7 ways to support reading instruction this fall

Recent NWEA research shows that reading gains were lower for kids in grades 3–8 during COVID-19. It also shows that children from underrepresented groups, including Black and Latino students, were more likely to struggle with reading during the 2020–21 school year than before the pandemic.

What is less clear is exactly why students are having a hard time. Are they having trouble with foundational skills, like phonological awareness or comprehension? Would students benefit from widening and deepening their knowledge of topics and themes?

Now that we know that some kids may be struggling with reading, we can spend time with our own students to figure out why—and create a plan that results in reading growth.

Dig deep with data

Despite all the uncertainty the pandemic has foisted on teaching and learning, one thing we know for sure is that reading instruction must focus on both foundational skills and comprehension to be effective in K–5. This distinction is beyond critical: both require their own set of unique interventions. While this is true every year, it has been exacerbated by the disrupted reading instruction during COVID-19.

The story of the pandemic year is one of resilience. […] Now is the time to recognize students’ strengths and build on them.

As you plan your literacy instruction in the coming weeks and months, we encourage you to be creative in your exploration of the root causes if you see significant drops in your students’ reading assessment scores. Schools and districts should take a triangulated approach to understand their data, including examining spring state summative data, which is closely connected to grade-level expectations; analyzing high-quality formative assessment data; making student observations; and even conducting student interviews. It’s equally important to look critically at foundational skills in grades 3 and 4 to ensure they’re not the reason for low reading comprehension for those kids.

Stay the course

It’s also imperative that you remain steady when approaching reading instruction for kids in grades 3–8 this fall. Resist the temptation to move too quickly or assume the need to backfill. As my colleague Ted Coe explains in a recent post about taking math instruction slowly, “The story line shouldn’t be impossible to follow, there should be no plot holes, and the experience should feel anything but random.” The same is true of literacy instruction. We can also harm students by underestimating their potential and denying them the opportunity to be challenged.

Here are some specific things you can do to keep the bar high for all your students and help them grow as readers this year.

1. Be consistent and focused in determining skills gaps by using formative assessment data early and often

High-quality formative data is your friend. Your students tell you all day long what they do and do not yet understand. Having a systematic way to collect and analyze feedback will pay off in the long run, as you can see patterns of clarity and confusion. To better understand the role of formative assessment, read “What is formative assessment?” and “How formative assessment boosts metacognition and learning.”

In my ELA classroom, one of my favorite ways to collect informal formative data was with a Socratic seminar. Students would sit in a circle, facing each other, and I would sit on the outside. My job was to take notes (once students understood how to run a seminar without my guidance). Students were responsible for leading and continuing the discussion: developing questions, responding to and challenging each other, offering new insights and analyses.

[O]ne thing we know for sure is that reading instruction must focus on both foundational skills and comprehension to be effective in K–5.

During the seminar, each student was given three paper clips. Each paper clip represented one time to talk. As each student spoke, I recorded the conversation and I wrote down questions they asked, analyses they offered, text they cited. At the end of the seminar, I would read my notes and could easily see what students understood about the text, what they understood deeply, and where they were still seeking to understand.

I designed instruction for the next time I saw my students so it began with what they understood. I built cognitive bridges through my questions and discussion activities between what they knew and what they had yet to learn. By starting with their strengths, as evidenced by the discussion, I took an assets-based approach where students could collect some easy wins and made clear connections to places where they needed more teacher-led support. Which leads me to my next tip.

2. Determine students’ strengths and build on those instead of focusing solely on what they can’t do yet

Taking an assets-based approach will yield more fruit than a deficits-based one. All students come with a diversity of cultural capital and a wealth of assets. Once we know what students can do, we can build on top of those.

My first year teaching, I would ask my students “What don’t you understand?” after reading a text. That never got me much further than a room of confused looks and the one brave soul who was willing to volunteer as a tribute to my very ineffective question. By my third year, I began saying “Ok, tell me what you do understand in the text. Even if the detail seems minuscule, let me have it!” That created space for every student to respond and be a part of the class community while I got the necessary information: by listening to the details of what they understood, I also heard what was left out (and, thus, maybe not understood) and what information they misunderstood. This made it easier for me to move forward effectively in my instruction.

