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4 Simple “Must Remembers” about Text Reading and Comprehension

 

Text reading and comprehension – woo hoo!  How exciting!  Can’t wait to talk about it!!  Yay!

I am kind of a wild gal – I like a good adventure and I don’t like the ho hum-ness of living a boring life.  BUT one of the things that I’ve had to learn since I began my traveling life 10 years ago is ROUTINE and DISCIPLINE.  

Yuck!  These things sound horrid and so so boring, don’t they?  (I’m nodding my head “yes” even as I type this!)

But the reality is, routine and discipline pave the way for having the ability for freedom and handling tasks that aren’t ho hum and boring! And that’s a good thing.

This is true for teaching kids to read, too!  The routine and the discipline of reading tasks is directly related to our students’ ability to have some “fun” with reading.  When they have the routine and discipline of reading tasks/skills down pat, then the party begins…they can read what they want to, when they want to and how they want to.  No limits.

One of the ways that we need to develop independent readers (or what I’m calling “free readers” these days!) is to teach them to attack the text in a way that will benefit comprehension.  Yes, I said “benefit comprehension” – because that’s what reading is all about: gaining meaning.  Independent comprehension is completely and entirely dependent on your students’ ability to attack the text with comprehension at the forefront.  

So here are a few ROUTINES that you need to be PRACTICING REGULARLY so that the skills become AUTOMATIC at independently comprehending text they read:

  1. Identify the Core Understandings and Key Ideas of the Text: Identify for kids WHAT you want them to learn from the text – – this teaches them to have expectations of the text and think, “Hmmm…what do I want to learn?”  Note: This does NOT mean that kids are wildly setting unrealistic expectations of what they want to learn from the text – they have to use clues to make some expectations of text and it should make sense in light of the title, text structure, etc.
  2. Start Small to Build Confidence: Focus on a particularly challenging chunk of the text or a piece of the text that holds a lot of meaning and start there. Think about it – when you read, are you reading everything perfectly and completely?  Or are you digging into particular pieces of the text that you can get a ton of meaning from?  We need to model for kids that they need to be aware of the pieces of text that carry a lot of meaning – and TO SPEND TIME THERE.  Help kids realize which parts are worthy of their analysis and dissection!
  3. Tackle Tough Sections Head-On: Model and teach kids to look ahead at the text and identify rich, challenging parts of the text right away.  Teaching kids to manage tough sections is CRITICAL so that they don’t shy away and get intimidated and then quit the text before they’ve gathered all the meaning!
  4. Create Coherent Sequences of Text Dependent Questions: The questions that we ask must be text-dependent – this means that students have to have read the text to be able to answer them.  (Think about it – if kids are really creative and very verbal, is it possible that they could answer some of your questions just by listening in to what other people are discussing about the text?  Without even reading the text?  I bet so!)  This doesn’t mean that we just say, “Support your answer with examples from the text” after every question, but it does mean that we craft the questions so that they go from simpler, recall-like questions and move to more analysis and extension-type questions – this is what “coherent sequences of questions” means!

These 4-steps are a big key to kids becoming independent.  And independent readers pass reading tests.  And independent readers who pass reading tests tend to like to read.  And independent readers who pass reading tests and like to read, more often than not, pass the state test.  And kids who pass reading tests, like to read, ace the state test, tend to go to college or big after-high-school jobs.

Am I right?

But is it FAST enough? Phonemic Awareness and Phonics and the Fluency Link

 

The reading wars are over (thank goodness for sound research!), but we still are at risk as we teach, model, practice and apply the skills necessary to develop phonemic awareness and phonics in our kids.

And here’s why:  We are focusing on “Do they have the skill?” rather than “How automatically do they have that skill?”.  And the success of our students, particularly in phonemic awareness and phonics, depends on our response to the second question.  Automatically pulling up the skills to support “bigger”, more complex skills like comprehension and using context to determine meaning of unknown words is what is going to make or break the success of your kids.

Now, some of you might be thinking: OF COURSE we teach phonemic awareness and phonics!  In fact, we do it EVERY DAY for at least 30 minutes a day!

While that is likely true in nearly all (hopefully ALL!) of the K-2 classrooms and intervention classrooms, our work isn’t done when the kids just “get” the skill.  They need to master the skill and then become automatic…and maintain it across time.

