-12 learning analytics.
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