As a young reader, I was totally confused. If you are interested you can read about my reading issues in a past blog. But more importantly and on topic for today, my comprehension only turned a corner once I slowly came to realize that if I could picture the story in my head, I understood the book or short story much better! NO TEACHER HAD EVER TOLD ME TO DO THAT! I was always told here are the sounds and words, read. Somehow, Puff, Dick, and Jane were supposed to magically make it all come together. It didn’t. Reading was a puzzle that couldn’t come together for me for years and years.
Reading strategies come naturally to good readers, but those are only a portion of the population. I wasn’t in that lucky community of good readers, and none of my teachers ever taught me any reading strategies.
So once the puzzle piece of visualization took form, I had to constantly remind myself to “see” the characters. It was frustrating; I read slowly which often caused me to have to re-read because I missed details. By the way, that is another misconception by many people: Re-reading is not the comprehension cure-all. Sometimes re-reading is useful but not every time. But when I did live through the frustration to find the detail that helped me visualize a character or location, the story started to become real. It was amazing how this picture in my head so quickly impacted my willingness to read. I had no idea that this was what I was supposed to do!
Hence my passion and dedication to teaching all students — regardless of their ability — reading strategies. I cannot emphasize how critical these puzzle pieces are to reading comprehension.
When I work with struggling readers now, they are frequently stumped that visualizing a text is something they should do. Most of my students have no idea what the word means let alone how to go about it. When I suggest that some day it can come naturally to them, they think I’m nuts. So we begin — whether it is grade 6 or 7 or 8 — using markers and paper: Listening to a short text, I read to them and they draw a sketch of what they see in their mind. Students are often worried about their artistic ability. I remind them of our purpose: We are practicing visualizing the text. As a former co-teacher of mine, A. Warner, told me, “It is making mental movies in your head of what you read.”
Visualizing is probably the most powerful puzzle piece; however, the other 13 strategies are just as important. The list can be overwhelming, but little by little I whittle away working with my students to help them learn and apply each one. I have them not only learn the term, but what it means. If they can’t explain it, they can’t use it. We practice the reading strategies over and over with independent and class texts — including defining them so students are clear what they are doing. Some students have already mastered some of the skills so they move on to other strategies. After all, good teachers differentiate for the needs of the student — even when it comes to the use of reading strategies.
So why aren’t reading strategies taught more often? One part of the puzzle is that secondary English teachers are not taught to be “reading” teachers. Reading specialists know to overtly teach reading strategies, but not all students work with the reading specialists. Colleges don’t emphasize reading strategies in methods classes. Take a hint universities; this needs to be added! Many teachers are already good readers. Again, it is true that reading strategies come naturally to good readers — without cognitively working at it, they apply the strategies as they read. However, in my family alone, I estimate one-half to two-thirds are actually good readers — not everyone. I am a self-made good reader. There are more of us out there, but it is a painful journey.
In this new school year, my goal of my second year as a literacy/instructional coach is to help teachers implement reading strategies in their classrooms. A few instructors were willing to do so last year, and they were impressed with the results. It is only with the support of the classroom teachers that students will apply the strategies so frequently that they become ingrained and a natural part of reading. Then the puzzle of reading becomes whole for them too.
The following strategies list is one that I have accumulated over time. I cannot name any one source; I have adapted it multiple times from what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from working with my students.
READING STRATEGIES THAT WORK FOR ALL READERS (with fiction and nonfiction)
Nanci Atwell: The middle school guru who was one of many to revolutionize writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I first learned about writing conferences after reading her book, IN THE MIDDLE. Her concepts sold me on what was possible with students. The teacher meeting with students to talk about what they were writing, how their writing was going, the pitfalls, the high notes, and the struggles. Wow! Where could the text be improved as well as what were the strengths? Was the writing ready to be polished? Was the voice, tone, and word choice appropriate to the audience? All of this occurred over multiple conversations between the adult and child. I kept thinking if only I had had these opportunities as a student, perhaps I would have been a better student writer!
At the time, I was teaching part-time with adults and teens working toward their GEDs. Obviously these were not the pre-teens Atwell referenced in her book, but when applied to my own students, the conferencing still worked. More importantly, it positively impacted my student’s learning!