3. Teach students high-quality, complex, grade-level text during instruction

Countless literacy experts agree that students must be given access to grade-level texts, regardless of what their reading level may be. Offering them anything else sells them short, exacerbates inequity, and does little to help them gain skills and perform well on summative tests. These are texts that students benefit from having a teacher guide them through, texts they may not be able to read and understand deeply on their own. Both classic texts, like Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, and more modern ones, like Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Chasing Freedom by Nikki Grimes, are worthy of students’ time and attention, and they benefit from teacher-led exploration during instructional time.

High-quality formative data is your friend.

Scaffolding can help you make these texts more accessible to your students. For guidance on how to scaffold effectively in your classroom, read “7 ways to use ZPD and scaffolding to challenge and support students,” “Let’s talk equity: Reading levels, scaffolds, and grade-level text,” and “Guided reading reimagined: How to close reading gaps with differentiation and scaffolding.”      

4. Take a multimodal approach to literacy development

Pair reading instruction with high-quality writing instruction and experiences, plus speaking and listening. Writing is an integral skill that expresses and deepens content knowledge in every academic subject area. The ability to amplify writing, attuning to both the development process and the development of content-rich ideas, is a skill that yields big benefits for students. Writers express new ideas, generate and share arguments, create whole new imaginary worlds, and codify information for generations to come, as Steve Graham explains in “Changing how writing is taught.”

Students should practice writing daily in different forms, from engaging in quick writes to express immediate understanding to developing and revising longer, substantive pieces that take time to craft, mold, and perfect. Speaking and listening provide different entry points to texts and topics, and talking to peers often results in students shaping and sharpening their own thoughts. Consider using clips from content-rich podcasts or documentaries like But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids to spark student interest and as a jumping-off point for discussion.

5. Build knowledge with rich and interesting informational and nonfiction texts on a variety of topics

Schema is important to reading development. The “Baseball Study” by Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie strongly correlated students’ prior knowledge and reading ability. We can go one step further and intentionally build on prior knowledge with content-rich, meaty, and interesting texts that deepen understanding, introduce conflicting or contrasting information for students to negotiate, and create schematic connections with other information.

6. Promote content-specific instruction on discipline-specific texts across the school day

Reading and writing across disciplines have their own unique needs; therefore, students need direct, explicit, and tailored literacy instruction in different academic contexts, and teachers need knowledge of discipline-specific literacy strategies to be able to provide that quality literacy instruction.

Student success is contingent on their literacy within different disciplines, so mastery in the content areas depends on how literate students are in the discipline. Comprehension processes vary by what and why one is reading: there are at least 18 differences between narrative and informational processing, and recent research by Nir Jacoby and Evelina Fedorenko has concluded there are differences in brain activity depending on text genre. As such, instruction in reading, writing, and communicating is a responsibility shared by teachers across disciplines, as each discipline demands and deserves attention on how to prepare students to read accurately and communicate appropriately and effectively in a matter reflective of each content area.

Countless literacy experts agree that students must be given access to grade-level texts, regardless of what their reading level may be.

Discipline-specific literacy instruction can be used to bolster students’ understanding of the content itself. Consider reviewing one of Odell Education’s model Integrated Writing Units for Science and Social Studies to get ideas about how writing can be used in a meaningful and rich way in different disciplines.

7. Be intentional and consistent about developing vocabulary across the school day

Vocabulary has a strong connection to comprehension, and the benefits of a rich and robust vocabulary cannot be overstated. Quite simply, students struggle with texts where they don’t understand the words, both the denotation and connotation. Vocabulary creates tone in the text and shapes meaning.

Have expectations for students to use academic vocabulary in speech and writing. More vocabulary is learned orally than in print, so encourage students to use vocabulary words under study during conversation. Remember that vocabulary doesn’t retire, either, so model vocabulary use during instruction for newly introduced words and past words, too. Set expectations for students to use newly and previously acquired words in formal and informal written assignments, and ask students how they would use a word learned in your class in another class.

Be sure to also connect vocabulary to lessons on tone by sharing different words with a similar meaning (for example, “excited,” “animated,” “hysterical”) and asking students, “How does the tone or meaning change if the word changes?” Use emojis as a metaphorical bridge to vocabulary.

Onward and upward!

The story of the pandemic year is one of resilience. Teachers and students stepped up during a very uncertain and challenging time. Now is the time to recognize students’ strengths and build on them: What can they do? What do they understand? Where are they now, where do they need to be by the end of the year, and what can I do today to get them to the goal?

Emphasizing a multimodal approach to literacy by systematically and intentionally teaching writing and providing students ongoing experiences to speak and listen advances literacy and provides different entry points for students to show what they know.

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