Setting up Independent Reading

To become good readers, kids need to read.  Instruction is important, but the only way we can turn our students into skilled, passionate readers who wield literacy to accomplish their purposes is by giving them tons of opportunities to practice.  Kids need massive exposure to print to develop their fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, knowledge, thinking skills, and interests.

Teachers know they need to instruct kids in phonics, in comprehension skills, in literary genres, and so on, but one key prerequisite skill often gets overlooked in all the standards-aligned fuss: how to sit down with a book and read.  We need to teach our kids this skill like we would any other.  We need to explain, model, guide practice, and give feedback.

I always tell teachers and students that there are three rules to independent reading.  They are simple and comprehensive:

  1. Stay seated.
  2. Be quiet.
  3. Read the whole time.

That’s it.  These rules cover everything.  They mean no going to the bathroom.  No whispering to your friends.  No getting up to choose new books from the library.  No flipping aimlessly through the pages.  No asking the teacher questions, either (because you’ll be conferencing with students–more on that in another post).  I tell my kids, “You are on a date with your book.  You need to play close attention to it and ignore everything else.”  (This cracks second-graders up.)

First, post the rules and read them to students.  Solicit from students what each rule means, and get them thinking about the implications with questions like, “So according to these rules, can I go to the bathroom during independent reading?  Can I get up and change my books?” (Answers: No and no.)  Also brainstorm what to do if problems arise: “What happens if I finish reading all my books?” (Answer: read them again.)  More common questions and answers at the end of the post.

Second, get kids set up.  Remind them that they must have books at their level that they are interested in reading, and that they must have enough so they don’t run out.  Get them all seated, silent, and holding a book.  Tell them the stamina goal for the day: “We’re going to do independent reading for X minutes today.”  Independent reading doesn’t start until everyone is ready, and then it’s an event.  Hold a timer, and bring my voice to a whisper as you count down to launch: “We’re starting in 3, 2, 1, read!”

Third, monitor: Kids are going to forget the rules.  When you see a kid violating an independent reading rule (out of forgetfulness, not defiance), SILENTLY get their attention (wave, walk up to them, catch their eye) and SILENTLY point to the rule they are not following.  SILENTLY redirect them.  Note the emphasis on SILENCE: you are showing respect for your students’ reading time by maintaining quiet so they can concentrate.  Even the teacher is not above this policy.

Fourth, review: Ensure you have 2-3 minutes at the end of independent reading.  As you regain students’ attention, give them a moment to finish their page or their paragraph (another good reader habit) rather than demand instant attention.  Have everyone put down their books and look up at you.  The class reads Rule 1 chorally, and you ask the reflection question: “Put your thumb up if you followed Rule 1.  Put your finger up if you know you need to do better.”  (Don’t do thumbs down–the finger up emphasizes reflection and improvement.)  Everyone must show a thumb or finger.  Proceed this way through the other two rules.

Continue the review the next day.  Don’t assume that students will follow the rules one day because they followed them the day before.  Review each rule: have students read them, and ask questions again, focusing particularly on scenarios that were problematic the day before (e.g. “What if someone starts talking to you?”)

“At what grade can you start this?” Kindergarten, with pre-reading activities like picture walks.

“How long should independent reading last?”  Day 1 should be no longer than 3 minutes for K-2, and 5 minutes for 3rd+.  Add 1-2 minutes per day as students build stamina.  Aim for:

  • K: 10 min
  • 1st: 15 min
  • 2nd: 20 min
  • 3rd+: 30 min (longer in 4/5 if you have time)

“Can I really expect them to be silent?”  Almost.  Until they read at a rate of 60 words correct per minute, students need to vocalize as they read.  Kids in K-1 and sometimes 2-3 should be permitted to read aloud.  Coach them on reading in a low or whisper voice so as not to distract others.  Beyond the 60 wcpm, students should be silent.  And believe me, they come to love this peaceful, focused time of day.

“When do they choose books?”  Some other time.  I have groups rotate through the class library during centers time.  1-2 groups per day get to change their books, and they know they needed to choose enough to last them during independent reading until the next visit.  Or I have independent reading right after recess, and students can go out to recess as soon as their books are set up.  They can choose to spend a couple minutes picking new books before they go out to play.

“What if it’s a bathroom EMERGENCY?” Whatever the normal procedure for this is in your class.  In mine, it’s miss 5 minutes of recess to make up the reading time.

“Why do they need to read at their assessed levels?  Why can’t they just pick books based on interest?”  More on this in the next post …

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Q1: What challenges do you face when teaching English learners to read and write?

Q1: What challenges do you face when teaching English learners to read and write? 

Rdng & wrtg aren’t just using letters; they’re ways to communicate. If you don’t know the language, rdng & wrtg seem meaningless.

I used to give all my students a decoding test that included nonsense words.  “They might have memorized hop,” I was told, “So you have to test them on zop.”  Now, I’m a firm believer in the value of direct instruction in and assessment of phonics skills, but as literacy educators, we can never lose sight of the fact that reading and writing as methods of communication, and meaningful communication must be at the center of all literacy instruction.  As children learn to read, they should experience the joy of realizing that the letters on the page come together to make words they know and sentences they understand.  Kids need that connection in order to check and self-correct: “The cat says moo.  Oh, wait, no, that’s cow.”