One of the things that has risen to the top of my “be concerned about” list is that when schools are using DIBELS and AIMSweb to benchmark and progress monitor kids, the phoneme segmentation fluency, letter naming fluency, nonsense word fluency and other phonemic awareness/phonics-based tasks just fall off.  Whether kids have benchmarked or not!

For example, just last week I ran into a group of second grade strategic oral reading fluency students as we did our data review.  When I asked if the students had “passed” the nonsense word reading fluency assessment in 1st grade, what we found is that they hadn’t – but because the text was no longer expected to be given in 2nd grade, we never flagged those kids as needing additional phonics support well into 2nd grade.

So, what were they getting?  Hours of fluency practice each week. 

Hmmm…strike you as a little off base?  It sure did to me!

So we fixed the problem right away by getting kids into daily, timed review of letter sounds and sound spellings and then practice in blending words the “whole word blending” way – without having to sound out each sound and then recode the word.  In other words – we trained them (in a plan that is lasting 6 weeks!) to look for the spelling patterns in words and quickly read those words.

The interesting conversation came after we did some progress monitoring on the nonsense word reading fluency: the teachers said, “But they’re reading those decodable books at 70-80%+ accuracy, so no wonder I didn’t think they needed additional phonics instruction!”

The point is – without fluency of skill, then the skill mastery may not be sufficient.  AND that lack of fluency may not show up until later grades…so we have to be proactive.  Actually, I would change our definition of “mastery” to include the element of fluency.  Without it, we’re fooling ourselves.

So, here’s where I encourage you to start in analyzing how your students are doing on ANY skill.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they slow but accurate on the skill?
  • Are they fast but inaccurate on the skill?
  • Are they slow and inaccurate on the skill?
  • Are they meeting the fluency rate on the skill?

Kids will fall into one of those four categories!  And once we have sorted kids by skill into those categories, we now have information on how to provide additional support during small group instruction.  If you have a slow but accurate student, then timed practice is key.  If you have a fast but inaccurate student on a skill then you know your practice will be slowing them down in order to later speed them up.  If they’re both slow and inaccurate, then some direct teaching on the skill (even though it’s been previously taught) is the right fit.

I guess my desire for all of us is that we remain vigilant in our pursuit of skill mastery for all of our kids.  Fluency of skill IS going to make or break their reading independence now and in the future…especially when they encounter tougher text with lots of unknown words.

I encourage you to start by going back to your strategic and intensive kids and see if they “passed” those critical-to-pass assessments before the particular tests were no longer required in that grade level.  Once you sort your kids according to the four types above, then you can more accurately point your interventions to what is really going to make a difference in their skill independence!

What Exactly Should I Be Looking For During Class Observation?

 

Class observation by a coach or principal strikes fear in the hearts of many teachers and I know exactly why!  Who wants to be judged?  Better yet?  Who wants to be judged by someone who hasn’t likely been in the classroom for years and was on their cell phone during the professional development sessions?

Um.  Not me!

Principals and Coaches – we owe it to our staff to be more proactive, less scary and lurker-ish during our observations.

Let me explain.

First of all,  you have to have a focus for the instructional work you’re doing on your campus.  This is the PURPOSE behind your observations.  When teacher know, “Hey – my principal is looking for increased engagement levels from my ELL students during ELA instruction,” then two cool things happen:

  1. They tend to focus on integrating that work/technique/strategy more broadly and deeply into their everyday teaching because they know that you’ll be around to look for it.  This is a big motivator for a lot of teachers.
  2. Their anxiety lessens because they realize that they actually have a chance to meet our expectations because our expectations aren’t random, they’re focused

When we have no instructional focus at the school site, then our observations (whether it’s true or not!) seem like a “gotcha” – and that’s not a motivation that will sustain long-term growth in any staff.

Implementation due to fear is not a recommended tactic!

So, principals and coaches, you should start with a focus and let your staff know that you will be in their classrooms formally and on a drop-in basis looking for the instructional focus in action at any time of the day.

Secondly, when you go into classrooms, you should approach it as a balcony-sitter at a theater production.

Huh?

Let me explain.

When you sit in the balcony, you have perspective.  You can see the other audience members, you can see the orchestra, you can see the entire width of the stage.  Sometimes you can even see into the wings of the stage and see the actors’ entrances and exits!

When the actors are on stage or the audience is situated really close to the stage, there is so much perspective that is lost.  This is the teacher’s position – the teacher is so close to the action and right in the middle of it most of the time, it’s hard to gain perspective and hard to evaluate the full orchestration of the lesson.

