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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Distance Learning: Improving Instructional Interactions in Guided Reading Lessons

August 11, 2020

Teacher question: Over the past two weeks, I’ve received several questions about distance learning and remote instruction. Here is just one example: “I may not be face to face with students for the entire year. Any help you can provide will be sincerely appreciated.”

Shanahan’s response:

Let’s imagine that you have been asked to help improve reading achievement at a local school. You start out conducting classroom observations to see if you can figure out what could be improved that might make a difference.

There are many things you can look for. I'm inclined towards the basics: How much reading instruction are the kids getting? Are they being taught all of the key skills and abilities? Are they reading and interacting with the teacher and other kids about what they are reading? In too many classrooms, kids are either taught whole class with little response opportunity or small group with too much time on their own.

Whole class time can be effective if the kids get to participate a lot and the teacher monitors (and responds to) their performances; unfortunately, neither of those things is usually true. The small group time can be effective, too, but it is often outbalanced by what is going on with the rest of the kids. Look at the research on seatwork, centers, and other independent learning activities. They may be keeping kids busy but that isn’t the same as learning.

Recently, I was talking to a middle school teacher who told me about her distance teaching experiences in the spring. “I knew my students really well before the confinement. I was surprised at how they participated in the online lessons. Students who could be depended upon to respond during discussions were much more subdued and quieter. Instead of giving rich answers that would help the other kids, they were giving one- and two-word answers.”

I went searching for information about this purported student inhibition in the research literature. Nada. I couldn’t find a thing.

So, I started asking other teachers about this to see what their experiences during the confinement had been like. Several told me they had noticed that problem, too. Their kids were quieter, less participatory, seemingly more reticent to join in or speak up.

The kind of inhibited participation these teachers were describing is a real problem. Studies show the importance of discussion and other types of teacher-student and student-student interactions in learning (e.g., Matumara, Garnier, & Spybrook, 2013; Ponitz, Rimm-Kaufman, Grimm, & Kirby, 2009; Barnes & Puccioni, 2017). If a teacher asks a question and the response is nothin’ but crickets, learning is likely to be reduced. Yikes!

Here’s my advice: Learn to use the polling feature of your instructional platform. Polling can be a little cumbersome, but it allows every student to weigh. This is more responsiveness than a teacher can typically elicit during a small group lesson, and the teacher can monitor these responses. “Jimmy, I see you haven’t answered yet.”

For this polling, plan on more questions and different types of questions than usual. Often a teacher will give students a purpose for reading: “In these pages, be sure to find out why Jimmy didn’t want go away to camp.” But the teacher wouldn’t usually follow that information up with a question. Maybe instead of moving right into the reading, it might be wise to poll the kids with a multiple-choice question on that.

Which of these is our purpose for reading this part of the story?

a. To find out where Jimmy is going to spend his vacation

b. To find out if Jimmy goes to camp

c. To find out why Jimmy doesn’t want to go to camp

d. To find out why Jimmy wants to go to camp

The reason I would do this is simply to keep the kids’ heads in the game. Normally, that may not be needed when we’re all sitting around a table. But at a distance we need to be hyper-vigilant about participation. These events in a classroom provide information to the students without encouraging much involvement. I’m suggesting that online it is important to involve while informing. Polling can help with that.

Of course, another possibility would be to not tell the kids a purpose at all, but to slightly reword this question to something like: “Which of these would be the best thing to look for when we read this next section?” That version is less about checking up and more about getting the kids to do more of the work. It can work either way.

Have students read the text silently for this kind of guided reading (except for the youngest kids who can’t yet read silently). By the time, students can read at a high first-grade or early second-grade level, they should at least be able to do whisper reading or mumble reading (maybe not completely silent initially but certainly not needing to enunciate all the words aloud).

Observations reveal that teachers rely way too much on round robin reading when working through a text with a group. And, these kinds of distance learning situations tend to encourage even more of this kind of thing than usual. Resist it. Kids need to learn to read silently for comprehension, even if that means that they may initially need to read something more than once to understand it.

For this silent reading, break the text that is to be read into small pieces. If you are sending books home, then I’m suggesting increasing the number of “stops” that you’d normally have in a group reading activity. If you normally have kids read the whole selection on their own, maybe have them read only 3-4 pages prior to discussion. If it’s usually a few pages, then make it 1 or 2. The reason for this is that the shorter the readings, the lower the variation in the length of time it takes for kids to complete it. You need to keep the group together even more than usual.

Of course, in many schools, books are not being sent home. The students must read the text as projected on the screen. That will certainly limit the lengths of such readings, and teachers can easily follow up these intervals of silent reading with discussion.

While I’m urging greater use of polling, do not satisfy yourself with the poll responses alone. Polling is useful; nevertheless, it doesn’t take the place of real discussion. Not only can you use this method to discover those kids who aren’t paying attention, but it can be a springboard for real discussion or a diagnostic tool for figuring out who isn’t understanding. Follow up a poll with something like: “There is some disagreement here. Some of you said yes, and some said no. Look at the text again and see who can find evidence to support their idea.” Or, “Some of you missed this one. Let’s go back into that paragraph and see if we can figure it out…. Does anybody want to change their answer?”

Poll students not just on the kinds of questions that you have traditionally asked – such as those that fit Bloom’s taxonomy or the questions you came up with to match your state standards. Instead, look over the text ahead of time and watch for things you think might trip kids up: a complicated sentence, a subtle relationship, a key point easily missed, a required inference, a definition that could be arrived at via context, figurative language or an idiomatic expression, an informative and revealing text structure… ask questions that will reveal whether the students grasped these things or whether they need some instructional guidance to negotiate one or another of them.

Amount and quality of interaction affects how much students learn. If you are working in a situation that discourages normal interaction, then adjust your teaching (and take advantage of the affordances of the technology) to try to reinvigorate it. Polling is one of those strategies that can make effective a guided reading lesson delivered at a distance.

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"Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them." —

Arnold Lobel