We need to keep this in mind even more when teaching our ELLs to read and write.  For a child with no English, hop is no more sensible than zop, and whether it’s cats or cows who moo is a mystery.  We need to layer literacy on the language that children have.  This means starting with home-language literacy instruction whenever possible.  This is politically controversial, but the science is solid: L1 literacy has enormous benefits, including eventual stronger reading ability in English.  Ask any second-grade bilingual teacher: the kids who are fluent readers in Spanish quickly become fluent readers in English, while the kids who struggle in the first language lack the foundation for the second.

When English reading and writing is introduced, the focus must again be on meaningful communication.  Right now, I work with newcomers, recent immigrant students with very little English.  When I teach new sound-spelling patterns, I stick exclusively to words that are already in their oral vocabulary, like sister and hand, but not sip or hop.  Because they are already literate in Spanish, my students can handle two-syllable words (sis-ter) and final consonant blends (hand), which makes those easier to read than short but unfamiliar words.

Bottom line: layer ELLs’ initial literacy instruction on top of their oral language knowledge!

Q7: Sometimes we have to be creative to reach our students. What have you created in your classroom to help #ELL?

Q7: Sometimes we have to be creative to reach our students. What have you created in your classroom to help #ELL?

Posters that connect new concepts to known info in Spanish, e.g. a chart showing how Eng long vowels would be spelled in Sp.

Our ELLs come to school with age-appropriate language skills in another language.  We need to maximize the use of these skills for their learning!  Very few published materials ask teachers to deliberately connect new learning in English to known information in students’ home languages.  Even if you don’t share a language with them, you can be on the lookout for ways to make connections, even if it’s just asking your students, “How would you say this in Arabic?”

Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Q6: How much and what kind of professional development is necessary to teach #ELL?

Tchrs must learn to make tchng comprehensible to diff proficiency levels: use visuals, repetition, models.

We need to help our ELLs to keep up with content learning even as they are acquiring English.  That means we have to go beyond traditional approaches to presenting content: oral explanations and written directions.  Instead, we have to tear down those language barriers by using a variety of techniques that make our meaning plain to students who do not necessarily share our language.  Teachers need to accompany linguistic information with pictures, graphic organizers, and demonstrations.  They need to encourage their students to clarify their understanding by discussing content with peers, in English or another language.  They need to keep posters around the room that students can use as “anchors,” visual reminders of how to do important processes and engaged with key concepts in your class.

But teachers can’t be expected to figure all this out on their own.  For mainstream teachers of ELLs, professional development should be focused on teaching them how to ensure their ELLs don’t fall behind.  I like SIOP and Universal Design for Learning as approaches to planning for full access.  What tools do you turn to?

Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

Q5: What resources or support do you WISH you had to make teaching of #ELL more successful?

More texts & tchng materials in their home language. This forms a base for English success.

I’ve seen it again and again: kids who can read in their home language learn to read much more quickly and easily than kids who can’t.  But beyond that, including students’ home languages in our classrooms helps them feel more connected to school.  If all the materials at the school are in English, or there’s just one small section of the school library with lower-level books in Spanish, what message are we sending to kids about the kinds of people who belong in academic settings?  People who belong here speak English; to belong here, you need to let go of your way of speaking.  A balance between English and other-language resources (including not just books but websites, worksheets, textbooks, posters, notes home, etc.) tells students that their languages are also tools for learning.

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners?

Q4: How do you scaffold reading & writing instruction for English learners? 

I want them to use their L1 to help them rd & wrt in English. Rd in Eng, wrt in Spanish, or vice versa.

When I work with newcomer students, we just don’t have time for them to learn English before they start doing meaningful academic work.  Additionally, they are already mature speakers of another language that can be useful to their academic development.  We make full use of their home-language skills in my newcomer class: when we read or view in English, we write about it in Spanish.  This gives me a better sense of my students’ comprehension–their ability to understand usually runs ahead of their ability to produce.

On the other hand, when I do want students to produce in English, I give them access to Spanish-language resources for research and reading.  When they understand the content they want to speak or write about, they feel more confident and able to share what they know in a new language.

Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

L1 literacy enables L2 literacy, but we don’t teach it enough.

Bilingual education has been somewhat politically unpopular in recent decades, but the science is clear: students who can read in their first language have a much easier time learning to read in their second language.  Ask any bilingual teacher working with students who started reading in Spanish first and are transitioning to English: those who can read well in Spanish have no trouble picking up English reading, while those who struggled in Spanish also struggle in English.  One teacher I know has even observed a specific fluency cut-off: his first-graders who can read at least 50 words per minute in Spanish easily learn to read in English, while those below that threshold do not.

It might seem intuitively sensible that students who spend more time learning in English will ultimately be better at English, but this just isn’t the case.  When I studied Spanish in high school, I spent an hour a day learning in that language. This didn’t make me 1hr/day less good at English than my friends who didn’t study a foreign language, because language skill isn’t the simple result of the number of minutes spent using that language.  While exposure matters–kids in Russia aren’t going to spontaneously start speaking Swahili–it’s not the whole story.

The problem is that the testing and accountability system puts pressure on educators to get immediate results, and it’s true that bilingual education will not bring that kind of instant gratification.  When testing (in English) starts in third or even second grade, ELLs who have been in bilingual classes do do worse than ELLs who have been in English-only classes.  However, by 5th grade, those differences evaporate, and from middle school and beyond, kids who have ever been in bilingual classes do better than their English-immersion peers.  Importantly, we only see this benefit if kids can stay in bilingual programs through 5th or 6th grade.

Bottom line: L1 literacy enables rather than detracts from L2 literacy.