(Some might  argue that when you sit close you have tremendous focus, but this doesn’t necessarily serve our immediate purpose during class observation!)

When you have a PERSPECTIVE mindset during classroom observations, here’s what you should be looking for:

  • How is the teacher orchestrating the lesson?  Is it well orchestrated and smooth or choppy and disjointed?  What is the evidence that this is so?
  • What is the pacing like?  Are the students keeping up with the lesson?
  • Are the groupings benefiting the students?  How do you know?
  • Are particular students having trouble with the intensity of the lesson?  Which students?  How could you tell?
  • When in the lesson did the teacher start to “lose” students?  What did that look like?  What did the students start to do that showed you that they were less lesson-focused?
  • What percentage of the time did the teacher spend in direct instruction?  Guided practice?  Application?
  • How many re-directions (which don’t have to be a bad thing!) did the teacher do during each portion of the lesson?
  • What was the students product?  What did the teacher expect in terms of written response?  Discussion or oral responses?  Did the students use complete sentences and extended thoughts during the lesson?
  • Was it readily apparent what the goal of the lesson(s) was?  Did the teacher revisit the goal to touch-back for the kids?  When you asked a student what they were working on, could they explain the task and the purpose behind it?

You see, an observation (and the feedback given) won’t be helpful at all unless it gives teacher perspective that they cannot otherwise get when they’re right in the trenches doing the teaching.

I start my informal and formal rounds by stating to myself the response to this question: “What perspective do I want to give my teachers today that they wouldn’t get if I didn’t observe them?

Now THAT’s purpose folks!

Accountability in Schools: Purpose Driven or Fear Driven?

 

I often wonder if we changed our thinking about accountability in schools, if we’d get a better result in the classrooms?

Here’s what I’m thinking:  Instead of focusing on ACCOUNTABILITY (of tests, of standards, of evaluations, of observations) we should focus on RESPONSIBILITY and create PURPOSE.

In fact, accountability in schools can just feel like “big brother’s watching over my shoulder” when it’s not attached to RESPONSIBILITY AND PURPOSE.  Think about it, when we just go about our business and we’re focused on “meeting the expectations of ‘the district'”, there is little oomph (or joy!) in the work.  But when I’m really super excited and invested in a particular subject area or technique I’m using with my kids, I’m teaching like my hair’s on fire – accountability or no accountability!

Here’s the deal, accountability in schools is a given – we don’t have a choice.  BUT purpose?  Well, we have a BIG OPPORTUNITY TO create, recreate and be motivated by purpose everyday.  And that’s no one’s job but our own!

Let’s look at a good working definition of accountability: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.

Now let’s take a look at a definition of purpose:

1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
2. an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.
3. determination; resoluteness.

Hmmm….

Here’s what popped out to me as I read those definitions: Purpose is not just a pie-in-the-sky idea or thought – it’s built upon action and RESULTS.  And accountability is RESULTS driven, too!

Soooo….without purpose, then accountability is ALWAYS going to feel like “the district” or “the man” is breathing down our necks!

Let me tell you a little story that just happened THIS MORNING! 

We work with some larger school districts with the goal of helping them implement their reading programs and get organized on their Common Core implementations.  One of our districts has 19 elementary schools – they’re all trying to accomplish the SAME THING and they are held accountable for the same levels of performance: implement their reading programs so expertfully that they get 80%+ kids on benchmark just with their Tier I instruction!  (By the way, it IS possible…email me if you want to know how!)

I had two emails from this particular client in my inbox this morning: 1 email from what I consider to be an “on fire” principal – SHE ISN’T MESSING AROUND! (My kind of gal!)  She was asking for some feedback on a letter that she was sending her staff, motivating them to really power through until the holidays, rather than limp into the holidays – she was having them choose 2 kids in their classrooms that are not currently benchmark, but would be by December 15th!

And then 1 email from a very nice, kind principal complaining that he just “doesn’t have any time to get into classrooms because he spends his time putting out fires all day” and he’s behind on his observations and hasn’t met with his leadership team lately.

Well, I have news for ya: both principals have the same size schools, the same highly impacted, low poverty clientele and are held to the same standards…as they should be!  One is getting it done and ASKING THE DISTRICT TO COME WALK THROUGH THE CLASSROOMS and the other is mulling over the same stuff as last year and is bemoaning why “the district” always shows up unannounced to walk through classrooms.

What’s the difference?  Not accountability!  They both have visits from the district!