When I moved to the middle school classroom a few years later, I eagerly applied more of Atwell’s techniques; her book was my “bible”. It served me well! The most important puzzle piece that I used from Atwell continued to be the student-teacher conference.
The beauty of conferencing that so many teachers don’t understand — and is now part of my job as a coach — is that the teacher gets to know who their students are. Writing is a powerful tool; that is a pretty well-known fact. Students can be verbally shy but willing to write. However, sometimes getting to know them comes from what you pry out of them in order to help improve their writing. Each student deals with writing differently. Writing is a puzzle to many students, but conferencing helps them start to see where the pieces fit together. For some it takes longer than others; after all, everyone can see the puzzle come together at different rates and in different ways.
I’ve seen teachers silently write notes/comments in a student’s documents without any student interaction and call it conferencing. Objection! There has to be a conversation, and these discussions cannot be one-sided or the teacher is not facilitating; he or she is dictating. The entire point of conferencing has been lost if that is the case. Everyone has their piece in the puzzle — both student and teacher.
At first I tried to help my writers repair every part of their writing: Editing and revising. What a mistake! A student meeting with me would last for 30 minutes — that didn’t work too well with 25-30 students in a class. After more research about writing workshop where conferencing is paramount, and reading from experts such as Ralph Fletcher, Jim Burke, Laura Robb, and the other middle school guru Kylene Beers, I learned to fine-tune my facilitating and have students take more responsibility for their work.
In some ways this can feel as if the puzzle pieces are upside down. Students have come to expect that teachers will provide answers; many kids are not thinking for themselves. They can’t put those puzzle pieces together: Not because they are unskilled, but because they are used to parents, relatives, coaches, siblings and teachers, telling them where each piece fits.
My students now chose what 1 or 2 elements they want to talk about based on the rubric. This was a big change both for the students and for me. Focusing in on a few things in our conference, though and getting them correct, helped those skills follow through to the next writing. DEPTH NOT BREADTH: This is the center piece to the conferencing puzzle.
So, here is my writing workshop puzzle amended from the writers named above and many others. It works for me, and I’ve seen it work in similar ways for my team teachers.
Do you see a pattern to the puzzle?
Without a doubt, conferencing takes time, management — for the teacher and the students, patience — for the teacher and the students, the willingness to release control to students, and planning. It’s messy. But the outcomes are worth it.
Since I last published here, my positions have radically changed. I taught another year of grade 7 to an amazing group of students with whom I am still in touch. It is SO gratifying, and a teacher knows she has made an impact when students choose to come visit.
A position opened in my middle school in the spring of 2015: Literacy Coach. I had coached teachers a couple of years before for 30% of my time while teaching a push-in literacy class with struggling 7th and 8th grade readers. The position had been a collaboration with another teacher who also cared deeply about helping students learn to read. That had been a great program, but this time, I wanted something deeper and different. I was ready for more in my career. There were more pieces to add to my personal puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching in the classroom; it was the best part of my 44 years of working in a wide variety of jobs and careers. But I was ready for change. No matter how many committees I am involved with and how many new strategies I try, at some point, a person needs a change to stay at the top of their game and to feel fulfilled. It is my strong belief that this is an issue in the teaching profession: Once people lose interest for their day-to-day job, they need to leave.
I had not lost my passion, but I needed renewal and revival. Perusing the literacy coach job description, I realized that the position was different in this posting than in the past: No push in, there would be teaching classes, and more coaching. After talking with the assistant principal, I found she was looking to redefine the position; it didn’t take me long to submit my letter of intent.
The position was not mine immediately: I was up against a strong contender whom I respect. We discussed the job, and I encouraged him to apply. I knew I could work well with him if he became the coach. We look at many educational issues in similar ways. His classroom energy, ability to engage kids, and co-teaching collaboration are some of what I admire. It’s a story for another time, but I now call on him to coach new teachers.
Ultimately, I did get the literacy coach position and immediately the questions flowed about my new endeavor: How to engage struggling readers so they don’t feel bad about themselves and are willing to improve their skills? How to encourage non-readers to open themselves up to becoming readers even in some small way? How to get buy in from my colleagues that I can help them in their classrooms? How do I know what they need help with?
The puzzle pieces were scattering around me, but I didn’t have enough of them yet to put it all together in my new classroom.