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Teacher question: I very much like your idea of teaching students to read with grade-level books. However, I’ve always taught with guided reading groups, trying to match my students to books that they can already read reasonably well. I don’t know how to go about what you are recommending. Help!

Shanahan’s response:

As a primary grade teacher, I, too, always taught reading like that; the same way teachers had taught me so long ago (and the same way teachers usually have taught reading for more than 100 years).

It is hard to change ancient traditions on the basis of research or anything else. It’s even hard to envision how instruction could be different.

But if we’re serious about higher reading achievement — about breaking out of the unremitting mediocrity that sustains current reading levels but never improves them, that keeps children who live in poverty, Black children, immigrant children, and children with disabilities far below the levels of literacy they’ll need to gain the full the benefits of our society — then we must change what we are doing.

Doubling down on current practices might make us comfortable, but its implications for kids are terrible.

I’m happy to hear that you are on board. I hope you represent thousands of teachers willing to make the changes necessary for our kids and for our society.

The first thing we have to do is a change in thinking.

If you think learning to read means reading a series of texts that gradually increase in difficulty, then your job is mainly one of having students practice reading with texts of the appropriate difficulty, occasionally testing to see if you could raise text levels. In that approach, kids learn to read from reading; mainly accumulating word memories (hence, the popularity of word lists, word cards, word walls, and sight word practice).

If you believe those things, you’ll make lots of bad teaching decisions, if the goal is to raise reading levels or close racial, ethnic, and economic gaps.

A better mindset would be to start with the idea that reading is the ability to make sense of text — and that readers have to learn how to negotiate any and all of the features of text that carry meaning. I can list a bunch of those features: decodability, vocabulary (including the ability to make sense of different types of definitions included in texts), syntax, cohesion, text structure, graphics, indexes, tables of context, literary devices, punctuation, the relationship of the information to readers’ prior knowledge, and so on.

Learning to read is learning how to deal with those kinds of text features.

To learn that, one has to have supported opportunities to confront such text features thoughtfully.

Grade-level texts or higher (in grades 2-12) are the best choice for this for most students. Those are often the texts that students can’t already read well. The purpose of a reading lesson then is to guide students to make sense of a text that they cannot succeed with on their own and to develop the abilities to deal with such texts.

That’s the mindset part.

With that mindset, you can plan effective instruction. And the first thing to do there, is that the teachers need to read the texts before the students do.

I know I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for saying that. There are “experts” out there who tell teachers the opposite, despite the fact that they’ve never expanded our knowledge of reading instruction through their research, nor have they ever successfully raised students’ reading achievement according to public data, especially those kids growing up in poverty. I’ll accept such disdain, if teachers will just read the books first.

Unless you have some idea of what may trip kids up, it will be hard to develop a worthwhile lesson for that text.

Your ability to spot the barriers will improve over time. I often recommend that teachers try to do this together (it’s amazing how much that increases sensitivity). Also, later, when you are teaching these lessons, pay attention to how it turns out. There will be surprises both ways, things that confuse students that you never anticipated, and things they handle that you were sure they couldn’t.  

I can’t, in this space, provide every kind of guidance, but let me provide a couple of examples. For instance, let’s say you think the text is going to be hard for your kids to decode. They might understand it if you read it to them, but they’ll labor so much over the words, you don’t think they’ll get to the meaning.

In such a case, I suggest that you have the students work on their fluency with this text — before a guided reading experience with it. Lots of ways of doing this — paired reading with teacher involvement is my favorite — but the basic idea is to have students practicing reading the text to resolve the words.

Perhaps you also could spend time during decoding working on figuring out some of the words that you think might be particularly problematic (showing kids how to break them down and sound them out).

If you have students engaged in those kinds of activities, and when the kids come to guided reading group, they’ll be ready to play.

Another possible barrier to understanding is vocabulary. Most instructional programs pick out words they want to teach students, and that’s fine. But in this case the point is to figure out which words will be a block understanding of this text now. Surely, you can understand a text without knowing every word, and some words you shouldn’t need to focus on because the author helpfully defines them or provides supportive context that allows readers to figure them out. Those items are worth planning questions for — to find out if the kids did those things effectively.

If they didn’t, then your teaching needs to focus on that … showing students how to make sense of such a definition or showing them how to use those context clues. If there are words you don’t think the students know, but are the key to meaning, then you have choices: introduce those words before the reading or provide a written glossary. Or, if you are teaching students how to use a dictionary, that might be a fair choice, too.

With most other features of text, I recommend the same approach. Don’t try to head off all the problems but ask questions that will reveal whether the students were blocked or not. I would do this whether my concern was a particularly complicated sentence structure, a subtle cohesive link or a required connection between the prose and a graphic.

A big part of the planning is to ask questions that reveal to you what is preventing success. Historically, we have asked questions aimed at matching theories (e.g., Bloom’s taxonomy) or at providing practice with particular skills (such as asking questions similar to those that will be included on a test), but what we should be doing is figuring out what the kids aren’t figuring out, so that we can teach them to handle that feature of text.

Thus, if a text says,

“To carry out this evaluation, we chose to look at paired cases of countries with serious human rights situations from each region of the world. In addition to the well-publicized “success stories” of international human rights like Chile, South Africa, the Philippines, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia, we also examine a series of more obscure and apparently intractable cases of human rights violations in such places as Guatemala, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Tunisia, and Indonesia.”

My guess is that students will have trouble connecting the “paired cases of countries” with the two lists of countries included in the second sentence. Therefore, I might ask a question about that: How will the researcher pair countries for this research? Or, why would the author pair Guatemala and Chile, according to this text?

If they can answer my questions, I was wrong, and there is nothing more to be done.

But if they don’t get it, then there is teaching to be done.

“The author has introduced the idea that in his study he has ‘paired’ some countries from the same parts of the world. As a reader, I need to figure out on what basis the countries were paired. Read the second sentence and let’s see if we can get information on that.” And so on.

By the end of working with a text in this way, students should be able to read that text with better fluency and comprehension than started with — and those improvements, over time, will transfer to other texts in the future.

In summary, read the texts, identify potential barriers to comprehension, formulate questions that will reveal whether those features really were barriers, and then, if they are, provide guidance/instruction in how to solve that problem. 

If you would like more examples, see my Powerpoint on Planning Complex Text Instruction (opens in a new window).

Good luck.

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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 12, 2020