The difference is PURPOSE LINKED TO ACCOUNTABILITY.  The principal who asked for feedback from me on her mission for her teachers is doing what she’s doing because she’s passionate about the “doing” for their students…she’s not worrying at ALL about “the district” or “the test”.  The other principal?  He’s so focused on “the district” and “the test” that he’s, AT BEST, trying to meet the minimum requirement. 

Doesn’t sound very inspiring to me…what do YOU think?

BUT HERE’S THE DEAL!  Accountability is what “they” put into place to monitor school improvement, but meaning and purpose is what “we” put into place to drive us each day – – especially on those days when we don’t have accountability checks!

It’s like exercise, guys…do I get up and do my exercising when my exercising partner is sick and doesn’t show up on my back door at 5:30 a.m. or do I snooze and decide to sleep in?  If I snooze and sleep in then I’m accountability driven – motivated only by my friend showing up on my back doorstep!  If I get my tired and lazy behind up, then I’m purpose driven – I know that I am committed to improving my health even on those days I don’t feel like it!

So, you know I have to ask…in your work in your schools…are you accountability crabby or purposely going about your business?

Procedures in the Classroom: They Aren’t Sexy, But the Results Are!

There’s nothing sexy about implementing procedures in the classroom.  Trust me, I’ve tried to spin it so that there is.  No luck!

But what I do know is that when we’re talking about making teaching sexy – interesting – fun – provocative, it begins with a look at what makes all that go ‘round.  And what does make the classroom go ‘round are classroom procedures or “rules of engagement” while we’re doing the fun, interesting work of teaching and learning.

In fact, when teachers have strong procedures, they have more TIME for the fun, interesting stuff that neophyte educators dream of!

So, in order to bring the “sexy” – we must put in the groundwork.  And we’re going to start by asking ourselves a few questions.  After all, you can’t improve practice until you analyze what’s in place first and how well that’s working for ya.  So, here are some reflection questions for you:

  • Do you feel that in order to have a well-run class, you have to compromise the fun factor?
  • Do you think that fun teachers have fewer rules?
  • Would your kids and you benefit from more time to teach content each week?

If you answered “YES!” to any of these, then it’s time to look at what procedures are…and aren’t.

Classroom procedures are expectations that we set up for individuals, small groups and whole classes so that they know what is expected of them as they carry out the work in the classroom.  Procedures are not just rules, but they’re the operator’s manual for getting’ it done in the classroom.

For example, a typical classroom rule is: Keep your hands and objects to yourself.

A procedure that supports that rule is: When we walk into, out of and around the classroom, we hold our hands at our sides until we reach the spot where we are working at.

Another example of a rule is: Students speak kindly and respectfully to each other.

A procedure that supports that rule is: When we have a disagreement with a classmate, we wait for them to finish talking and then we, with our voices low and slow, say, “Kelly, I disagree with __________________ and I’d like to suggest that we think about _____________________.

You see, it’s not just about the rule, it’s about the action or procedure that underlies the rule – – that’s where true implementation of procedures comes to life!  And I think we miss that quite often.

We need procedures to help us meet the expectations of the rules in the classroom.

And once we have mastered the procedures and have thoroughly and completely taught them to our kids, the party can BEGIN!!  We can begin to get into the nuances of the teaching, discussion, instruction, scaffolding and all of that good stuff that the neophyte teachers dream about.

So what’s the big lesson here?  Our procedures match our expectations and rules.  Without procedures, we have just set expectations.  And that doesn’t ensure success at all!  Especially for the kids whom we are raising the bar for!

I challenge you to take a look at your current classroom.  Ask yourself (or even ask a few kids!) “What are the procedures in this classroom that make the world go ‘round?”  If you’re having a hard time coming up with your procedures and you’re leaning more toward rules, then you’ve probably got some work to do in defining and refining the way your students and you do work every day.  If this describes you, don’t freak out!  It’s a really simple fix! 

To fix a “no procedures” classroom, all you have to do is create a little 2-column chart – on one side list all of the “rules” that you have and would like to have followed.  On the other side, list what it will LOOK LIKE when your students are carrying out the procedures.  Then write in your lesson plans which procedures you’ll teach which days (don’t do it all at once!). 

Then teach the procedures as “This is what it will look like when we’re doing xyz.”  Trust me, your kids will get it if you make them practice a zillion times.  Don’t forget the positive feedback when they’re doing it correctly!  That’s CRITICAL!